If you stand in the A Gallery this week, you may notice that you are being watched. Eyes seem to pierce through the glass frames of 30 black and white photographs on the charcoal-colored walls of the newly-opened gallery on Uncas avenue in Oak Bluffs. The eyes follow you as you walk around the room. It’s a signature of the photography of Mariana Cook’s, whose show Justice opens this weekend.
Though colorless, these sets of eyes gleam with an intensity that combines the experience of injustice and the optimism of a future of freedom. It’s the fearless, yet humble gaze of some 30 embodiments of justice — human rights lawyers, activists, judges and writers. The photographs make up nearly one-third of the recent portrait work of Chilmark summer resident and renowned photographer Mariana Cook, who set out several years ago with a mission to capture the essence of individuals who have made the human rights struggle their vocation.
The show runs through August 6 and was curated by Tanya Augoustinos, the owner of A Gallery. Last year the A Gallery presented several shows at a temporary space in Vineyard Haven but now it has a more permanent location in Oak Bluffs.
All of the 99 portraits from which the show was culled have been published in Ms. Cook’s most recent book, published last April, titled Justice: Faces of the Human Rights Revolution. Many of the pioneers photographed within its pages acted, under threat of death or exile, in relative isolation, without the support of the international human rights community of today.
“When they began doing this work, the phrase human rights didn’t exist,” Ms. Cook said. “The internet didn’t exist, and they didn’t travel, so they were imaginative and they had a practical expertise to further the work they felt needed to be done...Somebody in South Africa wouldn’t know what somebody in Burma was doing.”
In her book, Ms. Cook pairs each portrait with a first-person narrative to illustrate the power of one person or a group of dedicated individuals to change the world. For two years she travelled all over the world photographing subjects in their work or home environments, some in her own studio on Manhattan’s west side.
“One of my goals was for it to be as diversified as possible, both in men and women and age,” she said.
In some cases she worked quickly, conducting a rapid shoot and interview in a small window of time. Jimmy Carter gave her five minutes to photograph him. Some of the subjects wrote their own essays, exploring their motivations for human rights work. In this project, she also sought to photograph human rights activists who are less well-known, such as Takna Jigme Sangpo, a Tibetan activist who was imprisoned for 37 years by the Chinese for teaching Tibetan history, culture and language to children. She photographed him, now an elderly man, in a garden in at the Swiss Monastery where he currently lives as a political refugee. As many as 10 of the 99 subjects have died since their photographs were taken.
Ms. Cook, the last student of Ansel Adams, works exclusively in black and white film.
“Colors don’t mean anything to me,” she said. Black and white film brings out the texture in the photograph, she said, and emphasizes the play of light and dark. She’ is also partial to Kodak Tri-X film, 13,200 rolls of which she has stored in a salt mine in Kansas. According to her calculations, the stash will equip her for the rest of her working life.
For this project, her 10th book, Ms. Cook used about 800 rolls of film. She has published several books of portraits, all of which involved a “treasure hunt to find people who contribute in a genuine way to their field, and to try to understand the psychological components that make up their character,” she said. She engages her subjects in direct eye contact, in an attempt to reveal their underlying psychology.
“It comes through the eyes, it comes through the hands and the body language,” she explained. “Whether or not the viewer can read it is up to the viewer and their ability to see.”
Among the subjects of the book are four Islanders: Rose Styron, writer and philanthropist, Gay McDougall, lawyer and activist, Robert Bernstein, human rights activist and publisher, and Margaret Marshall, former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Ms. Marshall’s late husband, journalist Anthony Lewis, wrote the introduction to the book and assisted in recruiting subjects.
This is Ms. Cook’s second show with the A Gallery. Last year she displayed her international stone wall photography at the former location off State Road in Vineyard Haven, also curated by Ms. Augoustinos.
“She’s the most efficient and professional gallerist I have ever had and I’ve had some good galleries,” Ms. Cook said of Ms. Augoustinos.
Oak Bluffs is new territory for Ms. Augoustinos, who hopes to become part of the arts district a few blocks away.
“There is obviously a little vibrant arts scene there, and I’d like to be an extension of that,” she said. The space has some improvements over last year’s furniture warehouse space in Vineyard Haven. Oak Bluffs is centrally located and the gallery has air conditioning. It is a more intimate space, too, which Ms. Augoustinos says is more manageable. This summer, she’ll represent artists Michele RattÃ©, Lily Morris, Rick Lazes, Rez Williams, Lucy Mitchell, Peter Eaton Gurz, Cindy Kane and Margo Ouellette, in a season that extends through Columbus Day weekend. The gallery will show exclusively contemporary art.
It was difficult to choose from Ms. Cook’s 99 portraits in order to curate the show, Ms. Augoustinos said. In the end, she decided to choose a “wide variety of subjects and causes and nations. I wanted to hit a broad base . . . [including] some known and some unknown people.” The gallery will sell limited edition prints in varying sizes, as well as copies of Ms. Cook’s book.
The A Gallery hosts the first opening of the season this Sunday, July 28, at the gallery on Uncas avenue, off Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs. The reception is from 5 to 7:30 p.m.