Jhenn Watts has nothing against technology, but digital cameras are not her method of choice for photography as a historical record. “With digital, we can doctor, copy, change things,” Watts says. “We’ve kind of gotten away from the ‘proven photograph.’”
“Proven photographs”—testaments to fleeting moments—are especially meaningful in today’s world. As Watts says, “These images represent a slice in time, a memory.”
Watts’ current photography venture turns those records of real time into art. Armed with a heavy large-format camera with bellows, a black cloth draped over her head, she shoots on 4-inch by 5-inch transparency film, often assembling several pieces in one artwork. The finished photo art captures the Vineyard’s natural world—ocean, shoreline, cliffs, sky —in its raw magnificent form. Frames of exposed edges of film create a sculptural feel.
Watts began creating photographic art after graduating from Massachusetts College of Art, rendering images through an emulsion process, lifting an image off paper and transferring it to glass. When Polaroid stopped production of the film, she moved on to her large-format photography.
The results of Watts’ old-world equipment are up-to-the-minute creative. Her newest image, Cedar Tree Neck Triptych, is a dramatic composition of three photos depicting soft ocean swells against a rocky shoreline, shot on the Vineyard’s north shore. Watts cropped the photos in the camera, developed the film, trimmed the prints, and assembled the piece. Another work, Long Point Vista, with an almost monochromatic look, was taken on the Vineyard’s south shore. Composed of five images and measuring 25 by 53 inches, Long Point Vista is the largest piece Watts has made. The possibilities have given her a fresh excitement for art. “I haven’t been this excited about what I’m doing in 10 or 15 years,” Watts says.
Today, married to the jeweler Kenneth Pillsworth, Watts balances her photography with her duties as director of the Field Gallery, all in a place she has come to love. “I feel privileged to live on this island,” she says. “You can’t help but be awe-inspired by the beauty.”