Thirty years ago, two young women walked into the offices of the Vineyard Gazette on South Summer street in Edgartown looking for employment.

One of the women, just graduated from Smith College, was so shy that her friend had to guide her hand into the hand of general manager Dan West.

Mr. West hired the women for part-time work, inserting inside sections into the front section of the Gazette.

The shy woman, Alison Shaw, turned out to be a good hire. Over the next three decades, her often stunning photography for the Gazette and other venues would make her name synonymous around the world with her chosen home, Martha's Vineyard

"She is to the Vineyard what Georgia O'Keeffe is to the American Southwest," wrote Stan Grossfeld, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer.

On Sunday the Field Gallery in West Tisbury will host a show to mark the 25th anniversary of Ms. Shaw's first exhibit. The all black-and-white show will include 50 to 60 photographs that she took while working at the Gazette.


Ms. Shaw's oeuvre is the result of fortuitous circumstances combined with much hard work.

In the summer of 1975, as a young Smith graduate with no plans to attend graduate school and no idea what to do with her life, she set off to spend the summer on the Vineyard.

She had been coming to the Island since she was an infant, staying with her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Chester B. Van Tassel on South Water street in Edgartown.

As a child, she reveled in the simple pleasures of Vineyard summers - going to the Chappaquiddick Beach Club on sunny days and to the Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs on cloudy days, dropping fishing lines off the Edgartown town dock, picnicking at a special rock in Gay Head and stopping off for popcorn at Darling's on Circuit avenue during Illumination Night.

She had a happy home life in a suburb of Washington, D.C. But the Vineyard was her real home. Her first paying summer job came at age 11, working as a lunchtime guide at the Thomas Cooke House, owned by the Dukes County Historical Society.

As a teen, she found a market for her artwork, earning enough to become the first member of the family to own a color television. She later considered pursuing a career in art.

"As a little kid, I was more serious about painting, and in a way, that's one of the things that's ended up being one of the most important things to my career as a photographer," Ms. Shaw said. "I feel the painting and art background taught me composition, in a context that was separate from photography, so it didn't become a set of rules," she said. "I think my photography has often tended to break the rules, really."

Photography was part of her life from an early age. Her mother, Gretchen Van Tassel, had worked as a professional photographer before giving up her career to raise her family.

When Ms. Shaw was 10, her mother showed her the basic mechanics of photography and the darkroom, including how to mix chemicals and load film. For a darkroom, they used a corner of the basement when the moon wasn't out.

When she was 14, her father, the architect David Shaw, took her on one of the few father-daughter outings she can recall. They flew from Washington to LaGuardia Airport in New York city and then flew by helicopter to the top of the Pan Am building. Before visiting a couple of museums, he bought her a used Leica camera from a store near Wall street.

She recalled her early photos with the Leica: "Really bad . . . shots of my stuffed animals, my cat."

For high school graduation, she was given a Nikon camera - and has continued to use Nikon ever since.

At Smith, Ms. Shaw subscribed to the Vineyard Gazette, her touchstone to the Island she loved. After graduating with a degree in art history, she moved to the Vineyard, where she worked again at the historical society, photographing artifacts and making prints from old glass negatives. It was the first and last job where she would watch the clock for the workday to end.

By contrast, she was thrilled to get her foot in the door at the Gazette, which she revered as an institution, even though she later realized any warm body standing on a street corner probably would have qualified for the job, which paid minimum wage.

"At that point, I had made it," Ms. Shaw said. "I was working at the Vineyard Gazette. I was really good at it, too. I was really fast. I took this job very seriously, collating the sections and making neat piles of 25. Any job at the Gazette, I felt I took very seriously."


She soon was promoted to be operator of the Addressograph, a temperamental machine that used carbons to print mailing addresses on newly printed Gazettes.

She began asking the new editor of the Gazette, Richard Reston, if she could take photographs for the newspaper. Her persistence paid off when Mr. Reston, in need of a quick photo of a large house under construction, asked her to get the shot.

"Dick right from the get-go really took me under his wing," she recalled of Mr. Reston. "He encouraged me and gave me opportunities."

Incredibly enough her photography - the work that eventually would win her recognition as photographer of the year four times by the New England Press Association - was a sideline for years to her regular work at the Gazette, where she moved on from the Addressograph to paste-up and eventually to director of graphics.

But she said the peculiar circumstances of her work for the Gazette allowed her career to develop in ways that it likely never would have at a larger newspaper.

The reason: Gazette photographers owned the copyright to their work, which gave Ms. Shaw continuing ownership of the images. Also, Mr. Reston might insist on a newsy photo for the front page, but he allowed Ms. Shaw to display her more artistic work on the editorial page. And finally, the Gazette used oil-based inks, which created "beautiful blacks" and allowed Ms. Shaw to pursue the increasingly stark contrast in her photography.

Looking back, Ms. Shaw said she would not trade her work at the Gazette in production and graphics for anything "because it gave me so much visual training."

Ms. Shaw, who said she hates anything wishy-washy, began to sacrifice tonal detail to emphasize contrast in her photographs.

"I would do the opposite," she said. "Let's make the sky black rather than some dark shade of gray. Let's make the snow white rather than have any texture to it. It was always blowing them at either end and basically condensing the range of my black-and-white film, but it caught your eye pretty quickly."

Three years after the Gazette first published her photography, Ms. Shaw sold her first print, a photograph of Sheriff's Meadow in Edgartown.

She was also the only photographer allowed to show at the Old Sculpin Gallery, a former boat-building shop in Edgartown under the stern control of Ruth Mead. Ms. Shaw had taken art classes there as a child.

In 1984, with the late Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough, she published her first book, Remembrance and Light. The black-and-white photographs in the book were chosen as a counterpoint to editorials and essays that Mr. Hough had written over the years.

Her expanding work in books and fine art photography came against a backdrop of relentless work weeks at the Gazette, where the staff often would work until dawn putting together the Friday newspaper, taking a break at the Dock Street Coffee Shop, and then heading back to the Gazette at 7 a.m. to start running the presses.

"Everybody did everything," she said. "Everybody pitched in. It was a great team. We worked really hard. There's something about putting out a product where you get to see something from your hard work every week. You're not putting in hours. It's all about getting a job done.

"I remember we would stop and replate and throw away 2,000 papers because of a typo. The whole team took the job very, very seriously," she said. "That's what was so cool about the Gazette. It never paid well enough to do very much, but it was on-the-job training, and they knew that. That was part of the deal."

In 1990, a new world opened up for Ms. Shaw, who had begun to bang against the wall of possibilities in black-and-white photography. The Gazette acquired Martha's Vineyard Magazine and Ms. Shaw, who oversaw design at the magazine, began delving into the world of color photography.

She found a different approach. She had stressed contrast in her black-and-white photography, using filters to cut back on the shades of gray - but in color she sought to saturate the images, resulting in deep, luminous colors that leapt off the prints.

"It had been like you worked in charcoals for 15 years and somebody suddenly handed you a box of pastels," Ms. Shaw said. "You're at the same location, the same place, but suddenly I had a whole new Island. The composition didn't change, but everything else changed."

Two years later Ms. Shaw took a leave of absence from the Gazette to coincide with the birth of a daughter, Sarah Shaw-Dawson, to her life partner, Sue Dawson. Ms. Shaw and Ms. Dawson later had a boy, Jesse Shaw-Dawson. Sarah now is nine and Jesse is six. The family lives in Oak Bluffs. Earlier this week, Ms. Shaw asked that an interview be rescheduled so that she could devote enough time to Jesse's birthday party.

Ms. Shaw and Ms. Dawson are partners in Alison Shaw Photography, a business based in Oak Bluffs. Ms. Shaw, who has since left the Gazette, pursues a number of lines of business, including fine arts photography, postcards and photography workshops at far-flung locales such as Santa Fe, N.M., and Tuscany.

She welcomes the chance that the workshops give her to share her enthusiasm about photography and overcome her natural shyness.

Somewhere along the way Ms. Shaw read a definition of photography that called it painting with light. "That's more of a literal thing than a figurative one. I'm using my camera like a brush stroke and with color, so it looks like a painting as much as a photograph."

She still shoots black-and-white, focusing on children among her subjects.

For Ms. Shaw, photography is a way to go beyond the mundane, to work with her camera and her darkroom to create memorable images.

"I have no interest in just recording reality. That would be boring to me. I have to put my own take on it in some way. And my take on it needs to change, or I get bored with myself."

The show will take place at the Field Gallery Sunday from 5 to 7 p.m.