When she has a morning or afternoon free to point her camera anywhere at all, Cary Hazlegrove checks the tide charts and heads to Little Neck at dead low. Twice every day, that breezy western stretch of Nantucket island offers up seascape magnificence of one texture or another.
“Every low tide there is amazing,” says Hazlegrove, who arrived on the island 40 years ago with her Canon FTb manual-focus and no notion of making a career in photography. All these decades and installations and coffee table books later, she would qualify as Nantucket’s photographer laureate, if there were such a thing. Raised in Roanoke, VA, where her father practiced law and her mother was (and still is) a painter-sculptor, Hazlegrove made her life and her work into a combined art form, putting down deep roots in a creative community of island dwellers.
Her colleague and friend on the neighboring outpost of Martha’s Vineyard, the estimable Alison Shaw, has earned a similar distinction on her own shores. Shaw, who also made her way to these isles off Cape Cod in the experimental days of the 1970s, even has her own commercial space. You can admire her fine-art photos of the Vineyard year-round at the Alison Shaw Gallery, which Shaw owns with Sue Dawson, her partner in life as well as in business. The gallery can be found in a converted firehouse tucked into a historic section of Oak Bluffs called the Arts District.
When Shaw took up residence in Martha’s Vineyard, she was already a photographer and already familiar with the terrain, having spent childhood summers exploring it. She went to work for the island’s weekly paper, the Vineyard Gazette, and shot her own stuff on the side. Her mother had been a professional photographer, back in the pre-digital days of film, and young Alison learned by her side — in the field and in the darkroom, too.
Unlike Hazlegrove, who takes pleasure in shooting portraits, weddings, and the island’s manorial homes, Shaw uses time away from gallery management for fine-art photography only. “I have wonderful clients who come back year after year — one of them owns about 60 of my pieces — and when they ask about family portraits it’s always a painful moment,” says Shaw. “I have to find a polite way to say no.”
One of her many departures from this practice involves wooden boat-building — the aesthetics of that craft being so reliably interesting. A 40-by-50 color print on canvas, titled, “Schooner, Gannon & Benjamin Boat Yard 2001,” attests to what she can do with this visual material. It’s in the Shaw catalogue priced at $3,625.
In a typical year, roaming the Vineyard in all conditions and at all hours, Shaw produces 20 to 25 new pieces that she can call gallery-worthy. To see a wide selection of Hazlegrove’s work you would be guided to installations like the one put up recently at the Sconset Cafe, a top-rated eatery and exhibit space on Nantucket's eastern edge.
Hazlegrove moonlights as a singer in a progressive bluegrass and folk band called 4EZ Payments, who do some of their most inspired picking at Cisco Brewers out on Bartlett Farm Road. Her husband, the musician and composer A.W. Bullington, writes scores for films, podcasts, and ads and also composes the soundtracks for his wife’s documentary-style productions, which are montages of still photographs, video segments, original music, and a voice track of island residents offering descriptive and narrative ruminations. She’s done a long series of these multi-media expressions, which are available as DVDs and iBooks.
Shaw’s other creative outlet is teaching. She co-teaches a six-month mentoring program on the Vineyard together with Dawson (who brings to the program her expertise in graphic design, writing, social media, website design, and marketing) and also conducts workshops on the island, as well as in Maine and across the sound on Cape Cod. “I get a lot of fulfillment being with people who are true photo enthusiasts,” Shaw says. "Teaching keeps me energized, and so does the change of place I get when I do it.”
Locales like an Outer Cape beach are not exactly exotic for Shaw, but they have the benefit of being elsewhere than Martha’s Vineyard. Living on a relatively small island and spending a lifetime shooting landscapes and seascapes, you end up looking through the viewfinder at a lot of scenery you’ve already photographed. “If I were living in a mainland environment,” Shaw says, “I would head off to the next town or the next city to find something that’s visually new to me. On an island you’re forced to dig deeper.”
The Vineyard’s long summer days are an idyll for the rest of us, but for someone who earns a living shooting exteriors, it means getting up at 3:30 am to make good use of the morning glow, then waiting forever for the interesting contrasts and shadows of late-day light.
“Weather is an inspiration,” says Shaw. “The bigger storms light a fire under me. They can make the world change before your eyes, and when they’re gone some of them will have left the landscape — dunes and beaches especially — amazingly different from what it was before.”
Well-remembered comments by New Englanders about man’s juxtaposition with nature include this musing on the part of Henry David Thoreau: “For many years I was a self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms, and did my duty faithfully, though [I was] never paid.” Some hear ironic self-deprecation in Thoreau’s comment, others a sincere grievance. Asked about it, Hazlegrove says she has long admired that quotation from Walden though she doesn’t personally identify with it.
“He felt a responsibility for what he came across in his ramblings,” she says — and indeed the rest of the quote is about Thoreau’s labors to keep “woodland paths open” and “ravines bridged and passable at all seasons.” That would not be the Hazlegrove mindset. “I’m drawn to whatever it is nature chooses to do, with no thought of cleaning up after it,” she says. “I just want to appreciate it.”
There are wintertime stretches when these islands experience a storm, its aftermath, another storm, another aftermath, over and over. “Weather is entertainment out here,” says Hazlegrove, citing the visual drama of a Nor’easter barreling up the Seaboard, bound for Nantucket. “But if you look at my work you’ll probably notice I tend to shoot what’s peaceful.”
Art that’s peaceful can still challenge an audience’s discernment, every bit as much as something raucous or confrontational. Shaw studied painting at Smith College and earned an art history degree there. She observes that, “The painter and the photographer end up in the same place, it’s just that the photographer starts with reality and has to work away from it — that’s a subtractive process, versus the painter starting with a blank canvas and doing something additive.”
That observation dovetails well with a trenchant line from Susan Sontag’s modern philosophical treatise, On Photography. In it Sontag declares, “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.”
It’s estimated that over a trillion digital photos are taken each year with smartphones, most of them so heedlessly executed they give point-and-shoot a bad name. For the artist with a camera, wandering woodland or dunes or shorefront — and bearing the weight of their lofty aesthetic standards — the pursuit is demanding, at times surely daunting. View by view, motif by motif, you frame up the surface of the world, aching to give it depth.
Tradewind Aviation offers up to 25 scheduled shuttle flights to Nantucket every day from late April through early December – as well as private charters. Shuttles to Martha’s Vineyard run Thursday through Monday from May through November, with up to 15 flights per day.
Featured Photo: Aerial view of Great Point Lighthouse, by Cary Hazlegrove | NantucketStock