Patience. Persistence. An uncanny eye for the magical interplay of light and water. These are the traits that have catapulted Jeffrey Serusa, 56, from, as he puts it, “total obscurity to total madness.” A Vineyard resident since he was 14, Jeff built a business in well drilling and water filtration systems. Although fascinated by photography from early childhood, he had little time to pick up a camera during his busy entrepreneurial years. In 2003, that changed.
An Eye for Magic – The Photographic Seascapes of Jeffrey Serusa,
Profile by Karla Araujo, Vineyard Style, 2007
“I started shooting again during a tough phase in my life and found that the photography and the waterfront brought me solace,” he said. He focused on images around Vineyard Haven harbor near his home. The results were, perhaps even to him, astonishing. “I’m a little surprised by the reception my work has received,” he admitted, managing to look simultaneously both proud and somewhat sheepish. “I get great joy out of it and am happy that others do as well.” He now successfully balances his time between his passion for photography and his residential water systems company.
As a child, Jeff said he waited impatiently for the mail to arrive two days a week. “Life magazine arrived every Tuesday and Look on Wednesdays,” he said. His face still lights up at the thought of the image-laden publications, both of which featured work by the country’s top photojournalists.
He bought his first camera, a Nikon, in a camera store at the bottom of Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. “There weren’t many people out there who even knew how to handle a 35 millimeter so I had to teach myself.” His early career managing water development projects took him to Africa for 12 years where he put his Nikon to work. After a stint in the Middle East, he returned to his beloved Vineyard and set photography aside to build his business. Retrieving his camera in 2003, Jeff began experimenting with new technology.
“I bought a digital camera,” he explained. “Big mistake!” He then moved on to a Mamiya medium format camera and to a wooden large format camera he had custom built in Arizona. When fully loaded with gear, he totes a huge pack that weighs in at a backbreaking 60 pounds. And while the unwieldy large format camera looks like a contraption from the late nineteenth century, Jeff has captured some of his most remarkable images with it. He still uses the digital camera but primarily for test and reference shots.
Today his work is on display at The Granary Gallery on Old County Road in West Tisbury, quite a coup for this middle-aged upstart. “Chris Morse, the Granary owner, and the entire staff have been hugely supportive,” Jeff said. “Chris and I have known each other for years. When he saw an image of mine at a Hospice benefit several summers ago, he contacted me about showing at his gallery. Since then he’s pushed me to refine my work and take it to a higher level.”
“Jeff doesn’t just shoot pictures,” Chris stated. “He creates artwork with his camera. After 20 years at The Granary, I’ve seen that everyone with a camera thinks he’s a photographer, but Jeff is the real thing. He sees things differently and that’s what makes his work unique.”
According to Todd Christy, a sales associate at the gallery, Jeff’s work has been greatly successful. “He gets interesting shots,” Todd said, “and uses different cameras to achieve different looks. I don’t know anyone who is more enthusiastic with his work than Jeff. He spends lots of time planning and thinking about every image and it shows. He’s the talk of the town.” He paused, then added, “He really is.”
Jeff described the process of shooting “Gay Head Lighthouse at Night,” one of his popular works: “Night shots are typically long exposures of several seconds. The problem was keeping the beam of light fixed as opposed to rotating 360 degrees. The solution was multiple short exposures on one piece of film with the beam of light in the same position at each exposure. The turret rotates every 14 seconds, so I brought a digital stopwatch with me and set it to beep each time the beam was where I wanted it. It took me three months to figure it out. I had to wait for a full moon to backlight the lighthouse and cliffs. Some shots can take years to get. There may be only one night a year that the moon is in that position. If all the elements don’t fall into place or the weather is bad, you’re out of luck ’til the next year.”
Rarely spontaneous in his work, Jeff instead carefully scouts and plans his shots. “The Island has been photographed upside down and inside out. The challenge is finding something different or creating a unique way to approach it,” he said. “Sea Smoke,” the image that hooked Chris Morse of The Granary and many other photography buffs, was shot on January 10, 2004.
“It was four degrees outside with 45 mile-per-hour winds,” Jeff described. “I knew the Islander was coming into the harbor and I had 30 minutes to plant myself in the right spot on ‘acker’s dock. I was using a long lens and I waited for the boat to appear. When I started shooting I thought, ‘If only I could have one blink of sunlight.’ On the fourth shot out of five, it broke through the sea smoke.” The result is the classic shot of a classic vessel emerging from stormy skies and seas, mystical and majestic. It has become Jeff Serusa’s signature work. He continues to be captivated by the Islander, making it the subject of some of his most striking images.
A true student of the field, Jeff conducted intensive research and invested in equipment to handle his own printing, matting and framing, controlling the process from start to finish. His studio/shop is a high-tech marvel, featuring state-of-the-art components that he assembled and taught himself to operate. “Technology makes it possible for me to do this,” he said. “There’s a steep learning curve but now I’m comfortable with every step.”
While many photographers use software to creatively alter images on computer, Jeff prefers to leave his in their natural state. “I’m color blind so I have no choice,” he explained. He experiments with printing on different papers, however, using canvas and watercolor papers to change the look of the finished work.
At 56, Jeff feels he’s found his niche. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” he said, beaming happily with outstretched arms sweeping across his studio. He says he has no interest in shooting on assignment, instead preferring to capture scenes of his choice along the New England seacoast. The future holds more travel, he said, anticipating trips to Maine and the Cape, maybe even venturing inland to shoot fall foliage.
“It’s a solitary job,” he said. “Most people wouldn’t enjoy it. I get up at ungodly hours, sit out in the cold and damp. Might only shoot 10 shots in a day. But I have a great time. And when I’m out there, it’s the best place in the world to be.”
The new gallery, located on Beach road in Vineyard Haven, is open for business and browsing.
November is an unusual time to open an art gallery on Martha’s Vineyard. The summer crowds, with their disposable incomes and endless leisure time, have been replaced by the year-round residents with their bills and 40-hour work weeks. And in this economic climate, with art markets large and small starting to feel the trickle-down effect from the crisis on Wall Street, artists and dealers alike might find themselves seeking shelter from the storm with other pursuits, or even abandoning ship all together.
But not Jeff Serusa, the one man behind the one-man-show that is the Seaworthy Gallery in Vineyard Haven. He hopes his new venture is exceptional enough that he may very well be immune to an unforgiving environment. And so he plows ahead with his ideas and his art, like the steel hull of a ferry boat breaching a swell. Seaworthy Gallery, indeed.
Situated directly across Beach Road from the Art Cliff Diner in Vineyard Haven, Mr. Serusa’s gallery inhabits the building formerly occupied by Maggie’s Salon. When the building first became available, Mr. Serusa jumped at the opportunity. “I opened now because I didn’t want to lose the space. The space makes sense,” he said.
While he admits the timing is odd for the opening of a new art gallery on the Vineyard, he remains optimistic. “I’m positioning myself for the rebound,” he said.
Several weeks and some quick renovations later and the gallery looks startlingly established. The straightforward flat red and gun metal grey interior is beautifully lit, and possesses the tidy, pleasing functionality of a ship. Mr. Serusa’s photographs share wall space with various artifacts of the sea: brass lanterns, old charts and other nautical ephemera. Overall, the gallery feels cohesive in a way that is generally reserved for big-city boutiques or professionally curated museum exhibitions, a departure from galleries that shy away from asserting too much character in the decor for fear of detracting from their artists.
But beyond design and location, the real draw to the Seaworthy Gallery is of course the artwork on display. Mr. Serusa is a photographer who uses an 8-by-10 large format camera to produce images from long exposures that go beyond the ordinary confines of nautical art. He prints his photographs with large, wide-format printers onto either colorfast watercolor paper imported from Germany or on archival quality canvas, and he frames them himself. The result is a body of work that is iconic, masculine and direct, and, as art, very reasonably priced considering the time and work that has gone into construction.
His subjects are often ships, both in water and in various stages of repose, or else are related directly to sailing in some way. The enormous images are high in contrast, with liberal use of deep, pure black. Mr. Serusa uses natural light exclusively, which forces him to spend tens of hours trying to get a given shot just right. One image of the Aquinnah lighthouse, hanging right behind his desk, is particularly remarkable in the way that the subject is also the only light source in the photograph.
Because Mr. Serusa’s images are so large and so arresting, it is easy to think that they may have been manipulated in some way using computer software. Not so, says the artist. “I’m actually color-blind, so I really can’t fiddle around with the pieces. If I did, the colors might end up all wrong. I just trust the camera,” he said.
When Jeffrey Serusa bought his first camera in Oak Bluffs in 1968, he never imagined that 40 years later he would open his own gallery to display his own fine art photography of nautical subjects and seascapes. A well-driller by trade, Mr. Serusa lived in Africa for 12 years early in his career, returning home to the Vineyard in 1984 to start his own business. Abandoning his camera for more than 20 years, he picked it up again in 2005 and began in earnest to record his unique vision of the Island’s beauty.
“Seasmoke,” his mystical image of the Islander hovering in a haunting mix of clouds, mist and water, catapulted him from well-driller to noted photographer in 2006.
Last year, he opened Seaworthy Gallery on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven. A zealous chronicler of classic coastal New England, his images of Vineyard seascapes, including wooden boats, lighthouses, wharfs, and ferries, adorn the walls of not only his own gallery but those of The Granary Gallery in West Tisbury. His work is featured in commercial and corporate establishments on and off the Island.
Labeled by many as a late bloomer to his passion, 57 years old and conspicuously happy, Mr. Serusa says nothing has ever felt more natural: “This is the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I’m technically oriented so I’m not afraid of any equipment or technology. Every aspect is enjoyable.”
Mr. Serusa will host a reception at his gallery from 6 to 8 pm, on Saturday, August 8.
From shooting the images to printing and framing, he controls as much of his process as possible. Beginning the day at 4 am to produce enough images to keep pace with the demand at the galleries, he uncomplainingly puts in 16-hour days. And, although he opened Seaworthy nine months ago in an unfortunate parallel with the economic recession, he says he has no regrets.
Vineyard photographers may be nearly as abundant as ice cream cones in summer, but Mr. Serusa’s images are distinctive and powerful, the result of his observant eye, weeks of planning, excellent equipment, production quality, materials and technical prowess.
He employs both medium and large-format film cameras, abandoned by many photographers in favor of digital technology. His wooden large-format camera sits in the center of the gallery for visitors to see.
“They ask me how old it is because they think it’s an antique,” he says, chuckling. In fact, it was crafted in Arizona only several years ago. He lugs it, a tripod and a bag with lenses – 80 pounds of paraphernalia – to many of his shoots, confessing that he uses a digital camera for test shots.
“I just can’t get the same quality image with a digital that I can with the cameras I have,” Mr. Serusa explains. The only downside to the large-format camera is in the stormy weather he loves to capture on film: its unwieldy design makes it a potential projectile in wind; that’s when the medium-format camera becomes the weapon of choice.
“I try to capture the beauty of the Island to share with others,”he says. “I’m drawn by light and the way it plays on a subject. I often discover something I want to shoot months or even years before I actually do. I wait for just the right moment – the right weather and time of day. I wait and wait and wait.”
He smiles – a frequent expression. It is the smile of a man resigned to his fate and loving it.
He insists he didn’t come by his patience easily, claiming the late Stuart Bangs, former West Chop postmaster, surveyor, and, as Mr. Serusa puts it, “Island character,” taught him important life lessons. “He taught me the art of incremental success – two bricks at a time,” he says.
As he walks through his gallery, Mr. Serusa stops before each photograph and relates its tale: how he came upon the subject, the optimal conditions he needed to shoot it, how many weeks or months it took to achieve just the right moment, the number of hours it took to get the single shot he envisioned. If every picture tells a story, then his tell epics. As many as 80 percent of his shots, he says, are planned months in advance.
“The best compliment people pay me is when they stand before my work, study it intently, and ask me questions about how I got the shot,” he says. Remarkably, his images, often dramatic, are untouched by Photoshop or any other software magic. “I’m color-blind,” he says, “so I can’t really mess with what I shoot.”
Gallery Manager Ted Jennings lends his extensive marketing and sales background to Mr. Serusa’s art. He has ambitious expectations for the photographer. He and Mr. Serusa are staging a drawing of one of the gallery’s major pieces – a limited edition “Seasmoke” print signed by the former captain of the retired Islander. Anyone whose purchases add up to $495 will be issued a ticket. The gallery is also planning a major sale this weekend.
Mr. Serusa plans to add 25 new images to his collection for the gallery’s walls next season. So this winter, braving the elements, wind howling, temperatures sub-freezing, he will probably be somewhere perched on a rock overlooking the water.
Artist’s Reception, 6-8 pm, Saturday, Aug. 8, Seaworthy Gallery, Beach Road, Vineyard Haven. Karla Araujo is a frequent contributor to The Times.