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The story behind “Illumination of Oak Bluffs”

November 16 2015 - Studio Press

It was towards the end of 1989 and I was sitting in my studio office when out of the blue famed actress Patricia Neal called me about that photo….”how did you ever get that shot?”… She was talking about my photograph called “Illumination of Oak Bluffs” she saw displayed at the airport.

The festive celebration known as ‘Illumination Night’ at the Methodist Campground in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, is an annual August event that began in the late 1800’s to welcome a visit from the Governor of Massachusetts. A group of Methodist held their first meeting there in 1835. It grew and grew in size and participants first stayed in tents, but circa 1870 they began building small side by side ‘gingerbread’ cottages, surrounding a Tabernacle that was also being constructed at that time. On the night of the illumination event all the 300 cottages (to date) and the Tabernacle are beautifully decorated in lights and lanterns.   The photograph below is a fine example of the decorations.

Illumination Gingerbread Home for BLOG article

Patricia Neal, a well-known actress in her time who starred opposite greats like Gary Cooper and John Wayne, is someone I’d met through my work, which included photographing her daughter Tessa Dahl and her children.  She has now passed on, but had a home on Martha Vineyard when I took my version of Illumination Night.

This was a pre-visualized photograph. I was thinking about this visual whimsically enchanting event and how I might bring about my version in commemoration of the celebration.  It came to me that if I could photograph lightning over the town, Oak Bluffs, where this event takes place I could capture what I was looking for. It was a long shot; for one thing this was still the film era, a time when photography was still indeed magical hoping that your skills could pull off the ‘hat trick’, and secondly having good fortune of getting the right storm, at the right time, in the right place.

The subject lightning, itself is not that difficult to capture. Florida, where I live today, is known for its numerous lightning storms, but the Island of Martha’s Vineyard is not. And we are not talking about lighting occurring anywhere, it had to occur specifically over the town hosting Illumination Night. There were other factors to consider; such storms often have a haze surrounding them, high winds, pouring rain, and yes lightning! I think a tripod makes an excellent lightning rod.

Speaking with her over the phone and to answer her question I told her of waiting 3 years for the right storm. Then one night, it was September 9, 1989, I heard the distant thunder from my porch on Hines Point (about 4 to 5 miles down the road from Oak Bluffs). It was a very active storm with lots of rumbling and seemed to be approaching as the thunder became louder with each passing minute.  I told my (then) wife, who had long been aware of my compulsion to take this photograph. She even came with me when I selected a boat house by the Oak Bluffs Beach Club as the spot from where to take this shot. The boat house’s roof had a bit of an overhang, not a lot, but enough to lull me into believing there was some protection from the elements. So I told my wife “I think this is it!”

I prepared my equipment for the rain…thunder only happens when it’s raining, right? This was simply wrapping the camera and lens with saran wrap, except for the front of the lens. On the way out the door I grabbed my tripod (or lightning rod) and drove to the planned spot from where I would attempt capturing my vision.

While setting up under the overhang of the boat house, the storm was fast approaching to being right over Oak Bluffs. I didn’t have to wait any longer. I took about 6 to 8 shots, each on the Bulb setting, as pre-digital cameras had no timed exposure longer than 1 second. I used color ektachrome transparency film, and gave each shot a 40-45 exposure.

This is not like shooting fireworks were you can anticipate by sound when the next burst will occur. Who knows when (and where) the next lightning bolt will strike! So there was no putting your hand in front of the lens technique happening. Each exposure could not be too long as the street lights and lighted Cross on top of the Tabernacle would amplify or plume too much…

I had picked the right storm; the front was clear, very active, and came right over Oak Bluffs. The best shot is the one shown below.  By the way, I completed taking the photo before it began to rain and pour.

I didn’t tell Patricia all that I wrote. I was flattered she called me almost expressing disbelief I was able to take this photograph. I thought you might be interested in the Illumination Night photo story. I feel my best photographs are often pre-visualized, whether landscapes or art.Illumination for BLOG article