Last fall Alison Shaw awoke before the sun, planning to photograph Lewis Bay lighthouse on the Hyannis Harbor. That was the agenda for the day, but the clear blue sky called for other plans.
“As soon as the sun came up, I looked around and thought, ‘Oh look, there’s the Nantucket ferry. It’s a gorgeous day, the conditions are right — I’m going to Nantucket today.’”
Such was the spontaneous style Ms. Shaw adopted during the shooting of the Cape and Islands’ lighthouses for her most recent book, To the Harbor Light.
“It was kind of like going on a scavenger hunt . . . Well, it was totally like going on a scavenger hunt,” Ms. Shaw said. “I was chasing the right light for the right lighthouse.”
But this was no elementary scavenger hunt, a mere list with checkmarks next to each lighthouse after a quick cruise around the Cape.
“It wasn’t just going out to the Cape, driving to the end and back,” she said. “No, it was go to the Cape, drive to the end, drive back to the beginning, drive to the end again, drive to the west, drive to the east.”
Putting over 1,500 miles on the odometer, Ms. Shaw did whatever it took to get the perfect photograph, sometimes going back to the same lighthouse as many as ten times.
With a half-inch binder of notes, including specific locations, access times and contact people, Ms. Shaw would set out for one to three-day excursions taking with her the bare essentials: camera equipment, a bed roll and a flashlight. Occasionally a stepladder came in handy. Other times she strapped a kayak to the top of her car, just in case.
Ms. Shaw’s lighthouse pursuit began last summer. She had proposed to photograph the Vineyard lighthouses for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine after realizing the lack of lighthouse photographs she had in her collection.
She then showed the pictures in her gallery, catching the eye of Vineyard Stories publisher Jan Pogue. Ms. Pogue proposed a book, but rather than just Vineyard lighthouses, she suggested including the Cape and Nantucket, too.
“It became much more exciting because if it was just the Vineyard lighthouses it would have been fun, but not an adventure,” Ms. Shaw said.
So in October, after many hours of research, Ms. Shaw began her quest.
Wanting to avoid the type of snapshots found on a postcard rack, she planned as much as she could ahead of time, finding the right contacts for reliable directions and inside access to the lighthouses. Interior shots of the winding stairways and bird’s eye window views gives each lighthouse its own character.
“All a lighthouse is, is a tower with a light on top,” she said. “So one of the challenges is capturing what’s unique about each of them and not having the pictures duplicate themselves.”
Another challenge was actually getting to the lighthouses.
“I would have these little clues, like the best place to see Sandy Neck is at the end of this street, but then I’d look on my map and say ‘Hmm, this street might be closer, and, hmm, should I bring my kayak and try to paddle across the channel?’”
When possible, Ms. Shaw would scout each lighthouse, figuring the right time and angle for sunsets or moonrises.
But for some lighthouses, like Monomoy off of Chatham, scouting was not an option.
Access to the lighthouse was limited — the land in which Monomoy sits is sometimes an island and sometimes a peninsula, depending on the cut. Ms. Shaw ended up hitching a ride with a construction crew on a fishing boat to capture shots of the bright red lighthouse.
And while she could plan ahead with rides — ferry, plane, and four-wheel drives in the sand, to name a few — and even overnight stays at a few lighthouse keepers’ homes, sometimes nature just had to run its course.
Often she would lay on the beach for a couple of hours until the sun hit just right. But before you start thinking what a cushy way to make a living, consider her trip to Long Point Lighthouse in Provincetown, where she endured 20-degree temperatures while camped out on a two-mile jetty waiting for the water to subside.
But it was worth it.
“I actually got fanatical about it . . . it was an addictive thing,” she said. “The shoreline is like a magnet for me, and lighthouses really symbolize that juncture between the sea and the land.”
After three months, the shoot was complete. In addition to a radiant collection of sun-kissed photographs — lighthouses illuminated by the moonlight and silhouetted by the sunrise — she now had an insider’s knowledge of how to get to each location, which she shares in the back of the book.
She also has a newfound respect for a subject she hadn’t explored before.
“I’m a photographer and I regularly shoot around Cape Cod and the Islands, and there’s no way I could have told you remotely how many lighthouses there were, or what they were called,” she said. “It definitely makes you realize what’s in your own backyard that you don’t take advantage of.”
Alison Shaw will appear this summer at a number of locations talking about her two recent books, To the Harbor Light, and her photography in The Chappy Ferry Book, written by Tom Dunlop. For a full schedule of appearances, visit vineyardstories.com. Or visit Ms. Shaw at her gallery, located at 88 Dukes County avenue in Oak Bluffs or her website, alisonshaw.com.