Dan Waters asks: What do we look like from the future?

October 20, 2018: Alley’s Store porch.

Dan Waters is archiving (all of) Martha’s Vineyard for the benefit of generations to come. It’s a big job.


Dan Waters —Gabrielle Mannino

Dan Waters has been obsessed with the passage of time for nearly all of his life. Some of this comes from the fact that he was a third-culture kid who grew up in a foreign country and had to leave everything behind and start again in a new country. “That feeling of loss follows you everywhere,” Waters said.

Waters moved to Brazil from New Jersey with his family when he was 4 years old. He would later become the high school yearbook photographer, perhaps answering a subliminal call to document the images that would become so important to him. 


“Even in high school I was taking pictures of the present, knowing that I would be looking back in the future and missing that water fountain or that playing field or those lockers, little mundane things that ultimately our memories gravitate to — concrete things, sensations — and photographs bring all of that back.”


While Waters has always intuitively understood the power of photography to connect us with the past, recently he took the concept to a new level, and is currently engaged in creating a photographic archive of all of Martha’s Vineyard for posterity. 


“My husband Hal is involved with the museum,” Waters said, “and he’s scanning these plate glass negatives the museum has from the 1860s and ’70s — it’s a large collection, and one of his jobs is to identify where these pictures were taken.”


Hal was trying to piece together what Oak Bluffs looked like in the 1860s, and Waters thought that if only the photographer had moved the camera a little to the right or the left, we’d have a much better idea, for example, of what the Campgrounds really looked like.


January 23, 2019: Bob and Ed Pacheco at Reliable Market, Oak Bluffs.

“It made me ask who is taking pictures now in a systematic way that would leave a record of our time for the future,” Waters said. “Pictures age imperceptibly in the immediate time, but over the years, it’s shocking how much they change. Looking back at pictures from the1860s, many houses are almost unrecognizable, but even a picture from the ’30s looks really different to us, and tells us a lot about what the Island used to look like.”


So what Waters decided to do became nothing short of putting the Vineyard — pretty much all of it — in a time capsule. 


His project aims to photograph the Vineyard in its entirety, pictures of places, interiors and exteriors, pictures of people at work, at play, and just doing what people do, so people in 50 or a hundred years can look back and say — “Ahh, that’s what it was like back then.”


“It may sound trite,” Waters said, “but a picture really is worth a thousand words because they carry context and because they’re connected to a time and place.”


December 26, 2018: Norma restocks the shelves at Cronig’s Market, Vineyard Haven.

Make no mistake: To document the Vineyard on the scale that Waters envisions will require a Herculean effort. For instance, he spent three months photographing every single product that’s for sale at Cronig’s Supermarket. Regular shoppers grew so used to seeing Waters in the store that they must have thought he was stocking shelves. “Cronig’s was started and grew up on the Vineyard, and it’s a reflection of what we buy; it’s a mirror of who we are,” Waters said. “People in the future will see we used Tupperware … frozen dinners … and meat — who knows, in the future maybe there won’t be meat, maybe they’ll grow food in petri dishes.”


Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs has its own story. Many of the products are the same as Cronig’s, but in its own way, Waters said, “it’s kind of a museum. It’s a small store owned by the same family, and pictures of family are everywhere, relics of the old market, and their meat department, which is the beating heart of the market, goes back to the family’s Portuguese heritage.”


There’s a little chart, for instance, with the names of all the meat cuts in Portuguese. “I was sure to get that picture,” Waters said, “because it speaks volumes about how cyclical our history is — lots of Portuguese-speaking Brazilians shop there now.”


Waters is photographing in great detail every storefront in every town on the Island. He personally is doing Vineyard Haven and Edgartown; a friend and fellow photographer, Max Skjöldebrand is photographing Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury. To give some idea of the ephemeral nature of our towns, just since the project began, Hinkley’s Lumberyard has been torn down, the Edgartown Yacht Club was razed and a new building was erected in its place, the Tisbury town hall removed its steeple; Skjöldebrand photographed the Menemsha Market just before it burned down. “It’s hard to take a photograph,” Waters said, “that might be boring now that won’t be fascinating in ten years.”


But Water’s archiving goes beyond architecture.To give people in the future a window into our world it has to show people — how they’re dressed, how they look, and how they engage with the community. Waters was on hand for the women’s march last summer when 350 people showed up at Five Corners with placards for the immigration rally.


“I want people in the future to know how Islanders felt about social issues,” Waters said. 


January 19, 2019: Women’s March, Five Corners, Vineyard Haven.

But not just political rallies: Waters took pictures of Cynthia Riggs’ ice cream social and her Groundhog Day party, where local candidates go to get their nomination papers signed. As the song goes, “Every picture tells a story.” Bulletin boards are a favorite subject for Waters as well. “That’s just us talking to us,” Waters said, “They might as well be talking to the future too.”


Waters shoots black-and-white film because color film fades, and the advantage film has over digital photography is that we don’t know if digital photographs will survive the test of time. “The 1960 census was kept on magnetic tape, and by 1970 they wanted to look back at those tapes and found they couldn’t read them because they didn’t develop the machine that could read them until 10 years later, and by that time much of the data was missing.” They’d lost major amounts of important data because they entrusted it to digital storage. 


Fast-forward to today. We’ve been through many generations of storing digital information: floppy disks, Bernoulli drives, disc drives, zip drives, optical CDs, DVDs, thumb drives, and now we have the Cloud. “Every several years we have some new thing,” Waters says, “and the older things get farther and farther in the past, and the machinery to read those things is harder to get … who even has a Bernoulli drive anymore?” 


March 26, 2019: Night streetscape. Main Street, Vineyard Haven.

And as for the Cloud, Waters points out that the Cloud will only last as long as the corporations that run it. Companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon will sell you Cloud services for as long as you keep paying them. But those services stop when you stop paying, when you die, or when they go out of business. That’s why when it comes to storing his pictures, Waters is going old-school. 


All of Water’s archival photography will be stored at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on negatives that can be blown up and studied, and in climate-controlled conditions — in the dark, protected from the light. “I worked in the museum in development for four years,” Waters said, “and I realize just how serious the museum is; they guard their collections like a mama lion.”


“This was Dan’s baby,” said Katy Fuller, director of operations at the Martha’s VIneyard Museum. “He came to us with the idea, and everywhere he goes, it’s ‘Dan with his camera.’ We have a small staff, and having someone like Dan going out every day is great for our research department.”


Fuller says that the role for the museum is to preserve people’s stories and provide a thematic history of the Island.


“Everyone has their own story,” Fuller said, “and Dan’s project helps weave stories together to form a tapestry of this wonderful Island. Imagine Dan in Edgartown, the sun is coming up and all the landscapers come in and trash is getting picked up and the streets are being cleaned, it’s such a different story than what the tourists see, it’s a different perspective.”


But Waters is quick to caution that the work he’s doing is limited to his perspective. “I’m limited by my experience,” Waters said, “and my experiences are limited by my tastes, and I’d love to get more people like Max [Skjöldebrand] involved … younger people … immigrants … people from different communities on the Island, photographing what they do and taking pictures of events where they’d naturally go.” In short, in a society obsessed with selfies, Waters is encouraging us all to go out and turn our cameras around. 


Dan Waters received a grant from the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council to help buy supplies for this project.


Geoff Currier is a writer and editor at The MV Times. He contributes frequently to MV Arts & Ideas. 

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