Stephen DiRado’s photographs taken on the Vineyard have hung in galleries in New York city, Houston and London and belong to prestigious museum collections in Boston, Berlin and Toledo, Ohio. There was even a play inspired by his summers photographing on the Vineyard, performed at the New Jersey Repertory Company in 2003.
Yet here on the Island, Mr. DiRado’s work is conspicuously absent. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has five of his pieces in its archives, but no galleries here exhibit his work.
At 49, Mr. DiRado is widely renowned. In his 20s, he achieved celebrity status in Worcester, where he did his first major photo projects, Bell Pond and the Mall Series. He continues to live and work in Worcester, as a photography teacher since 1985 at Clark University, where he also directs the photography program.
For more than 20 years, Mr. DiRado has spent his summers on the Island, taking pictures. Always drawn to long-term projects, there are three Vineyard series he has been working on since the late 1980s. In 1987, he began photographing people at Gay Head’s nude beach. Not long after, he started photographing the night sky (the Celestial Series) and also began the Dinner Series — photographs taken by candlelight of family and friends around the dinner table.
Many here may recognize him by the heavy, old-fashioned view camera he carries around — a large-format camera that produces eight-by-ten-inch negatives he prints with the silver-gelatin process.
But in the art scene here, Mr. DiRado is a relative unknown, perhaps the Island’s most famous unknown photographer. Although his photographs are received well by discerning art collectors and the general public, it has not been so with gallery owners on-Island. After several disappointing experiences, Mr. DiRado gave up on exhibiting his work here.
Some gallery owners turned down his work because it stood out too much from the typical art in Island galleries. One gallery owner skeptically agreed to take on six photos, which all sold in under a week. Openly surprised, the gallery owner asked for the same six again. Mr. DiRado refused on the grounds that it was offensive to the buyers of the first six, and suggested six different photos. The gallery owner grudgingly accepted, but hung them in a back room where few people ventured.
On another occasion, Mr. DiRado reached an agreement with a gallery owner who wanted to exhibit one of his most popular series. He agreed to let the gallery show those photos if it would also show the less commercial Beach People; the gallery owner agreed. When Mr. DiRado delivered the framed prints, he was told that he was not allowed to help hang the show. When he arrived at the opening, along with many of the subjects of the Beach People series, who were excited to see the images finally on display, there were only night sky photos hanging. The Beach People photos were still stacked in their frames in a back room.
There was one successful show on the Island. It was a quiet affair 13 years ago at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, then the Historical Society, in their Gangway Gallery. The show was of his Beach People.
Mr. DiRado’s most recent project is called Jump. It documents people jumping off Big Bridge — the American Legion Memorial Bridge between Edgartown and Oak Bluffs on Beach Road. The images were taken over six years, from 2000 to 2006, and concluded with a show earlier this year at the DeCordova Museum — the museum of modern and contemporary art in Lincoln.
Emotive and often funny, the wide-angle black and white photos capture the children and adults at take-off, before the 18-foot plunge into the tidal inlet below. Some of the subjects are acrobatic and determined. Others betray fear.
Unlike the series on the beach and at the dinner table, the photos don’t reveal interaction or familiarity between the subject and photographer. Faced with that moment of truth, the jumpers weren’t paying any attention to him.
“Sometimes they’d be so lost in thought, they’d kick me,” Mr. DiRado said, delighted. The project began with a moment of curiosity one day, although he had driven past the bridge-jumpers a thousand times.
“There was this day that I just stopped and said, ‘I’m gonna check this out,’” he recalled. Under the harsh midday sun, the lighting was the worst it could have been for a photograph. But he took their pictures anyway.
“There was something I couldn’t explain, something right about it, that kept me coming back day after day,” he said. It was the moment of faith before the plunge — the moment when the instincts kicked in — that he wanted to investigate more. Visiting the bridge in the early afternoon became part of his daily routine. He marveled at how tens of thousands of wet, sandy feet wore down the wood where people jumped.
“Close your eyes and walk along and feel that railing and that will tell you where the most popular place to jump is,” Mr. DiRado said. ”It tells the story. The evidence is on the bridge itself.”
In the morning, he would buy ingredients for dinner. Midday, he would shoot at Big Bridge. In the late afternoon, he would shoot at Gay Head beach. In the evening he would cook dinner and then photograph dinner. Then, if it was a clear night, he would photograph the sky. With such a methodical schedule, the photos were piling up.
Jump held additional intrigue for Mr. DiRado because he has an acute fear of drowning.
“Any water — pools, oversized Jacuzzis — I have a fear of water,” he said. “When I saw those people jumping, it just blew my mind. I couldn’t believe they were doing that.”
When Mr. DiRado was a child, he was playing in the shallow end of a pool surrounded by family. He slipped down the slope into the deep end, swallowed some water and began to sink. When he struggled to the surface and cried for help, the adults and other children thought he was joking. After thrashing his way out, he didn’t tell anyone because he was too embarrassed.
He spent more time on the beach than pool-side when he was growing up in Marlborough.
“I’ve been coming to this Island since I was a kid. My father was a beachcomber,” he said. His dad would wake up on a summer day at 5 a.m., call in sick to work, load the kids in the car and drive anywhere from Martha’s Vineyard to Maine.
“In the Sixties, you could just drive here. There were no lines,” he said.
In high school, Mr. DiRado would come to the Vineyard with friends, stay at the family campground and go biking. In 1987, he was invited to stay for a month in a cottage on Pond View Farm in West Tisbury. He had just finished the Mall Series — 4,000 sheets of film from three years of shooting at a Worcester mall, 20 hours a week — and he had just started a still-life series in the North Brookfield home of the late artist and eccentric Jacob Knight.
“When I walked down to Gay Head beach, everything I ever photographed was right in front of me — Bell Pond, the mall, models,” he said. “Within a very short period of time, I made friends with hundreds of people on that beach.”
By 1989 he had enough invitations into people’s homes, he could stay the whole summer. In the past 20 years, Mr. DiRado has collected as many as 8,000 Beach People images.
“It’s an amazing project I don’t know what to do with,” he said.
Mr. DiRado always sends the final photo to the subject, but in this series, the subjects usually don’t like them.
“Almost everyone’s horrified,” he said. “Nobody likes the present tense because we have a vision that we’re 10 years younger or three pounds thinner.” He tells the subjects to put the photo in a closet for a few years and then look at it.
In the fall of 2005, a curator of the DeCordova Museum, Nicholas Capasso, came to Mr. DiRado’s studio to peruse his work. He does this every few years to see what the photographer is up to. The DeCordova has given Mr. DiRado a number of solo and group shows.
Mr. Capasso expressed interest in Beach People and Mr. DiRado’s series documenting his father with Alzheimer’s, but the photographer said those projects were not ready. Then Mr. Capasso uncovered Jump — and he started laughing.
When he asked what they were, Mr. DiRado told him they were nothing, just sketches. But Mr. Capasso offered him a show in January 2007, and the photographer agreed.
“I remember feeling the stress of thinking these photographs had a cause,” he said. So he got back to work. He took the last Jump photo on August 24, 2006, at 1:58 p.m. In retrospect, he believes the project was a metaphor for the journey he is taking with his father, who started showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s in the mid Nineties. He now lives in a nursing home, where Mr. DiRado visits and photographs him two or three times a week.
“I realized that was the unknown leap — the one that my father was making,” he said.
It was also the leap of a son losing his father.
“I document people’s lives for better or worse,” Mr. DiRado said. “Art can be a whisper and it can be a billboard. It can touch one person and it can scream to a whole society. But the point is, the artist is saying something pertinent, something in the present tense about the world we live in. The art that I gravitate to is the art that is about me, in some way — and it’s not necessarily a positive thing.”
Mr. DiRado’s work can be seen on his Web site, stephendirado.com. A limited number of prints from Beach People are available in the archives of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown.