‘Leete Island’ explores land, family

A woman with shoulder-length cropped hair struggles with a long Victorian dress; a child, on a rocky shore, stares out at an endless expanse of water.

These are two of the 13 photographs by School of Art digital photography lecturer Benjamin Donaldson inan exhibition titled “Leete Island” that opened Monday at the Davenport Art Gallery.The exhibition is the culmination of a two-year project by Donaldson to photograph Leete Island, near Guilford, Conn.

But Donaldson is not just an artist documenting a historic place: Leete Island is the land of his ancestors.

The Leete family settled there in the 17th century and, as time passed by, grew in influence, producing the first Mayor of New Haven Colony. Now, the family has branched out, and the land has become a natural reserve and a small town with posh mansions for the rich and lucky, said Donaldson, who does not own any property there.

At the window of the gallery, mounted on a tripod, is a contraption weighing around 20 pounds. This is the manual camera that Donaldson used on his travels to pay homage to his ancestors. This invention — the next step after the daguerreotype — has remained in its original form since 1800s,a fitting device to document the archaic beauty of the land. Though it is laborious to set up the device, especially in cold weather, the technique provides the best quality of prints — better than any digital invention, Donaldson said.

The fineness of details made possible by the archaic camera can be seen in the rocky contours of the landscape with soft shadows.

“The pictures become so amazingly receptive of the details of the world,” Donaldson said.

The Leete family memories are sprinkled all over the photos as quirky reminders of the past. One photograph shows a foot on the gravel with a crow tattooed on it. Donaldson explained that his sister tattooed the crow as a reminder of a pet crow that was very dear to his grandfather.

Similarly, the old Victorian dress, worn by his sister in one of the photos,belonged tohis great-grandmother;he discovered the dress at a family reunion at the Island.

“I did not want to make a documentary but wanted to make something more poetic,” Donaldson said.

The rocky background in Donaldson’s photographsbecomes as much a character of the photos as the strangely expressionless people he captures. The characters convey a strange sense of melancholy, as if trying to retrieve a lost connection with the land.

“The very human expression in the rocky shores shows an almost extraordinary journey,” said Rahim Sayani ’12, who attended the opening.

Kemaya Kidwai ’13, who took Donaldson’s digital photography class last spring, added that the photos show how the remote island has resisted change over the years.

Leete Island, a small expanse of land bordered by a rocky shore,houses the limestone quarries that provided stones for Statue of Liberty and Grand Central Station.

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