At 5:30 in the morning on a recent Saturday, Yann Meersseman parked his minivan outside of the Steamship Authority building in Vineyard Haven and dropped a few tokens into the yellow Boston Herald display box. He pulled open the box and changed the front copy of the Herald, placing a short stack of newspapers inside the box as he did so.
Then he took a tripod and a small Sony camera from the car and walked down to the beach.
“When I’m on schedule, I can slip in a picture,” Mr. Meersseman said.
The first exposure was 15 seconds — still too dark to capture the lights of the docked ferry reflecting wavy lines on the harbor water. The second exposure was 20 seconds long, and captured not only the lights of the boat but the distant orange glow of sunrise, still an hour away. Then he put his camera gear back into the minivan, where it was barely noticeable among the bundles of Boston Globes, New York Times, Cape Cod Times and Wall Street Journals, and continued on with his paper route.
By seven, Mr. Meersseman had finished the route, having delivered papers for distributor Shoreline News to Island stores, hotels and gas stations from State Road to Squid Row. He would go out again later that same afternoon to drop off Sunday inserts. On Sunday morning, he would wake up at 2:30 a.m. and head back to the docks in Oak Bluffs, where he would once again meet the Quickwater — more commonly known as “the Patriot boat” — pick up more papers, and traverse the route again, stopping to take photos all along the way.
The Vineyard is lush with scenes of quiet beauty. In the wee hours of the day, when the Island is still and the soft glow of morning washes over the ponds and fields, the herds of deer roaming up-Island, and the cedar-shingled buildings of Main street, that bucolic tranquility is all the more evident. But few people are awake to take note.
“It’s us and the sun,” said Moira Fitzgerald, Mr. Meersseman’s wife and fellow paper-deliverer. “We see some fabulous sunrises; this place is just incredibly beautiful.”
“You just get to go all over the Island and get to know it,” Mr. Meersseman said.
In the summer of 2009, Mr. Meersseman and Ms. Fitzgerald were feeling the effects of the recession. Both were freelancers — he a software professional and she an architect — and the client pool had shrunk.
“The work was dwindling,” Mr. Meersseman recalled in an interview last week. “Like with a lot of people, I guess . . . it was not fun.” He was offered a job in Waltham, but didn’t want to move away from Moira to work there. Neither wanted to leave Martha’s Vineyard.
“We said we’re going to try hang on here,” he said. So when the opportunity arose to deliver papers for distributor Shoreline News (home delivery is managed by a different distributor), Mr. Meersseman and Ms. Fitzgerald signed on.
“It was a bit of a change,” he said, laughing at the understatement. “We get up at 3:40 a.m. seven days a week [and] we don’t get paid fortunes, but we’re finished by 7 or 8 a.m. and the rest of the day is free . . . it looked like an interesting temporary solution for a few months.”
That was four years ago.
The morning runs weren’t always the easiest. ”It’s not just getting up,” Ms. Fitzgerald said, “It’s focusing [and] moving.” But over time the prospect of seeing the Island in its morning finery made the paper route quite enjoyable.
“You keep saying that,” friends of Mr. Meersseman told him. “But why don’t you take a picture?’”
“Before we knew it, we were taking 150 pictures a day,” he said, “And we got hooked.”
For more than a year and a half, Mr. Meersseman and Ms. Fitzgerald have edited their daily takes down to no more than five images, emailing them to just a small group of their friends at first. The friends liked the vivid, colorful Island scenes and details so much that they
sent them along to others, who in turn continued to pass along the photos. Mr. Meersseman created an email listserv called Vineyard Colors in response.
“It keeps growing,” Mr. Meersseman said. “People we don’t even know are on there.”
Neither Mr. Meersseman nor Ms. Fitzgerald expected such a response to their photography. Neither had a prior background in photography. “We just had a camera,” Mr. Meersseman said. But that’s not evident in the images, which are rich in their use of light and composition.
Their early photos, before the daily Vineyard Colors routine was fully established, were more rough around the edges. “You can definitely see the difference,” Ms. Fitzgerald said.
The couple initially photographed just landscapes, but moved on over time to include close-ups, animals and architecture. People may appear as silhouettes or distant figures in their images, but are never the main focus. That’s one of the few criteria Mr. Meersseman and Ms. Fitzgerald set for themselves. The other is simply to take at least one photo every day. They have taken over 50,000 since beginning the project.
“You take all the obvious pictures,” Mr. Meersemann said. “You naively feel like you’re going to run out of pictures.”
But even standing in the same spot as that of a previous Vineyard Colors image, no two photos are ever the same.
“What’s interesting is how much you . . . change your way of looking at things,” Ms. Fitzgerald said.
“You remember exactly where you were when you were taking it,” she said. “It’s a cue to your memory . . . it’s definitely a visual journal.”
Mr. Meersseman and Ms. Fitzgerald take one vacation each year, a week-long trip to France to visit Mr. Meersseman’s mother.
“And when we’re over there, we take pictures,” Mr. Meersseman said. “Suddenly [the listserv] is getting pictures from the south of France.” But after that week is over, the couple returns to the Island and the paper route begins anew.
To join the Vineyard Colors mailing list or to view previous photos, please visit vineyardcolors.com. Greeting cards by Vineyard Colors are available at Alley’s General Store, Bunch of Grapes, Conroy’s and the Scottish Bakehouse.