Denys Wortman’s view from above at M.V. Playhouse

Denys Wortman’s view from above at M.V. Playhouse

January 24, 2024
by Abby Remer, The MV Times

Denys Wortman gives us a rare perspective of this place we call home — specifically, from up high. His current exhibit, “View from Above,” at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, is an alluring array of photographs he has taken with drones since 2016.

Seeing the world from on high was not new to him. Always interested in aviation, Wortman earned his private pilot’s license while at college, the year after graduating from Tisbury High School. Eventually, he earned a commercial pilot’s license for both land and seaplanes. “Having been a pilot all these years, I’m very used to looking down on things,” Wortman says.

Wortman’s interest in photography is, in a sense, a family affair. His grandfather was a professional photographer in London in the late 1800s. When he came to the U.S. around 1904 or 1905, he settled in West Orange, N.J., where he worked with Thomas Edison on developing motion pictures on color film. His father and mother also did a lot of photography in New York City. “They used to develop the film, and I learned to do that, so it was always a hobby,” Wortman recalls. “It is very easy to fly drones, and quite fun to combine my two passions.”

Once he sends the drone up, Wortman can see the images on his iPad mini, which is attached to the controller. He takes many photographs, and then, going through them at home, finds the ones that particularly catch his eye.

The first work in the show is a splendid, large black-and-white of Lucy Vincent Beach. Looking down the long shoreline that stretches all the way to the tip of the Aquinnah Cliffs, the white-to-black palette captures the sunset shimmering along the water’s edge, quietly echoed by the waves that roll in.

While Lucy Vincent is immediately identifiable by its iconic rock formations, which are sadly no longer there, his photograph “Squibnocket Surf” morphs into an abstract composition. Shot from directly above, looking down at the surf rolling in, the white foam forms a shape that is vaguely reminiscent of the Vineyard floating in the ocean. Wortman says, “I took probably a hundred pictures. You just put the drone up, wait for different wave patterns, and then click; one or two might catch your eye.”

Wortman’s whimsy comes through in “Summer Parking,” where the drone looks directly down at the dock in Vineyard Haven, jammed with dinghies, and one lone boat coming in, futilely trying to find space to tie up.

Among the many other works are two particularly intriguing pieces in the show — “Bullseye of Vineyard Haven Harbor” and “Lady Rowers.” In the first, Vineyard Haven Harbor, seen from up high, seems wrapped around a perfect sphere with an illuminated glow. Here, Wortman has the drone do a 360° turn, taking about 24 pictures that it then stitches together. The whole process takes about 20 seconds. The central blue water dominates, with the two Chops and Hines Points spun to the edges as though by centrifugal force. Standing back, the photograph is reminiscent of those taken of the Earth from outer space.

In “Lady Rowers,” the details of the harbor swirl around the top portion of the orb while the women in their bright red-and-blue boat row past, leaving repeating ripples in the water. The sense of motion is such that it is almost as though the camera held still and snapped the picture as the images whirled around it.

Wortman prints on canvas, which allows him to print large, and has the added benefit of creating a textured surface, thus increasing the photo’s impact. One particularly large photograph is “Gay Head Sunset,” in which brilliant shades of red, yellow, orange, amber, and green appear to glow from within. “The way the sun was hitting it was spectacular. It was that magic hour,” he explains.

Shooting with the drone allows us to see all the many different ways the water is undulating, and the various formations under it, in “Black Point Opening.”

“The drone sees things you can’t with your eye. I like the shapes and colors. It’s always changing,” Wortman says.

The show ends with a beauty — “Winter Sunrise.” The purples, pinks, and blues of the early morning sky and still water create a jewel of a work. With the sun just about to come up over the horizon, the shadows become graceful black silhouettes.

Wortman says, “It’s amazing how many people have not seen the Vineyard looking down on it, even if they came in from Cape Air. With a drone, you’re limited to 400 feet, so it’s a lot lower than in a plane. You get a whole other perspective on the Island.”