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ARTIST PROFILE

Bob Avakian
The Art of Revealing Magical Moments, Between Darkness and Dawn

By Karla Araujo

While the rest of the Vineyard is tucked peaceably in bed, a man with a camera moves through the semi-darkness. He’s looking for just the right combination of shadow and light, of day and
night, of mystery and revelation.

Photographer Bob Avakian of Edgartown is the first to admit that he’s a man of darkness. “Night photography is my main focus,” he explains. “I love low light situations. You get an altered reality, something that goes beyond what you remember in a scene. It takes
on a painterly quality.”

Forget the brilliant, full moon on a clear night. “It’s not interesting,” Bob says unequi-vocally. “Shooting with a full moon and a clear sky is like shooting in the noon sun.”

Instead he waxes poetic about the kind of foggy, misty nights that make the rest of us throw another log on the fireplace and hunker down, grateful that we’re not out on the Island’s twisty, inky roads. But after dinner or at four in the morning, Bob’s on the prowl, searching for that special glow the Vineyard takes on when the atmosphere is just right and the sky is lit with a haunting hue.

“I’m drawn by a certain quality of light at night,” he says. “There’s always an element of surprise in my work. When I am out there in the dark I can have a hard time composing and sometimes focusing the camera. It’s not until I get back to my computer and bring up the exposure that I discover what was really there.”

Bob shoots with a Nikon digital camera on a tripod and relies on long exposures – anywhere from thirty seconds to eight minutes – to capture his subjects at night, allowing him to turn darkness into light. In contrast, by underexposing, he can transform a day-light photograph into one that appears to have been shot at night.

“Through my exposure and printing decisions,” he says, “I represent these landscapes in a way I have never seen them before. I work to achieve a balance, suggesting that these images were made in a single moment in time somewhere between night and day.”

A common thread in Bob’s work is the element of mystery. He drives around the Island, he explains, searching for isolated scenes that contain an unidentified light source or another mysterious quality. But there is no mystery about how he finds them: sheer tenacity combined with cell phone applications that chart the sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset, helping him to determine just the right time to embark on his quest. “But generally I look outside or can tell by the conditions of the sky wether it might be a good night to go out,” he says. Favorite haunts? Katama, Edgartown Great Pond, Beach Road towards Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury Road, and Edgartown village past the Harbor View Hotel to Starbuck Neck Road, to name just a few. The closer to home the better.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of Bob’s work is the short amount of time it’s taken for him to achieve such a high degree of mastery. A busy custom homebuilder for the past thirty years, his use of the camera until two years ago was limited to snapshots of family and friends as well as photos of his company’s completed projects.

“I took one course in black-and-white photography in college,” he explains. “Then, for the most part, once I moved to the Island, I put my camera away.”

One night in 2011, Bob was returning to the Island on the ferry and happened to have his camera with him. “The moon was up, so I took a few pictures,” he says. “I shoved my camera into the railing to keep it steady. The next day I loaded the images into my computer, and was pleasantly rewarded with magical images. Now it’s become my passion.”

While he maintains his long-time custom home building business (with his son Derek). Bob now spends more and more of his spare time on photography. He’s completed courses and workshops at the Maine Media College in Rockport, ME, and is an ongoing participant in the Photography Atelier portfolio-making program at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA. His work has won prestigious awards from the international Photolucida Critical Mass program, the International Photography Awards, the South Shore Art Center, the Cape Cod Art Association, and the Vineyard’s own All Island Art Show. He has donated images to Island nonprofit fundraising events and has shown his photographs in juried group exhibitions in galleries and at art centers across New England, in Taos, NM, and in Hudson, NY. Bob has also been selected as the featured artist in Photographic Resource Center’s Northeast Exposure Online and in Lenscratch, an acclaimed blogzine that explores contemporary photography worldwide.

Although he frequently submits his images to competitions, Bob says he’s not promoting his work commercially at this time. “Why rush?” he asks. “I’m going with the flow – not pushing it. I have no schedule, no expectations.” Instead, he’s concentrating on strengthening his portfolio, striving for tighter, more cohesive work. And while he’s not currently represented by a gallery on the Island, he says he would be very open to the idea. In the meantime, he’ll continue seeking those hushed moments when the Island’s big skies, meandering paths, rolling fields, split rail fences, and steeply-pitched rooflines can be frozen in dream-like frames.

Inspired by a quote from nineteenth century British novelist George Eliot, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been,” Bob says that turning sixty was, in fact, a turning point for him. Contentedly married for forty years to wife Gail, whom Bob deems “very supportive,” he nonetheless was facing an empty nest and the realization that with his kids grown and a life otherwise consumed by work, he felt a void. Night photography, he says, became a passion.

“It’s never too late to find something you love to do,” he suggests. “I wanted some creative form of self expression in my life. I can pursue photography forever.”

Trained as an architectural engineer, Bob and Gail have made their home on the Island since 1973 when they came for a summer and never went back. A Rhode Island native, Bob says his comfort level with the computer and software makes digital photography an easy fit. “It feels natural,” he observes. “I’ve been told I have an eye for photography and I’m doing pretty well. I’ve surprised myself with the progress I’ve made recently.”

A student of the genre, Bob spends hours studying the work of other photographers online and in galleries and museums. He points to Michael Kenna, Todd Hido, Stephen DiRado and Brian Vanden Brink, and The Griffin Museum. Bob credits his time spent at the Griffin–and especially Karen Davis who leads the Atelier program–as inspirational.

As to the lack of figures in his own work, Bob says that while he’s thought about trying
his hand at portraits, it’s not in the cards right now. “I am more comfortable shooting landscapes. I get
anxious and feel I have to hurry with portraits. There’s no rush with landscapes and I enjoy the meditative aspect of my work.”

The Vineyard provides an ideal backdrop for Bob’s serene images. He says he’s traveled off-Island to shoot, both in the city and on the Cape, and it’s “just not the same.” He relishes the rural setting, absence of people off-season, and the quality of light at night.

“I feel safe here,” he says. “The police have come by while I’m shooting and ask, ‘Is everything okay?’ Then they say, ‘Oh, it’s you.’”

While the summer months with more daylight, traffic, people, and occupied houses pose a challenge, Bob relishes the solitude of spring and fall. “I’m most productive then,” he adds.

He recently put together a 44-page compilation of his photography, Night and Day, on Hewlett-Packard’s MagCloud, a web service that allows users to display and distribute content in digital or print form. The collection can be viewed online or purchased as a bound book. His work can also be seen on his website and on Facebook.

For now, Bob is delighted to cruise the Island in the quiet hours, stopping when the light on a winding, deserted road or across a marshy field strikes a mystical chord.

“For years I rushed from job to job,” he says. “Now I take my time to slow down and enjoy the beauty of where I am and where I’m going.”

For more information on Bob Avakian and his work, visit his website at: bobavakianphotography.com, you will also find a link to his facebook page there. To view or purchase his book, Night and Day, visit http://magcloud.com/user/bobbya.