Michael Rising Sun Sellitti’s ‘Along the Waters’ takes us there

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Michael Rising Sun Sellitti creates arresting photographs centering on the interplay of expansive skies and bodies of water. His exhibition “Along the Waters” at the Oak Bluffs library captures exquisite sunsets and sunrises and their fabulous color-soaked cloud formations, which create evocative reflections on Vineyard oceans and ponds.

Sellitti, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, was raised in Edgartown until he was about 4-and-a-half-years-old when his family moved to tribal land in Aquinnah. “Photography has been in and out of my life since I was a little kid,” Sellitti says. “Growing up on the rez, I had a lot of great opportunities through our travel youth group. We went to different reservations and programs around the country. I also went to the West Tisbury School, and they had quite a lot of field trips. I remember begging my mom to buy me throw-away cameras before any trip and I would snap photographs of everything — buildings, people falling asleep on the buses or planes; anything that I felt I didn’t see a lot of at home, as a way to remember all the incredible things I was able to do.”

Sellitti went to High Point University in North Carolina, and upon his return, he worked for the tribal government in the natural resources department. “I was really lucky to have a lot of opportunities to patrol our lands and see what kind of wildlife and vegetation was out there,” he says. “That time fueled a lot of my love for taking photos because I was able to be out in nature. Early mornings and late nights, you get a lot of opportunities to see and photograph spaces when there aren’t a lot of people around. That was a big part of what got me back into photography as an adult.”

The spirit of the natural world permeates the show. The photographs capture cool blues, dark purples, spectacular pinks, brilliant yellows, and many shades in between. Many of these include expansive views at the water’s edge where the sky fills about half the frame of images of beaches such as Moshup, Lucy Vincent, and Philbin. 

There are two fascinating closeups where the foreground pulls us into the scene. One captures a curving set of rocks, which, descending in size, march back into the water like some primordial, whale-like creatures returning to the sea. Interestingly, Sellitti says: “As a Wampanoag person, I’ve always been connected to the water. We tell stories about our ancestors becoming whales when they died.”

Another scene captures large bright-green, moss-covered rocks in which the setting sunlight streaming in from off-camera on the far right, illuminates these emerging forms with colors that echo those in the nearby Gay Head Cliffs. But what soon draws your attention is the slightly blurred swish of foam, reminiscent of hanging fog, at the boulder’s feet. Sellitti explains that he used a slower shutter speed to create this ghostly effect.

A striking photograph of the Gay Head Cliffs in stark winter hues is unlike the others in that it carries no warm colors. “This is my mom, my grandma, and one of my auntie’s favorite shots,” Sellitti says. “This one is really special because you typically see summer shots of the Cliffs where there’s plush green grass and vibrant colors of the clay. It’s not often that you see a much more subdued vision of that space. I enjoyed the contrast of the darker vegetation and the snow-covered cliff face.”

In addition to the ocean photographs, there is a gem depicting a fiery sunset mirrored on the still waters of Quitsa Pond, which Sellitti says “is quite spectacular any time of the year. The sun is always somewhere along that stretch of water.” Warm, fall tones saturate a small photograph of Mill Pond, which is a favorite location for Sellitti. In contrast to the autumnal trees and their reflection in the still water that stretches across the picture frame, a brooding gray sky sits above. Sellitti explains, “Because of the clouds it wasn’t really bright, so I was able to open up my shutter to let a little more of the color soak in and yet, not get too bright and blow out the sky.”

Sellitti’s avian photographs capture the essence of the birds. There are two compositions with turkey vultures interacting with each other where we are so close you can nearly hear their cries. Most arresting is one of a snowy owl looking straight into our eyes with an inscrutable expression. “This was one of my greatest moments as a photographer,” he says. “When working for the tribe, I was driving when I saw him sitting there just off the road.” He was about 10 to 15 feet past him before realizing it wasn’t a dream. “I reversed slowly, carefully took out my camera, zoomed in, and just started snapping,” Sellitti remembers. “He never flew away. It was only after taking the photos that I realized the reason — he was sitting on a kill and getting ready to eat. He looks like he’s just waiting for me to go away.”

Contemplating his exhibition, Sellitti says, “The photos don’t have any people in them. This is where the real joy and passion for photography are for me. I like working with people, but I think that sunsets, animals, rolling hills, and landscapes are much more soothing, calming, and enjoyable. They connect me more to why I’m behind the camera.”

“Along the Waters” is on view at the Oak Bluffs library throughout November. For more information about Sellitti, visit msellittiphotography.com/.

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