Carl Austin Hyatt discovered the salt piles on the waterfront of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, out of necessity. A photographer, he became interested in the western skies during the afternoon, when clouds often formed dramatically.
But it’s hard to take large-format pictures of the western skies while standing on the edge of the East Coast without a lot of foreground in the image. Hyatt, who lives in Portsmouth, began wandering the waterfront for a better vantage point. He wandered into the salt piles in 1989 and has been coming back since, though he did take a long break.
Hyatt shows black-and-white photos of the salt piles and the rocks and landscape of the Maine and New Hampshire coast in “Salt/Sea/Stone,” one of several season-opening exhibitions at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art.
Hyatt was interested in the clouds to the west, but the colossal pyramids of salt along Market Street became a continuing subject soon after he discovered them nearly 30 years ago after moving to Portsmouth. The salt arrives from South America by ship and is off-loaded in Portsmouth, where it is stored and eventually distributed by truck to municipalities and private businesses across the region. It ends up on our roads in the winter.
Hyatt finds the salt piles visually stimulating and endlessly interesting. He calls the subject a still-life landscape. “It hasn’t changed in 30 years, but the landscape is changing all the time. Sometimes it’s white, and sometimes it’s greyish brown. There’s an abstractness to it and a certain geometry. There is all of this repetitiveness within a very confined area.”
In the early days, he treated his salt pile photos as an exercise to stay sharp and honed. “I could always go to the salt piles to see if there was anything interesting going on,” Hyatt said.
He took salt pile photos intently for about eight years and sold a lot of work. Then he stopped and moved on to other subjects and interests. After a decade or so away, he came back to the salt piles, again with the intent of using them as a photographic exercise. “I thought it would be interesting to see how my eye has developed and to see if I see things differently, which one would hope if you are a developing artist,” he said.
Once he started going back, he could not stop. He found the subject even richer than the first time. The piles have become what he calls “a long meditation on these variables that are both industrial and completely natural also.” His body of work is massive, like the piles themselves.
At Ogunquit, he’s showing photos from his first foray into the salt piles as well as his most recent as part of his Portsmouth Harbor Salt Pile Series. For the past two years, he’s been making 50-by-60 inch digital prints that are viscerally stunning and monumental, befitting the grand scale of the subject. The exhibition also includes images of the coast and sea from Lubec to Rye. The coast, he says, “is what keeps me alive.”
He grew up on Long Island and settled in Portsmouth not to be near the water, but to be on it. The coast is his studio.
“I keep tabs on the ocean,” he said. “You’ve got to be there. You can’t wish you were there an hour ago. The lighting for me is the most interesting early in the day as the sun comes up through the clouds over the ocean.”
WHERE: Ogunquit Museum of American Art, 543 Shore Road, Ogunquit
WHEN: On view through June 28; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
ADMISSION: $10 adults, $9 students and seniors, free 12 and younger
INFORMATION: 646-4909, ogunquitmuseum.org