Topic: Today

Photographer Alison Shaw Becomes a Cape Cod Primitive

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For two weeks last fall, photographer Alison Shaw lived in a tiny shack on Cape Cod as part of an artist’s residency. She had no running water, no electricity, and no heat; the nearest road was a 30-minute hike away, up and over the dunes. Heaven.

At the remote tip of Cape Cod lies a vast terrain of huge rolling sand dunes, scrub oak and pine, and bogs and marshes, bordered by miles of deserted pristine beaches as far as the eye can see. Scattered among the dunes are a handful of tiny, primitive shacks, many of which were built nearly a century ago from the planks of shipwrecked boats that washed up on shore.

My shack sits right on the top of a dune. It faces close to due north, so the sun rises down the beach to my right and sets just behind the dunes to my left. There are two big windows in the front, with a sweeping view out over the dunes to the ocean directly beyond. In one corner of the shack are two twin beds — just mattresses on plywood, but still very cozy. The kitchen consists of a gas stove, a small gas refrigerator that is quite jury-rigged and temperamental, and a sink with a 2-1/2-gallon jug of water perched on its edge. A few steps behind the shack is the outhouse, which looks out on the dunes and water. Down the path in front of the shack, in a little hollow surrounded by beach roses, is the water pump, with a path beyond it that leads down to the beach.

I wake before the sun. The first few days, I take more photos than I’ve ever taken before in such a short time. The weather, the sea, and the light are constantly changing. It seems as if every time I look out the window, there is some new interesting cloud formation or change in the way the waves are breaking along the shore.

The fog rolls in, the fog rolls out, the fog hangs suspended just offshore. This morning I see a thick mist blanketing the landscape. In a wild panic, I grab my camera gear and, still wearing my pajamas, head outside to shoot. This mist is like nothing I’ve seen before. Since my shack sits so high up, I can look down at the mist-shrouded land in every direction. I literally trip over myself and my gear, trying to shoot from every possible vantage point, with every possible lens, and at every possible exposure. The mist lingers for hours in the deep, shaded hollows between dunes.

On mornings when it’s not raining, I light a couple of lanterns, make myself a big mug of coffee, grab my camera, tripod, and fishing pole, and head for the beach. When the right combinations of subject matter and light come along, I go through a ton of film, shooting and changing rolls at a furious clip. In general, I don’t stray more than a couple hundred yards down the beach in any direction — I get so caught up in what’s happening right before my eyes.

I love using the kerosene lanterns at night. There are a half dozen of them scattered around the shack, and they give the place a warm glow. They provide plenty of light for reading, too — the sun goes down so early this time of year.

When I was down on the beach this morning, several seals popped their heads out of the water to check me out. They seemed to enjoy playing in the surf, and they were definitely curious about me. I wonder if they’re so friendly because fishermen throw them the remains of fish from the beach. Maybe they’re just naturally friendly creatures.

Water has to be pumped by hand into a bunch of 1-gallon jugs and then hauled up to the shack on a daily basis. Bathing is a bit of an adventure. The solar shower is slung from the side of the shack and overhangs the deck. There’s no privacy, but I’m not too concerned about it — nobody is around, except for the occasional fisherman on the beach.

The isolation of the shack suits me; the simple life distills things to their essence. It gives me the time and space, without distraction, to slow down and reflect on the world around me.


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