A Beloved Beach House and a Lesson in Letting Go

“As a little kid I’d always want to cry when it came time to leave,” says photographer Matt Propert about his family’s beach house on Delaware’s Fenwick Island. “Growing up in Virginia, it was the one place where we went on vacation. I have fond memories about those early days spent at the beach getting sunburned and salty. It was all so simple.”

In his teens and early 20s, Propert’s fascination with the cottage faded. “I didn’t know how to appreciate the absolute quiet. It’s a place where the lack of distractions forces you to really take a look at yourself,” he says. But when his grandfather, who had designed the house, fell ill, Fenwick became a priority again. “Following his stroke everybody in my family realized how fragile it all was, and how we should appreciate the cottage for as long as we can.”

That was in 2002. Eight years later, Propert started a job as a photo editor for National Geographic Books. By that time he had begun photographing in Fenwick, where he says he was spiritually recharged and artistically refueled. “I was making the two-and-a-half-hour drive almost every weekend,” he says. “When the wind blows, and the house shakes, and there’s only that sound along with the crashing waves, it ignites all of your senses and brings you right to the moment. I found the ambience triggered an intense urge to create art, and I photographed constantly.”

Many of his photos feature his family, including his grandmother (he says she enjoys the spotlight), and his partner, Uliana (who is also a photographer), but he never photographed his grandfather in the way he would’ve liked. “It is one of my major regrets,” he says, “that I didn’t have the opportunity to properly photograph him at the house he designed.”

There are also much quieter images in the mix, moments without a human presence. “Photographing the cottage taught me that an image could be found anywhere. It could be the way that a sliver of light gently touches a curtain that’s reflected in a bathroom window.”

That sort of visceral reaction to a moment or scene required him to be ready to make a photo at any moment. “I would usually sleep with my camera on my bedside table. Sometimes I would take a photo or two before even getting out of bed in the morning. More often than not I found myself responding to the light. The cottage is exposed to the full arc of the sun, so the quality of light is absolutely magical. As the sun moved through the sky it would accentuate certain details or areas throughout the cottage and bring them to life.”

As the photos collected (he eventually amassed over 30,000), Propert began to realize the significance of the images he was accumulating. He says that for him, “The cottage came to stand as a symbol of my family’s history and my own heritage. I felt like I was photographing my past. But it was all laid out there before me—over the years virtually nothing changed inside the house. Most of the old rustic cottages surrounding ours had been torn down and replaced with giant ugly rental homes. Our cottage seems to stand as a monument to different, and perhaps better, times.”

Propert’s life continues to change—his grandfather passed away a few years ago, his grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s, and he and Uliana have relocated to the West Coast. And he’s not sure how much longer his family can hang on to the cottage before they have to sell it to pay for end-of-life expenses.

“Trying to come to terms with impermanence has been a huge driving force in this work,” he says. “In a way I feel like I’ve said goodbye.”

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