Documenting Stephen: Exploring Martha’s Vineyard with Stephen DiRado
Oct 2, 2012
Perhaps best known for his decades-long photographic series Martha’s Vineyard, Stephen DiRado has more recently been exploring his beloved island and its denizens through the medium of film. In an interview with Amy Skinner, Stephen offers his take on his career, photographic process, and what he’s learned in making his first documentary film, Summer Spent.
AS: Your Martha’s Vineyard project began with portraits of friends, but eventually expanded to include other people who frequent the beach. In time, you have also photographed the landscape and sky. Did these shifts occur naturally during the course of your work in the same location, or was it a conscious decision in an effort to present a comprehensive view of Martha’s Vineyard?
SD: I had no forethought that documenting friends and a few beach dwellers was going to encompass my future explorations on the island. I was aware, early on, that the island was rich with material, and not solely from an aesthetic point of view. My process is based on the desire to visually organize experiences that intrigue me. Thus during idle time, when not on the beach, I turned my camera towards dinner settings, landscapes, and celestial events. I came to realize, years later, that I was building a much more inclusive body of work, defining my life on the island.
AS: Your film presents a fuller picture of the people who congregate at the beach, but it also provides a detailed glimpse of your photographic process as you worked on this series. How has it felt to turn the lens on yourself? Did you learn anything new, or can you describe something you might have found surprising?
SD: I’ve always included myself in numerous Dinner Series photographs. So, when I started filming, it seemed natural to be a central part of the narrative in this documentary. What did surprise me was how quirky I appeared and then, added to that, my awkward speech inflections. Early on, I had to accept this about myself in order to make a credible documentary.
AS: Summer Spent documents the physical effort involved in your use of a large-format camera for this series. What do you find to be the greatest challenge, technically, using an 8″ x 10″ view camera on the beach?
SD: By far, dealing with the elements in such a harsh environment: winds that blow sand and sea are the worst, and then include excessive humidity and heat. I have lost two lenses and two tripods that have succumbed to these conditions. Because I have used large formats all my adult life, I’ve become very proficient in maneuvering the camera, so that’s now automatic for me, and I photograph exclusively with one lens and do not use light meters. So most of my effort goes into concentrating on making some kind of connection with my subject in order to find the story at that moment.
AS: Can you compare your experiences as a photographer and as a filmmaker? Do your processes when working in these two genres vary significantly?
SD: I control everything when shooting stills. I direct my subject and know what I want in my frame. When shooting video I take the opposite approach, and I intentionally make the film with the lowest-tech equipment possible. During down times, when not shooting with the still camera, I’d shoot stock film footage, and during any potential situation, turn on the camera, place it on a rock, back of the car, or even hand it to somebody, and let it roll. It is in the editing that I cull material for future use. I did not want to have one style compete with the other, but for them to complement each other. Making one good photograph is time consuming and stressful; I have to be on top of my game, and it can take days before all the ingredients come together. I wanted my filming to be adventurous and downright fun. I deal with enough anxiety: filming is sort of a release from it all.
AS: Your photographic portraits, created from intimate encounters with beachgoers, clearly exhibit an emotional intensity. Do you think the medium of film can be as evocative?
SD: I think Summer Spent illustrates effectively my level of intimacy and interaction with my subjects, as well as showing in contrast how alone I can be at any one time while working. You are never aware of this in my photos. The film also shows me navigating in a colorful world, filled with dialog and an abundance of natural and manmade sounds. It helps give one a better perspective on how far removed my photographs are from reality. One friend said to me after seeing Summer Spent, “In all the years I have seen you work the beaches and document your subjects, I had no idea how stressed you are inside. But of course, your subjects are relaxed, and on vacation. You, on the other hand are working.” I was very pleased that the film articulates this fact.
AS: Considering the long-term nature of your work on this series, does each summer have its own significance? Are there moments or years photographing on Martha’s Vineyard that have particular meaning, or do you consider all of this work to be part of a complete, unified project?
SD: Glancing over tons of photo storage boxes stacked in my archives with dates on them going back 25 years, I am reminded of reviews of wines, knowing some vintages are better than others. Each year reflects my state of mind: some years I am on top of my game, others not so much. It was around 1999, 2000, 2001, bottoming out in 2002, that I was totally lost, walking the beach, photographing my subjects out of desperation to break through to make something new. Most of the work was flat, simply uninteresting. It wasn’t until years later I came to understand that the photographs of my father, succumbing to Alzheimer’s, during that same time period were profoundly strong and most important for me to make.
AS: Do you plan to continue to expand your Martha’s Vineyard project to include different mediums? Do you think you will eventually use film or other media to supplement other photography projects?
SD: This is hard to say. This past year Kodak stopped making sheets of film that I’ve been exposing for forty years, I had to learn how to use a different brand, a small matter for most but for me a big deal. I survived the transition for the better, in some ways. The introduction of filmmaking has ensured future work for me when I can no longer make stills with the big camera. The good thing about working in one place for half my life is the familiarity of the island and the access to and respect I have for the people who reside on it. The material is there for the taking, as far as in what medium it will take form in… well, I firmly cannot say. If you questioned me a few years back, inquiring about my making films in the future, I’d have quickly responded, “That is totally crazy!”
Follow this link to listen to “Stephen DiRado: A Summer Spent,” an interview for Inquiry, hosted by Mark Lynch on WICN, 90.5FM.