(The essay below is the Afterword to the book On Nantucket published in 2002.)
Nantucket Geometry Lessons
When I look about Nantucket I see everywhere photographs already half made. It is the nature of this island to be kind to photographers, especially those making black and white photographs like the ones in this book that I have made over almost a quarter century. Returning whalers called Nantucket “The Little Grey Lady of the Sea,” no doubt because of the combination of frequent fog and the ubiquitous grey cedar shingles. Often she appears to the eye with little or no color, like a monochromatic photograph waiting to happen.
In making the photographs in this book I have been inspired by the unique architectural tradition of Nantucket. Although I have not documented each style of architecture represented on the island, I have use elements of those styles as the building blocks for these photographs. Taken as a whole, the architecture of Nantucket is simple and geometric. Even the more flamboyant styles of the past, like the Victorian vernacular and Second Empire, take on a reserved quality on Nantucket. This may be the ongoing influence on the island of one hundred years of Quaker severity and emphasis on simple utility. The spareness -- even austerity -- in some of these photographs is my attempt to evoke that tradition and use it expressively. Today the traditional spareness of Nantucket architecture is being “dressed up.” There are more trees, more gardens, more sculpted privet hedges than ever before. Houses are being lovingly and lavishly restored and maintained. Sometimes this “dressing up” goes too far, becoming sentimental or ostentatious. Yet the spare geometry of Nantucket architecture endures, in part, because of an enlightened building code that is preserving much of the authenticity of the island, and because of a general awareness that Nantucket is a place like no other and therefore one well worth protecting.
One of my most vivid and consistent memories from my many visits to Nantucket is an ironic one. It is the moment when the visit is over and I step from the ferry to reenter the trappings of the physical world on the mainland. This is a revealing moment. Suddenly the commonplace environment of the mainland, that seemed normal before I left it, now seems ugly, crass, loud, and hostile. At this moment, I realize that my time on Nantucket has changed me. I have grown accustomed to a place of harmonious proportions on a human scale. A place designed for walking, not for automobiles. A place where individual buildings manage to balance their dual roles as unique structures and as members of an ensemble of structures. A place of order, rhythm, harmony, and variety, like no other place I have experienced in the United States. As I drive from the ferry after each visit to the island the same thought comes to me: Nantucket continues to have much to teach us about creating livable places.
When I am on Nantucket my habit is to rise at daybreak to make photographs. At that hour I have the town almost to myself. I can walk for several hours responding to the dawning light on houses and to the spaces between houses made precious by a tradition of building them close together to block the wind. Sometimes I make straight-on, deadpan “portraits” of houses that respect their frontality, symmetry, and elegant proportions. Or I build a more complex asymmetrical composition that evokes the intricate massing and roof lines of houses that have been expanded several times over their long history. I want to include in these photographs a strong sense of this place today, along with clues to the dramatic social history Nantucket as it is revealed in the architecture.
Since my first morning on the island in 1978, when I woke to walk the narrow lanes of the village of Siasconset in a lifting fog, I have felt the attraction of Nantucket architecture. I have photographed it consistently, year after year, trying to understand and record what it is that draws me to it and quickens my senses. This book is the product of that exploration, of many days over many years walking the pleasant streets of Nantucket with a camera and a growing sense of wonder.
(Photographs from this series are available in various sizes as both gelatin silver prints and archival digital ink jet prints.)
Link to On Nantucket Gallery