CRANSTON — Harry Adler set out for a pre-dawn run on an ordinary morning and began to see the familiar streets in an extraordinary way.
It was March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning its deadly rampage, and the country was embroiled in the contentious presidential election year. Adler’s social media feed was filled with vitriol among friends and strangers, and the lockdowns were fraying a sense of community.
But as Adler jogged his usual three-mile loop through Edgewood and Pawtuxet Village, he was noticing the way the water reflected the cloudy sky in the pre-dawn light.
Here was beauty, just a few streets from home. It was as if he’d never really seen it before.
He stopped at the edge of peaceful Pawtuxet Cove Marina and took a picture of two swans craning their necks, and then posted it on Instagram. He thought that, maybe, the photos would interrupt the social media furies. So, every morning he ran, he took pictures again and again, reflections of the sky and water, the masts of sailboats against watercolor clouds, the hushed darkness of homes against the rising sun.
“Like anyone, I have a million things on my mind, but if I am focused on photography and the moments, it takes me away from those stresses,” Adler said. “I wanted to share what I was seeing, because it’s so amazing to me.”
He wasn’t thinking of himself as a photographer. He and his cousin, Marc, co-own Adler’s Design Center and Hardware, the family’s century-old store in Providence’s Fox Point, a few streets from Rhode Island School of Design. He started working at the hardware store when he was 10, and after graduating from what was then Roger Williams College, he returned and has remained for the last 45 years.
He likes routine, even running the same path every day. “Some people might find that boring or monotonous, but I don’t,” Adler said.
And, through the lens of his iPhone 13 Pro, he saw that the same places never remained exactly the same.
“What shocks me is how quickly it all changes. There will be a moment when sky is this pinkish color and a couple of ducks swimming in Stillhouse Cove, and I’ll look up and the pink is gone,” Adler said. “In a way, it’s a metaphor for the transient nature of life. It’s just moments that appear and disappear.”
Each time he ran, he was watching the moments before sunrise. “It’s the paying attention that’s such a wonderful piece of it,” he added. “It’s the mindfulness that it creates, looking where the clouds are moving, the sun is moving.”
And through Adler’s photos, others came to also see the beauty in familiar places.
One was Sorrel Devine, who lives in Edgewood. “It’s like a peek into a world I wouldn’t see otherwise,” Devine said. “I never looked at the sky and the water the way he captures them.”
In June 2021, Devine was reeling from the death of her husband, Jimmy Devine, an Irish fiddler and a woodworker, who restored historic places in Rhode Island.
She’d known Adler through her husband, who would only shop at Adler’s Hardware for his projects. As she was searching for volunteer work to fill the emptiness she was experiencing, Adler’s photos gave her the idea for an exhibit of his work.
“He’s very humble, when it comes to art, he doesn’t think of himself as a photographer in any way, but he convinced himself to do it, because he thought it would be fun,” Devine said.
Adler wanted to donate the profits to a nonprofit and chose The Village Common of Rhode Island, which supports older adults remaining in their homes and where Devine is a volunteer and board member. He hoped it would be a way to do good. Devine also saw it as a way to bring the community together.
The first show in late October 2021 drew more than 600 people and raised $3,000.
His second show is this weekend, at the Aspray Boathouse in Pawtuxet Village, featuring 22 new photos.
The exhibit is called “Traveling in Place,” because “it felt to me like I was seeing new things every day, and I didn’t need to go to different locales. I just needed to be paying attention,” Adler said. “The variety was stunning to me.”
Even though he felt strange about thinking of himself as an artist, Devine convinced him to write an artist statement for the exhibit. Adler chose a quote from Maya Angelou: “This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.”
“That’s how I feel,” Adler said. “I know I’ve been on the same route, but I haven’t seen precisely this before.”
He had started taking the photos as a way to counter a sense of isolation. Now more than two years later, “doing this art show with friends and for the nonprofit, I feel more rooted in my community,” Adler said, “and it’s a gift.”
“Traveling in Place” exhibit is Saturday, Sept. 17, from 5 to 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 18, from noon to 3, at the Aspray Boathouse, 2 East View St., Warwick, R.I. Live music and refreshments.