Interview With Dorothy Kerper Monnelly

For many years Dorothy and I sang together in the chamber chorus, Cantemus, and became fast friends, often sharing thoughts on our creative endeavors. Her talent and strong work ethic never cease to inspire and amaze me.  

photo by B. Dix Bistrian

 Dorothy Kerper Monnelly

      Photographing in black and white for several decades, Monnelly is currently showing her work throughout the country with photographers Ansel Adams and Ernest Brooks ll. The show, “Fragile Waters”, was conceived by Jeanne Adams in response to the BP oil spill, and highlights the significance of water in its many forms and locations.
       In 2016, her third book, “waterforms” will be published, focusing on natural forms that are shaped by water, including ice and snow patterns, rounded rocks from the shore of Acadia National Park, kelp on the California coast and patterns in the sand. Her first book, “Between Land and Sea, The Great Marsh”, published in 2006, focused on her home environment in the Ipswich saltmarsh. In her second book, “For My Daughters”, she paired her photographs of the natural world with her mother’s poetry, creating a dialog between photo and poem, mother and daughter, time and place.
      Through her long career, Monnelly has photographed for several land conservation groups and was awarded an Audubon A for her contribution to land conservation. She was also an Artist in Residence at Acadia National Park in Maine. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA commissioned Monnelly to photograph the Great Marsh landscape with her 8×10 camera for the creation of a Great Marsh wall mural.
      Monnelly’s large format silver gelation prints are in the permanent collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. and are also held in several major museum collections nation wide. In 2012 her Ice Pattern Series was exhibited at Photo Vernissage in St. Petersburg, Russia.
       Her photographs have been exhibited in galleries from Maine and New York City to Seattle and Hawaii. She has shared and discussed her photography at numerous locations including Photo LA and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. Many of her photographs are in private collections.
Dorothy Kerper Monnelly is represented by photokunst.


Pat:  Has photography always been a part of your life?

Dorothy:  I remember that my father gave me a camera when I was 8 or 9 years old. I was always the one with the camera at birthday parties and documented our snow forts, Halloween costumes and other important events. My next cameras were 35mm color slide cameras and again, I documented trips to Europe, and primarily photographed activities and friends. In my early 30’s my husband and I spent a lot of time canoeing on the Current River in Missouri. I remember that I loved the rock walls along the river and enjoyed photographing them. This may have been the beginning of my “fine art” focus.

DKM child+ camera portrait #1LG

Pat: You live very near the marshes and know them well. Do they continue to inspire you? Can you briefly describe these photoshoots?

Dorothy:  The marsh continues to inspire me and I have a daily visual “relationship” with it. Right now I am watching it turn green as spring advances. The changing tides create constant variety in form and shape as does the changing light. Photographing the marsh presents some challenges as there are deep ditches and lots of muddy areas. In summer, the mosquitoes are brutal. You do need to keep track of the rising tide and not get marooned on some high ground.

Witch Island, Daybreak

Pat:  Are there other places that inspire you and are you still able and willing to go there? :

Dorothy:  My other favorite area, which I visit several times each year, is Acadia National Park in Maine. I especially love to photograph the smooth, silky boulders that have been rolled in the surf and thrown up on the rock shore, making beautiful sculptures.

Pat:  Have there been times when you couldn’t work for one reason or another?

Dorothy: Yes, I fell and had an injury and was in pain for awhile, but am better now.

Pat:  What if anything has changed over the years in your process and have changes been made to accommodate any physical conditions?

Dorothy:  For many years I used a 4×5 camera and processed and printed my own prints. When my first grandchild was born in 2008, I bought a digital camera to photograph her. I became interested in the capabilities of the digital camera and the freedom from the darkroom. I still carry a tripod, but often I hand hold the digital camera ( now a Nikon D800) and enjoy the flexibility and spontaneity of the hand held camera. I am lucky that I am still very strong and able to carry a pack with heavy lenses and a sturdy tripod to use when needed.

Salt Marsh Island,Clouds copy-1
Salt Marsh Island, Clouds

Pat:  You are known for superb composition and for being adept at portraying the sublime in the natural word. How much of this is spontaneous?

Dorothy:  Thank you. I spoke recently on “ Seeing with the Inner Eye”. In essence, this means seeing with the inner feeling to the extent that there is almost an absence of self-presence. This is the gift that the landscape can give us if we learn to let it “sing” to us. We need to use all of our rational knowledge , but also to “let go”. It is not so much a matter of being spontaneous as it is one of responding with inner feeling.

Ice Pattern #3

Pat:  Sometimes you concentrate on a small piece of the landscape such as a pattern in the sand. Does such abstraction have increased appeal for you going forward?

Dorothy:  I have always been drawn to the abstract- be it patterns in ice, snow, sand. I know that I will continue to seek abstract forms in the landscape.

Pat:  Some of your latest work is subtly colored. Is this a fairly new direction for you? Do you continue to explore new ways in which to express your ideas?

Dorothy:  With a digital camera, I see the image first in color. For a while I dabbled in color and I realize that color can be very seductive. I have made a conscious choice to stick with the black and white …for now. I also feel that, for me, black and white is best for form and design and simplifies composition.

Pat:  In days past you developed all your photos in your own darkroom. Do you continue to do this today?

Dorothy:   I have not been developing my own photos since I changed to digital in 2008.

Pat:  Do your other activities such as singing in the group Cantemus have an impact upon your work?

Dorothy:  There is tremendous joy in singing, and performance is a sort of catharsis. I find that if I wake up in the middle of the night I am singing one of the Cantemus pieces! ( and probably singing all day too. ) There is a shared joy in the arts and I know that Cantemus nurtures the joy that I feel in photographing the landscape.

Arcs,GreatMarsh,Ipswich, MA,6_13
Arcs, Great Marsh, Ipswich

Pat:  I understand there is another book of photographs on the horizon. What will be its focus or unifying theme?

Dorothy:   In my next book, Waterforms , I feature many patterns in the landscape that are created by water. Again, I feel a truth and a harmony in these abstract forms.

Pat:  Do you find that you continue to maintain the same level of excitement and curiosity towards the world and your work in these later years?

Dorothy:  Yes. One of the greatest gifts I have received from my photography is a true sense of achievement. I am honored to be featured in the “Fragile Waters” show with Ansel Adams and Ernest Brooks ll, which was conceived as an artistic response to the BP oil spill and speaks to the critical importance of water. It has been touring the country since 2013. Also, I appreciate the permanence of my two books: “Between Land and Sea, The Great Marsh” which celebrates a unique and valuable ecosystem, and “For My Daughters”, which combines my photographs with my mother’s poetry. I look forward to my next book, “Waterforms”, and continuing exhibitions of “Fragile Waters”.


Tree Shadow #1