A group of dedicated Cape Cod photographers, whose lives and photos have been acutely impacted by COVID-19, are making photographs as an emotional response.
photography by the members of the Cape Photo Collective
Like every photogenic destination, Cape Cod has its share of iconic images. A Race Point sunset, a sailboat keeling in Nantucket Sound, the stoic glory of Nobska Light. While these make for beautiful postcards, they are undoubtedly cliches. For a band of eight like-minded Cape photographers, these images are verboten.
“No pictures of lighthouses, no pictures of sunsets, no pictures of fishing boats,” says Jon Moore, founder of the Cape Photo Collective. “That’s not why we’re here. We’re here to look at new ways of seeing.”
The Cape Photo Collective (CPC) formed in early 2013 when Moore offered a series of classes at the Falmouth Art Center. By the time the fourth class ended, a talented core group had emerged and Moore intuited a special dynamic. He organized a fifth session at Falmouth’s historic Highfield Hall where he maintained an office space for his architectural photography business. “At that point, it wasn’t really a course anymore but a collection of artists,” Moore says.
The photographers met regularly to critique each other’s pictures, discuss technical aspects of their craft, and explore opportunities to share their individual work in a collective manner. Before long, the CPC held its first exhibition at the Cape Conservatory. Several successful shows have followed. Although the styles and subject matter of each photographer vary, the CPC’s exhibited work always revolves around a central idea. This concept-driven approach has produced shows with titles like “Undiscovered” and “Quintessence.” These particular themes help an outsider understand the guiding ethos that unites and propels the group. They view photography as a medium that can enhance one’s understanding of the surrounding world.
“My purpose is to reveal what is there that our eyes often overlook,” says Julie DeMello, a Falmouth native who other CPC members praise as a creative and novel thinker who helps expand the group’s horizons.
Richard Hale, who started visiting Cape Cod in 1975 after meeting his future wife, “a Woods Hole Kid,” expresses a similar sentiment. “I like to make pictures that ask questions or present a new perspective on things we might see every day,” says Hale.
Underpinning the group’s shared philosophy is a steadfast commitment to honing their craft. The eight photographers who currently make up the CPC are all over 60-years-old, and many of them have more than three decades of experience. Despite the wealth of collective knowledge, there is no sense of complacency. The photographers constantly push themselves and each other to explore new methods for using their cameras to gain a fresh perspective of a familiar world. “Coming to the CPC refocused the power of photography, making it more meaningful to me,” says Kevin Ledwell, the group’s newest member. The cohort has an unwavering dedication to the process and experience of “making photographs,” a phrase popularized by Ansel Adams that members of the CPC employ often.
“When you’re making a photograph,” Moore says, “you’re creating something. When you’re taking a photograph, you’re recording something. I think there’s a strong distinction there.” When you are intentional about making photographs, Moore explains, you gain a heightened awareness for how the camera perceives the world. “It’s this kind of working correlation between you and the medium,” he says.
To develop this symbiotic relationship and stimulate the creative process, the group generates prompts to guide the work they prepare for their regular meetings. These prompts are usually technical in nature, something designed to develop a new skill, but they often serve as catalysts that lead the photographers into the realm of the subjective. “When we meet to discuss an assignment,” Moore says, “we have insights into deeper thoughts and ideas, and that’s an integral part of how the exhibitions are born and how they evolve.”
Last autumn, the group started thinking about the idea of liminality, which led them to contemplate the liminal, or transitional, spaces that surround us. The ensuing discourse evoked observations about the liminality of everyday life, so they decided to make pictures that captured their individual interpretations of this idea.
“It was a challenging topic we chose last fall, never imagining the present times,” says Ann Worthington, referring to the coronavirus pandemic. The prescience of the theme is remarkable as is the extent to which liminality offers the perfect lens to help contemplate the chaos that grips our present world.
“By just recognizing the liminality we are now experiencing,” Hale says, “we are helped to understand that our current limbo is a threshold we are passing through, however slowly and painfully, to what will truly be a different world.”
“We are all living in a fog of uncertainty,” adds Chris Inoue, whose photography career began in the late ‘60s when he helped his father develop film in the dark room of Woods Hole’s Marine Biological Lab. “Liminality provides context, just as the off-season does on the Cape. As a society, we need to accept that this pause, our shared liminality, though painful, costly and deadly, can provide clarity towards a better future for all lives and our planet.”
The group’s most recent photographs, some of which are featured in these pages, seek to portray life in the time of coronavirus. They strive to show the conditions and emotions we all currently feel but cannot always see or articulate.
“Even though I am 74-years-old, I don’t think I was as aware of the precariousness of life as I am right now,” says Kathy Ryman, a Falmouth resident who arrived in 1996 by way of Des Moines, Iowa. “We remain in a dangerous situation. Again, an uncomfortable liminal space.”
As frightening and uncertain as the present moment is, it has also provoked feelings of nostalgia and gratitude. “The current situation has made me feel grateful for the memories of previous travel and happy events,” says Nancy Walbek of Woods Hole. “I’ve realized how much both having made and re-viewing photographs of these places and events enriches the memories. That’s a good reminder of the value of continuing to make new pictures.”
When the pandemic forced the group to cancel the “Liminal Space” show, the photographers of the CPC put the exhibition on hold and went back to pursuing their shared passion: making pictures that facilitate new ways of seeing. This is the kind of perspective we could use now more than ever.
Photography by members of the Cape Photo Collective, reflecting on COVID-19 and the concept of liminality
Kathy Pett Ryman’s work is currently in the exhibition “60/60: Over Sixty Pieces of Art by Women Over Sixty,” Highfield Hall, Falmouth. Artist / Photographer Jon Moore is curating an exhibition “Ancestry / Legacy” to open in September at Highfield Hall in Falmouth.
Elliott Grover is a freelance writer who has contributed since his college days as an intern.