Where The Sky Meets The Sea; The Photography Of Alison Shaw

Imagine living on a beautiful island: Look to your left and see the sun rise in the morning; look to your right and see it set each night.

The secret nuances of color on the horizon where the sky meets the sea and the sea meets the shore have drawn photographer Alison Shaw to Martha's Vineyard off the coast of New England, where she has lived and photographed for over 30 years.

Nantucket Sound 2003

All Photos © 2006, Alison Shaw, All Rights Reserved

"Ten years ago my photographs of the sea and sky were all very precise with fluffy clouds, low light, and everything in perfect focus. Nice classic seascapes," she recalls. "Today I am trying to get to the essence of what I am seeing and in my newest work I have looked hard at these junctures of sea and sky, especially the loose color fields I see when I gaze out over the beach. Living on the island pushes the whole concept further since I am surrounded by that horizon and it has taken on a personal meaning, a different perspective for me."

Shaw's work over the years has gone from hardedge, brilliant primary colored images to softer metaphors that she describes as "seascapes that are all about feeling" and are held within a very rigid structure, the latest cropped to a square format. All of the horizons are now primarily dead center and in one recent show were hung in a row so the horizon ran around the entire space, the line tying them together.

Vineyard Haven Harbor II 2003

Artists must change and when Shaw hit 50 years old she realized her need to grow and change seemed to dominate her thoughts and the way she saw things. Change became a prevailing consideration and at her show each year at the established Granary Gallery in West Tisbury on the Vineyard, she would show 25-30 new images.

"There is a discipline to this," she says, "to be able to stand back and see where I am going and what I have been doing for the past year. It becomes apparent if I have just been going through the motions, doing the same thing again or whether I have moved on. I really notice when I am treading water and sometimes I will stand back and say things like, `Well, I guess I'm into purple right now.'"

Atlantic Ocean V 2003

Shaw is not a newcomer to photography. Her mother was a professional photographer and the darkroom was a familiar habitat. A graduate of Smith College with a major in art history, Shaw has a working knowledge of the world of fine art. From 1975-2000 Shaw worked as a photographer and graphic designer for the island paper, the Vineyard Gazette. Her reputation grew steadily as a fine art photographer and for most of those years she has been a top selling artist at numerous galleries across the country.

She also teaches workshops, including Maine Photographic and Santa Fe while mainly supporting herself with her fine art photography.

Beach 1995

Using her Pentax 6x7 and transparency film, her prints are all matte finish, the recent seascapes measuring 16" square, the larger prints up to 22x28" in size. All of the work is printed either at Hunter Editions in Maine or by fine art printer Bob Korn of Orleans on Cape Cod.

In Shaw's latest images, alive with color and motion, she is breaking all the rules, shaking her camera or panning a static landscape, attempting to simulate the strokes of a brush.

Stonewall Pond 2003

"There's a definition of photography that says it is like painting with light," Shaw says. "I feel as if I am using my camera as a paintbrush and not trying to make things precise and accurate but rather attempting to capture the spirit of a place. I feel as though I am seeing the world with my camera. I do like to paint in oil and have wanted to paint in a looser, more casual way, more abstract. However, my vision in painting has never been executed, but I have reached that point I am aiming for in my photography.

"The seascapes are more abstract than they were. Moving from left to right I am shooting at 1/8 of a second. In one image there is a small pond in the foreground and a blur of bushes receding that is indistinct because of the motion. If I am level with the motion, the horizon appears clear," she adds, "yet the imagery is not boring or looking like a snapshot as it might have been had I not panned the scene. With a static shot I know pretty much what I will get but when I am jiggling the camera at 1/15 or 1/2 of a second in film it is hard to know what to expect."

Rockport Harbor, Maine 2003

Having resided in the area over some 35 years myself, I must admit to an element of nostalgia and among my personal favorites are those shots such as one of a beach and land taken in the pink/orange light of sunset. Shaw is jogging the camera as she runs down the beach, the resulting image full of little surprises from the photographer's movement. Others show a quiet sea as the tide goes out, a slip of land in a peaceful version of serene blues or the pink interior of a boat at rest as the sun goes down. Set directly in the center of a square format, the boat was taken with a several-minute exposure and had been tethered to a post. Shaw used a tripod and the slow exposure so only the motion of the boat in the water was recorded.