Standing before one of Michael Gaillard’s outsized photographs of Nantucket—his largest are 60 inches by 72 inches—one might feel displaced as the saturating blue of a cloudless summer sky envelopes the senses. The choice to print large is not taken lightly by Gaillard. “Viewing the work at that scale, the transformation is more complete,” he explains. “The photograph becomes more atmospheric. The more physical presence it has, the more direct the relationship is. Instead of operating as a window, the photograph functions more as a space.”
Over the years, there have been thousands of photographs of Nantucket’s well-known vistas taken by professionals and amateurs alike. But Gaillard’s are not just another set of sunset photos. The goal is not only to document a beautiful place or a transcendent moment, but also to create a beautiful object in and of itself. The photographs feel like paintings. Compositions typically featuring a strong horizon give way to huge color fields, often punctuated by miniscule tropes familiar to coastal landscapes: a sailboat or a split-rail fence. With simple titles like Rope, Jetties, or Polpis, Gaillard is both emphasizing yet reinventing the local vernacular. Those familiar things become strangely new when they are flattened into simple picture plane forms. Each image is a portrait, and seems inextricably tied to the relationship between the artist and the subject.
For Gaillard, who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York—but was born and raised on Nantucket and still returns every summer—this body of work is like a love letter—a tribute to the intoxicating aesthetics of this place. “What makes it special, what makes it magnetic, are not the details that can be readily documented like the history, the architecture, the flora, and even the people,” says Gaillard. “It’s the air, the light, the sky, the wind. My goal is to make work that conjures the feelings experienced when that salt air makes its way over the dunes and through your hair.”
Gaillard first discovered photography as a student at Nantucket High School. He uses a large format, eight-by-ten view camera, a tool favored by such 20th century master photographers as Walker Evans and Edward Weston. Images do not come easy. It is an exacting, time-consuming, technical process, but the trade-off comes in the quality of the image and the richness of the details captured. “I think it is a common misconception that the artistic process is a pleasant one,“ says Gaillard. “In fact, I am full of adrenaline, racing the light and wrestling with a composition. I sometimes spend a half an hour subtly adjusting, only to walk away without a shot. But then there are times when I know it immediately and take the shot without hesitation.”
This summer, Gaillard will be teaching a travel photography and writing seminar through Columbia University, where he received his MFA, and their affiliate in Jordan. His goal is to keep teaching at the collegiate level. “I owe my professors an immeasurable debt,” he says, “and the only way I can imagine repaying them is to do the same thing they did for me for someone else.”