In early November, as she has done for the last 19 years, Maine photographer Alexandra de Steiguer will leave civilization behind. She will sail from Portsmouth Harbor to Star Island, one of nine that make up the Isles of Shoals, roughly 7 miles off the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine. There, she will keep watch over the buildings, grounds, and natural elements, living in solitude for the next five months as winter island caretaker.
“Solitude is something I quickly came to appreciate and need in my life,” de Steiguer said recently at her studio in York, Maine. “There are big flocks of ducks that winter around the island, and also seals, snowy owls, muskrats, and the occasional eagle, so I don’t feel completely alone.”
Ever since Captain John Smith first stepped foot here in 1614, the Shoals have been home to a range of activities and communities: stalwart fishing enclaves, grand 19th-century hotels, marine research facilities. Today, it hosts a summer camp, conferences, and retreats managed by the century-old nonprofit Star Island Corporation.
But in winter its only inhabitant is de Steigeur. She has offered a window into her unusual life there through a 2014 book of her photographs, “Small Island, Big Picture: Winters of Solitude Teach an Artist to See,” and in a suite of silver gelatin prints of another nearby island that’s currently on display at the Peabody Essex Museum, as part of the exhibit “American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals.”
De Steiguer — her name rhymes with “tiger” — has spent most of her life surrounded by water. At 18, she joined an ocean research education program in Gloucester, where she learned oceanography and basic marine biology. In 1991, she was a deck hand on the Ernestina, a 97-year-old schooner used as a floating classroom, when the ship was caught in what became known as “the perfect storm,” the product of Hurricane Grace churning up the East Coast to collide furiously with a second storm charging south.
“We were too far out to avoid the worst of the wind,” de Steiguer said. “Sails were blowing out, and huge waves hammered us. A lot of water washed over us. We were clipped to safety lines fore and aft to move around the deck.” The Ernestina held together, unlike three other boats caught in the maelstrom, and outraced the brunt of the deadly storm to find safety in Bermuda.
Once she lands on Star Island, de Steiguer’s life becomes one of self-reliance. “It’s mostly me out there keeping an eye on the buildings and preventing damage. I make rounds regularly to look for possible problems.” Should storm-force winds blow out doors or windows, she’ll board them up. The smallest cracks around windows will gather snow inside, so she’ll clear it. “I also make a thorough report of any damage I find so that repairs can be made in the spring.”
Last winter, she switched to wood pellets to heat the small house where she lives. Solar panels generate electricity. Water is hauled from the mainland for drinking, supplemented by rainwater collected over the summers and stored for washing. “It’s one of the windiest places on the East Coast,” de Steiguer said. “Sometimes pipes freeze. Things get wind-tossed. Any trees that survive are in small spots that get less wind, near buildings or in little protected areas.”
Like Thoreau, she pares life down to the essentials. “It makes you realize how much of what we do is inconsequential. Surrounded by the vastness of sea and sky, you realize the bigger picture, in which we are less important than we like to think,” she said.
Each day, she rises in darkness to catch the dawn. “The world slowly lightens with no color at first, which makes the other islands look like black silhouettes in a silver ocean,” de Steiguer said. Then she performs her caretaking duties and walks the rugged landscapes. Other times she writes in her journal, plays the guitar, or writes music: “I don’t write notation, so I record the music to remember it.”
And she takes photographs — with a film camera, meaning she has to wait until spring to see her results. An accomplished photographer, though self-taught, she tends to wait for inspiration. “Hunting for things to photograph is not how I like to work. I simply am a human ready to make images,” she said.
De Steiguer received a commission from the Peabody-Essex Museum and the North Carolina Museum of Art for the Childe Hassam exhibit, running in Salem through Nov. 6. Her prints show striking, contemporary views of Appledore Island, where Hassam painted on and off for three decades.
Austen Barron Bailly, the George Putnam Curator of American Art, who curated the exhibit, said de Steiguer’s photographs show “the way a contemporary artist’s vision of the Shoals might help us to see the island anew, but also see Hassam’s pictures in a new light.” She was struck by “the ways in which she, working in a different century, a different season, a different medium, responds to the rocky and watery features that Hassam was responding to in his own way.”
In a place where clocks don’t matter and sunrises and sunsets are the reliable measure of a day’s limits, time takes on a different meaning. “My concept of time is like a wave where the days and seasons, like particles of water, lift up and around, repeating in a circular motion,” de Steiguer said.
In April, she will return to the mainland, where she must reboot her sensibilities and perceptions. “Everything feels too fast and too busy,” she said. “It definitely is an adjustment. I have to go for a lot of bike rides and spend time alone.”