Depending on the waves, the direction of the wind, whether or not it’s raining, et cetera, the thirteen-mile ferry ride from Point Judith, Rhode Island to Block Island takes about an hour, give or take. That noisy, wind-swept, 0ften sun-drenched trip on the Atlantic is just enough to fully disentangle an island visitor from the strands that tie to the life being left behind on Point Judith’s shores. Time seems to assume a different character as the ferry gets further away from the continent. Greeted upon arrival by meandering pedestrians, single-speed bikes, slow-moving cars, and eternally-whining mopeds, the island reality settles in: everything rushes just a little bit slower here.
For about twenty years, my family and I have spent one or two weeks in the late summer living on Block Island. We stay in rented houses, occupying the sphere of another family’s home for a bit. At first this felt a bit like an unnatural transplant, even an intrusion. In truth, it offers an opportunity to enter almost seamlessly into the slower world of the Island: the Wi-Fi there is barely usable, which wrenches away the devices; binoculars sit on the table closest to the picture windows, inviting 25-minute-long sessions of looking through them; a round umbrella-shaded table and chairs sits in the center of the house’s deck, affording the opportunity to watch the ocean for an hour with morning coffee. Windows that catch the evening breezes allow for just a few more moments awake before bed. Time stretches out.
Imaginably, this shift in the pace of every day has its advantages. Decisions are viewed as much less critical, for example. I get more perceptive, too, when there are fewer things pressing with urgency into my immediate view of things. This is quite convenient for a photographer. I feel that a good photograph is made in a way that most accurately transfers some element of my experience of a place or scene to its viewer. The only way I’ve found to truly achieve this is to really stop and consider a photograph, and a really great way to do that is to slow everything down.
The house in which my family and I have spent time during the past 8 or so years is right off of Spring Street, on Amy Dodge Lane. Wooden shingles awash with salt air are faded to a burnished grey; an American flag whips at the northeastern corner of the high, ocean-view deck. The Spring Street spring leaves marshy wetlands in front of the house, filled with redwinged blackbirds. One day in August of 2013, I loaded my dad’s Canon AE-1 35mm camera with a roll of the only film I could find lying around in an old box and started walking up Amy Dodge Lane to see just what was at the top.
I remember this day quite vividly, as it was one where I resolved to step away from the immediacy and hyper-precision of my digital camera. This was just another way of taking advantage of an environment which didn’t quite have any hurry about it. As I was walking, I happened to stop and turn back to see the road behind me. It struck me at that moment that the scene which unfolded before me was a quintessential Block Island one. The two-track road of dirt, swathed on either side by brush and lined to one side with a cobblestone wall, framing a distant view of the ever-present Atlantic, with a solid and humble home overlooking it; I had no choice but to make a photograph of the scene. Because I had only the film camera with me, I trusted my instinct for exposure and focus, and made the shot.
Due to the fact that this was one of the first of a 36-image roll of film, and due to the fact that I’m notoriously slow with getting film developed, I didn’t see this picture until several months after it was made. When I finally did take it to the local CVS and pulled open the envelope containing it, I was instantly transported back to island time. This was, and still is, the beauty of a photograph: an ability to evoke or remind a viewer of an experience, feeling, or place in a powerful way.
This weekly exercise in looking through old photographs, choosing one, and writing about it has reminded me of the power of the photograph. Stumbling upon old pictures I am flooded with fondness for the circumstances around their making, the people in them, and their places. This strikes me as a rather unique phenomenon, and I think the combination of a photograph’s realism and the photographer’s choice to include or omit certain facets of a scene give to photography the rather amazing ability to truly capture time.
This post was a part of a weekly exercise in examining old photographs of mine, which has now morphed into a semi-occasional pastime of mine. You can follow these posts by clicking the “Photo Stories” tab above.