Nature is shameless about offering its beauty, leaving it up to us to interpret the aesthetics. It’s easy to take it for granted—to stop looking and to see very little. Joe Schuyler never stopped looking, and Nature rewarded him with an abundance of beautiful raw material that he transformed, through lens and light and composition, into arresting stories wholly given over to natural elements. And he found a great place to do this.
He photographed people and products, cityscapes and political rallies, and the best of them are dynamic and profound. But Nature inspired him to an even more profound level of accomplishment because the canvas is leaner. Free of faces and brick and steel, it rewards more richly the skilled use of light. And light is what Truro, Mass., has in complicated abundance.
The 116 portraits in Truro Light chart a journey across a strip of land that’s four miles wide at its widest, rising to curl around Cape Cod Bay until it gives way to Provincetown at Cape Cod’s tip. The quality of light reflected by ocean and bay inspired a unique painters’ colony to thrive in Provincetown, and the challenge of capturing that light is shared by lensmen such as Schuyler.
The trek begins at Ballston Beach, where the Atlantic water is pictured as foam and spray. It sounds easy enough, and there must be a million cell phone camera attempts, but Joe’s surf is distinct, sponge-like, undulating shades of white and gray to the white-flecked blue of the horizon. It throws into insignificance a distant, hill-perched house that looks at once lordly and vulnerable.
On the facing page, a reflection of clouds is in a shallow tidal arm, flanked by crisp brown streaks of sand. The reflection mirrors the adjacent surf, with the white of the clouds similarly undulant. And that’s another strength of this book: Its layout adds resonance and kineticism, through composition—such as the facing pages of breaking waves and receding surf that follow—and contrast, as when a peaceful silhouette of a sunset-watcher is placed against what’s labeled Ball of Fire, which turns out to be the time-exposure flame from an anonymous subject’s sparkler-clutching twirls.
The light changes as we travel inland. Marsh water seems grayer, the fields and trees a reluctant green. A two-page panorama titled Frog Pond at Smalls Hill glories in that green, the variety of shadings complementing the incredible variety of textures. Grass gives way to ferns, ferns wave alongside lily pads, and, on the other side of the pond, a copse rises to a balding hilltop. It’s a landscape you’d be happy to linger by, yet its composition, as Joe captured it, tells the story of all such ponds.
He also captures nature’s dazzle: A lily’s banana-like stamens are contained in petals of virgin white; a tiger swallowtail lights on a red butterfly bush that recedes into artful bokay; a quartet of cardinal hatchlings begs for food. And the book culminates in another panorama, this one a bay-beach view looking north to the arm of Provincetown, the sky thick with roiling indigo clouds and streak after streak of lightning lighting the sky.
The book’s layout was designed by Joe’s wife, Eileen, adding considerable poetry to the work. Residents of Delmar, the couple vacationed for many summers in Truro and were working on this project when Joe succumbed to a fatal illness last winter. For those of us who knew him, Truro Light is a bittersweet legacy, but it’s a gorgeous one.