Beginning this week, a very unique and special artistic exhibit will be on display in the High Library: a collection of abstract photographs, all shot in Nova Scotia during the summer season by Associate Professor of English Dr. Matthew Willen. The collection, entitled “Certain Visions,” will be on display from Friday, Sept. 21 to Friday, Oct. 19 and will be located on the walls and in the display case between the entrance doors.
Willen spent the majority of his summer vacation in Nova Scotia, a Canadian province comprised of islands about 50 miles off the eastern coast of Maine. Living in a rustic cabin with hardly any of the modern comforts and luxuries that most of us enjoy every day, Willen spent his time fixing up the cabin, kayaking in the icy, fog-shrouded waters around the islands, meeting new and wonderful people, playing mandolin at village pubs and documenting his experiences with a Canon digital camera. The camera, which Willen used to take the photographs featured in his exhibit at the High Library, was converted to infrared prior to the trip and was sporting a cracked lens.
This apparently unfortunate damage to the camera turned out to be an instance of happy accident for Willen, who initially attempted to remedy the cracked lens by smoothing it over with Vaseline. The Vaseline acted as a kind of filter for the lens, eventually producing fascinating images that Willen described as “ethereal” and “mystical.” Additionally, because of the camera’s conversion to infrared, it was able to detect infrared radiation in the surrounding landscape, turning realistic, colorful scenery into eerie, high-contrast, dreamlike images.
This was just the kind of serendipity that Willen needed to produce an entire collection worthy of his initial goals for the project. “I wanted to do something more subjective and expressive,” he said. “I’m always trying to see things differently.” Setting out for Nova Scotia with virtually no idea what he wanted to create, he brought pencils, sketchbooks, pastels, notebooks and the camera, not knowing which direction his creative exploration would take him but preparing himself for anything. “You don’t know what will happen, but it’s having the faith that something will happen,” Willen said, reflecting on his mental and emotional approach to the creative process.
In addition to this most recent project, Willen has also completed a two-year photographic documentary project called Focus Westfjords, a profile of the Icelandic people, culture, towns, lifestyles and landscapes of Iceland’s westernmost peninsula. These photographs depict the realities of living in Iceland’s fishing villages, from the harsh, beautiful land and sea to the colorful cast of characters who inhabit it. Despite the beauty, charm and majesty of these realistic photographs, Willen felt that he needed to approach a new subject from a different angle, moving swiftly from the realistic to the abstract. Instead of documenting the way the people of Nova Scotia live, as he did in Iceland, Willen decided to approach the Nova Scotia landscape through a cracked, blurry, infrared and equally perceptive lens.
Willen wanted photographs that were subjective, not objective. He wanted them to be expressive, not descriptive. And he wanted to see things through a different lens, one that saw things less for what they looked like and more for the feeling they evoked in the observer. The question perpetually on his mind was, “How do I get my photo to look less like a photo?” It might sound counterproductive, but sometimes, as the old adage goes, less is more.
Some of Willen’s best photographs came from shooting in bad weather, especially in fog, rain and heavy clouds. He often took the camera out on nightly kayaking excursions around the islands, capturing the fathomless darkness of the water below and the glossy, overcast sky above. Landscapes are also a common feature of the collection, demonstrating just how dramatic and expressive an infrared photograph can be. In infrared film, water is cold and pitch-black. Green foliage is bright white. Lifelessness is black, life is white. Objects lit and heated by the sun will possess a milky glow. These components, in essence, are what make the collection endlessly fascinating to view. It is a deliberate choice on Willen’s part, to allow viewers to see the world differently. The photographs place great emphasis on the power of negative space to command an image and the ability of wild, unexpected shapes to become predominant forces in the images. They stress the interplay of darkness and light, of focus and blurriness, of life and space.
This unique and compelling photography collection is not to be missed. While the photographs themselves will hang in the library entrance for students, faculty, staff and community members to enjoy, the exhibit is not limited to the photographs alone; also included in the exhibit will be descriptions of the process by which Willen went about completing the project, especially explanations about infrared radiation and how shooting in infrared works. Not only does Willen wish for viewers to enjoy the images, but, “I want them to learn, too.”
Willen is currently teaching an English course titled The Literature of Travel and Exploration, a class which he says parallels his experiences nicely and allows him to more fully enjoy the course material. He is an explorer at heart, and his artistic expressions of these experiences reflect his adventurous, inquisitive nature.
Willen is currently working on transcribing his handwritten journals from the Nova Scotia trip into a memoir, a valuable and insightful companion to his photography project. He hopes to use these two modes of expression – both writing and photography – to successfully translate his physical experiences into engaging material that can be shared with and enjoyed by others.