NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — To say David Zapatka is a fan of lighthouses is an understatement.
The Emmy-winning North Kingstown-based photographer, videographer and author is the president of the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse, a structure he first fell in love with when he moved to town while it was still under disrepair. Zapatka helped develop the Rhode Island Plum Beach Lighthouse license plate and has traveled up and down the East Coast, down to the Gulf Coast and out to the Great Lakes photographing hundreds of lighthouses at night when their beams shine brightest, 130 of which made it into his 2018 self-published book, “Stars & Lights: Darkest of Dark Nights.”
Now, following the success of his first book, Zapatka has a sequel being delivered this week: “USA Stars & Lights: Portraits from the Dark,” which features 166 portrait-shot pictures of 163 different lighthouses from 17 states, all east of the Mississippi River.
The idea for a second book came back in 2018 while he was still doing presentations on his original.
“After the first book came out, I was invited to present my ‘Stars & Lights’ project, which is shooting the lighthouses at night. I presented it to the United States Lighthouse Society at a convention in New Orleans in 2018 and they loved it,” Zapatka said. “They said that they had never seen a collection like mine before, which, if you think of the irony, lighthouses do all of their work at night, and yet we have very few pictures of them working at night.”
Loving his unique approach, the Lighthouse Society decided to adopt the project and soon agreed to publish a sequel book for Zapatka.
“My plan had been to shoot all through the spring, summer and fall before the possibility of a second book, and the Lighthouse Society liked that idea and they signed on as the publisher of the second book, but then COVID hit,” Zapatka said.
With limitations on travel, moreso for his own safety than harsh restrictions, Zapatka said, his vision of traveling through the Mid-Atlantic, down to the Carolinas and up to the Great Lakes was limited, but he still was able to put together a larger collection than the one featured in his original book.
Some lighthouses, such as the Watch Hill Lighthouse in Westerly and the Bug Light between Duxbury and Plymouth, Massachusetts, were featured in the first book, but are shown at a new angle in the second.
“So ‘Portraits from the Dark’ are portrait pictures of the lighthouses. They’re vertical pictures, so they look different,” Zapatka said. “The first book was all landscape-oriented pictures, one per page. (In) this one they’re all portrait pictures, two per page, and at the end of the book, actually in this book it’s more of the second half of the book, it’s all the stories of the capture of (the photographs).”
Similarly to the first book, though, all of his photos are taken at night, something he prefers as it displays the lighthouse at work and differentiates his work from others.
He was especially inspired to shoot lighthouses at night while out boating with his wife in 2013.
“We were at Dutch Island, just south of Plum Beach, and there’s a lighthouse on Dutch Island, and I said to my wife, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to see a picture of the Dutch Island lighthouse at night under the stars?’” Zapatka said.
According to him, a large part of the reason why this frontier of photography has not been explored by many is that it only recently became technologically possible.
“Night photography is fairly new, especially the way that I do it with the images that I have, because it was really, really difficult – if not impossible – to get these pictures with a bright light atop of a lighthouse and stars in the sky,” Zapatka said. “Technically it just was impossible to do with film. There are ways of getting pictures of stars, but there are special tracking devices, and you couldn’t have anything like a lighthouse in the foreground, and I’m talking about photography, I’m not talking about PhotoShopping or manipulating images to make it look like a lighthouse is sitting in a field of stars. These are actual photographs, single images that I create in the field, so this kind of work was really impossible until digital cameras came along.”
Shortly after, Zapatka embarked out on his own at night to get shots of the Dutch Island Lighthouse, which he showed to some of his friends in the Coast Guard, who he has gotten to know through his work with the Plum Beach Lighthouse.
“I shared it with my Coast Guard friends and they were all like, ‘Dave, we’ve never seen anything like this before’ and so that got me thinking, and I was like, ‘I wonder why,’ but it took a little bit of time before I realized over the course of the next year or so when I started shooting more and more images,” Zapatka said. “When I started doing research on the next lighthouse I was to shoot I started looking for night images and I couldn’t find any. They didn’t exist, and even now, in relative comparison of the number of photographs that are out there, look up any lighthouse on the internet and you’ll see all daytime images and very few, if none, of that same lighthouse from nighttime. So it got me thinking, ‘Well, this is something that’s been overlooked’ and so I started shooting more and more, came out with the first book, and then the project got adopted by the Lighthouse Society.”
Post-COVID, Zapatka plans to continue his travels and hopes to get an RV in which he can travel around and carry all of his supplies without needing to worry about leaving things behind at hotels and motels.
“USA Stars & Lights: Portraits from the Dark” is available for $49.99 and can be purchased online at stars-lights.myshopify.com.