By Robert Sherman
“I have had my vision.” – Virginia Woolf, “To the Lighthouse”
One of my favorite photography games happens at dawn on the beach. Irreverently, I turn my back on the rising sun – the focus of numberless photographs, both classic and cliché. I do this to catch its orange flashes bouncing off all the windows of the beach houses to the west. I wait and time it, over and over, until I get it right: the light from the lighthouse pointing directly at me in perfect synchrony with the sun flares on the glass of all the houses.
I use my longest lens to compress the distance, so that the lighthouse looms even larger. My tripod’s feet soak in the tide line of Seaview Beach. I am barefoot, coffee cup in one hand, camera adjustments and shutter click in the other. There are only a couple of minutes in which all this can come together, so I’m in a hurry. But the whole endeavor makes me incredibly happy.
The lighthouse’s varied yet communal importance to us all is already set in stone and brick and time. It has seen more stories than all of us combined could ever dream of telling.
Our beloved beacon can serve not only as focus, but as guide. When I’m surfing on the sandbars off Ocean Beach and points west I try to memorize its visual relation to a chosen pair of nearby houses, as a kind of anchor, a strangely fourth point in the otherwise three point triangulation of the two houses and me.
So any shift of where they all sit on my eyes means that I have drifted up or down the beach, and depending on the wind, out to sea or too close to the shore. It then tells me either to start paddling back into position or to take a wave in and walk back up the beach so that I can re-enter the water at my original takeoff spot.
I’ve been to the lighthouse three times but have never climbed to the top. I’m claustrophobic and acrophobic, so I’m scared to go up there. That’s why I spent all three times at the bottom looking for every conceivable angle from which to photograph our spectacular landmark in some not yet captured way – and as an excuse to not have to go up to the top!
My wife, Alessia, isn’t afraid of anything. She once bolted to the top and later reported that the whole incredible world is up there in that view. I believe her … from down here.
But I did immortalize her in a photo with my 300mm lens framing only the lantern, the cupola, the catwalk and her Hollywood smile as she gleefully waved down to me. That shot made the paper. But in shooting nearly straight upward I almost fell over backwards. What is the word for the fear of looking up? Anablephobia, as it turns out.
Ever since taking charge of the paper’s Instagram feed I’ve noticed that any photograph of the lighthouse is a shoo-in for extra likes on social media. It’s just that mesmerizing.
The lighthouse is our pride and joy. It has meant so much to so many for so long. It protects us and welcomes us. It comforts us and makes us cry. It charms us in its black and white striped pajamas, telling the ships at sea exactly where they are.
At night it even makes us feel safe and important. Even when we’re sitting far down the beach and we look over at it to watch it spin its light, it seems to sparkle in slow motion, and so becomes for us the brightest star on our horizon. And it is our star. It is our Fire Island Lighthouse.
Maybe next time I go I’ll push myself to climb to the top where I can see our blessed barrier island as the lighthouse sees it, laid out adoringly at my feet.
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