Lanny McDowell is having an opening this week that can take place in anyone’s home or office. He has opened a gallery on the Internet showing his fine art avian photographs. Anyone can go there by pressing a few buttons on the computer.
Most Vineyard artists have openings at galleries. They schedule a day in the height of summer to roll out their work, send out a box full of invitations and wait for the crowds to come. A reception usually includes wine and cheese and then after a week or so, the work comes down.
Mr. McDowell is offering an invitation to anyone to wander through his collection at any hour of the day. Dress any way you want — wear your pajamas! Viewing can take place from anywhere in the world, as long as you have a connection to the Internet. And he has no plans to take the work down.
Mr. McDowell, 61, of West Tisbury, is a painter, photographer and avid birder. He comes from a creative family with deep artistic roots in the Harthaven section of Oak Bluffs. His mother Martha Moore McDowell traces her family history to Nelson Augustus Moore, a celebrated Hudson River School landscape painter who lived from 1824 to 1902.
Mr. McDowell grew up in Kent, Conn., and spent summers on the Vineyard. He did carpentry off and on starting in 1970. His Island connections and handyman skills helped him find work. “I was good at reusing materials. Luckily, people knew me. A lot of creative jobs landed in my lap,” he said.
He also painted, and eventually his art grew to the point where the woodworking became secondary. All the time he also was bird-watching and spending time in the pristine Vineyard natural environment.
Of course many artists are using the Internet to display and well their work.“I sold my paintings exclusively on the Internet from 2004 to 2007,” Mr. McDowell said. (His old Web site was ottgallery.com.)
But a series of events happened just after the turn of the millenium that spurred Mr. McDowell in new directions with his art and his photography.
First, in the summer of 2001 he was consulted about some strange birds in a pond. “A friend of mine saw a couple of birds that didn’t belong on Menemsha Pond. He wasn’t sure what they were. I went up in my kayak and they turned out to be alcids, razorbills,” he recalled. “They are a bird that is around the Island in the winter. They are like a penguin, but they should not be here in the summer.”
Mr. McDowell took pictures. The photographs appeared in the Science Times section of The New York Times.
Then in August of 2004 a rare red-footed falcon landed on the Vineyard, and the birding community on-Island and around the world went into orbit. “I was the first of two people to take a picture of that,” Mr. McDowell said. A popular birding magazine used his photographs.
“I started paying more and more attention to the quality of my photographs and being able to get what I was pointed at,” he said. His photographs began appearing regularly in Island newspapers.
Digital photography further expanded his work; using a high-powered telephoto and a wide open lens, his images often blur the background. “The background goes abstract, which fits my sensibility perfectly. I was brought up on abstract expressionism,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mr. McDowell has distinguished himself from many other avian photographers by sticking to his sensibilities as a visual artist.
His exhibition prints are environmental portraits. “I wasn’t interested in cropping down for the perfect portrait like the thousands of other bird photographs. I can create a contextual picture, often without any cropping at all. It puts the viewer into the scene where I took the picture, rather than just seeing a picture that could have been taken anywhere,” he said.
Many of his great photographs are the result of his own love of being out in the natural world. He frequently goes out early in the morning, not just because the light is best, but because it is also the time when birds are most active.
Choosing to exhibit his photographs on the Internet over being a painter in his gallery has significant advantages. “I used to spend four days a week, sitting in a chair and looking at something a couple of feet away from me, waiting for customers. With painting it takes quite a while do the art.”
With photography, he said: “There is liberation. I get to move. I get to do another thing I love to do which is birding.”
Lanny McDowell’s fine art avian photography can be viewed at lannymcdowellavianart.com.