At the risk of stating the obvious, the great nautical history of the East End has certainly been a favorite subject of artists and photographers for well over a hundred years.
The images are easy to recognize: seafaring vessels, sails dramatically billowing against a deep azure sky, waves crashing over decks, breaking on sandy shores, and the beautiful tangle of lines on sails and docks all make for great paintings and photographs—and don’t forget the images of our great seaside architecture.
How, then, in this “Age of Instagram,” with its millions of well-curated cellphone images, does an artist or photographer bring anything new to this maritime subject?
Enter photographer Michelle Dragonetti of Amagansett, who has discovered a completely unique and personal approach to visions of the region’s ocean heritage that she accomplishes with the skills of a surgeon.
In her latest and extensive series of photographs, Ms. Dragonetti celebrates the unsung hero of our maritime heritage: the humble and hitherto unseen world of the boat hull, that submerged part of a sea vessel that is rarely seen or regarded by artists.
This part of a ship’s architecture is the subject of a stunning series of meticulous images currently on view at the East Hampton Town Maritime Museum in Amagansett, through September 20.
Much has already been written about Ms. Dragonetti’s work, as it plays so well into the maritime history of the area, both leisure summer activity and also more than 200 years of fishing and whaling. But exactly what she does and how she chooses to do it mark her as an important and thoroughly unique voice.
Ms. Dragonetti eschews typical nautical drama for a bold and contemporary graphic presentation. At first glance, the images of her boat hulls, photographed in Montauk, Sag Harbor, and as far away as Cuba and Portugal, are almost abstracted paintings, or may even appear to be spontaneous street graphics, or perhaps silk-screened art. It’s difficult to understand what it is an observer is seeing, because there is no visual point of reference in her images: no barnacles, no sky, no lines, nothing that denotes standard imagery of boats and ships or the relative size or dimensions of her subjects.
What the viewer immediately regards in these perfectly framed square photos is a slightly disturbing, fractured image—broken straight down the center, from top to bottom of the frame. Her photos almost appear to be mirror images, until you notice the variations on either side of these hulls—port and starboard. This symmetrical imagery creates a strong visual tension, much the same way director Stanley Kubrick used perfectly symmetrical framing to highlight the important visual elements in his films.
The effect is not static but rather wonderfully dynamic. In her boat hulls, large and small variations of wear and tear from saltwater, gouges from anchor chains, and the occasional painted boat name make the viewer aware that this is a single image and not a photo manipulation.
The variety of these hulls is striking, and yet even though the subject matter, framing and format remain remarkably consistent, each photo stands alone as a unique portrait. In the hands of a lesser artist, there would be a tendency to explore viewing angles, formats and additional details. But Ms. Dragonetti will have none of that. These images are not simple permutations on a theme but rather perfectly realized, graphic representations of physical subjects, each standing alone on its own visual merits.
She lets the boat’s wood, fiberglass, worn paint and architecture do the work for her. This is certainly not the internet’s popular “urban decay” style of photography, which dwells on the morose details of texture and age, but rather images of a boat’s life as it currently serves its owners—vital workhorses of life and living industry.
The images are so direct and powerful, it’s almost as if she, as a subjective photographer, disappears. The geometric image of the hulls here are king, and she maintains an uncompromising journalistic eye to her subjects. That kind of artistic discipline is remarkable, and the entire group of the images in her show demonstrate an exceptional and powerful graphic sensibility.
The joy of Ms. Dragonetti’s photos is how the images and subjects reveal themselves in layers—after time and upon close inspection. At first, the photos appear to be contemporary graphics and in less capable hands would run the risk of being merely “decorative.” But, here, the story of each image is rich with individual history.
She displays her photographs as single images or in groups of two or four together, depending on her choice of coloration and details. The photos are between 20 inches and 40 inches square, and her precise, understated framing adds a master’s touch to the images.
The photos are all “face mounted”; that is, the images are flush to the edges of the frame on all four sides. The photos are mounted under full, 1/4-inch-thick Lucite, lending a sculptural quality to the works. When viewed from the side, a fine illuminated glow emanates from the edges of the Lucite. The final effect is meticulous—pure contemporary perfection.
Ms. Dragonetti’s technical methods and photographic details are very well documented on her website, where she also features her extensive architectural photography, along with urban photography and art appreciation categories.
On her site, she explains her approach: “I find particular interest in the contrast between abstract patterns of the structural and painted lines and colors of the hulls, and the evidence of their weather and age. By focusing my compositions on the triangular patterns of the hulls in a square format, I am able to highlight the essential geometry of the images.”
Ms. Dragonetti richly proves herself to be a true modernist, but with the soul of a maritime historian.
Currently on exhibit at the East Hampton Town Maritime Museum, 301 Bluff Road, Amagansett, through September 30. Visit micheledragonetti.com.
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One fine body…