Down East 2013 ©
By Deborah Weisgall
Photography by Joyce Tenneson
In her house overlooking Penobscot Bay, the photographer Joyce Tenneson puts shells everywhere. She piles them on the coffee table in her living room and arranges them on the dining room table. Fanned scallops, spiraled tritons, shining cowries — each is an object of wonder, a naturally occurring work of art.
Shells: Nature’s Exquisite Creations (Down East Books, Camden, Maine; hardcover; 128 pages; $40), her sixteenth book, has just been published by Down East. Tenneson’s portrait work has appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, Esquire, and the New York Times Magazine, her book Wise Women continues to be a bestseller, and her photographs are exhibited in museums around the world. She began working on the shells ten years ago.
The project was a kind of indulgence; it was a contemplative, solitary process, a respite from intense interaction involved with photographing people and running a commercial studio. Tenneson shot thousands of images. She found many of the shells herself; others she photographed at two public collections: the Wentworth Shell Collection at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum in Sanibel, Florida.
She was drawn to shells because they are magnets for meaning and metaphor. Poseidon blew on a triton; Aphrodite arose from the sea on a shell. Scallops, an attribute of St. James, were carried by pilgrims. Shells have been used as currency; mounted in armatures of precious metals — they have been transmuted into works of human art.
And, Tenneson says, “Shells have beautiful exteriors, but they have an interior life, too. They are houses for mollusks.” It is this idea of an exquisitely wrought shelter that most touches her. Shells are not only beautiful objects — for those mollusks, their tenants — they are necessary places. They are homes.
Three years ago, while she was working on this project, Tenneson decided to sell her apartment in New York and move to Maine year-round. For many years she had taught popular summer courses at the Maine Media Workshops, and her son, who spent his childhood summers with her, had settled nearby in Lincolnville with his wife and children. Maine, she realized, was her anchor, and her liberation. As a child, when she came to Maine for the first time, she recalls: “The minute I saw the sea I was free to be a different person.”
Shells is an homage to the ocean. It is also a meditation on her life now, on what she calls her “interior self”— who she is becoming. The photographs she included in the book resonate with this meditation. At first glance, with their precise and elegant detail, they resemble scientific photographs, but they are about emotion, not information. “I wanted my shells to have my personality,” Tenneson says. “I decided to photograph them because they bring me back to my spirit.”
Lyrical and intimate, these images have an immediate impact. And while many of them are spiritual, they are very sexy, too. With its smooth, luminous curve, the lip of a volute is as pink and sensuous as flesh. A nautilus and a cowrie are undressed, photographed in cross section to reveal their delicate structure.
A technical virtuoso, Tenneson sometimes manipulates the focus, keeping the center of the image sharp and blurring the margins, so that the flanges of a pendant murex wave like tendrils of pink seaweed or filmy lace. She makes allusions: an abalone spins in black space like a mottled green planet, and many shells open into wings, a symbol she returns to again and again in portrait images.
She has grouped shells together, not for any taxonomic similarity, but because the juxtaposition appeals to her. Tenneson turns to images of nestled shells, two nautiluses, a triton and a tulip, and she says, smiling: “They’re like little families.”
Many of the backgrounds are black, but over the last two years Tenneson has been experimenting with gold. “I did those photographs outside, on a backdrop I painted myself. It’s what I used to do when I began.” The gold, burnished like the ground of Byzantine icons, gives the images a mystical, sacred presence.
In Tenneson’s living room, the shells seem piled into informal altars. The house perches at the head of Rockport Harbor, and big windows look south over the water. In the morning, the skins of the shells collect the light reflected off the bay. Tenneson is at a stage in her own life when she is reflecting, too. In one of the most beautiful images in her new book, two circular, translucent white jingle shells intersect. The oval formed where they overlap is slightly more opaque. It seems like a looping symbol for infinity, or like a cell dividing into life.