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By Peter Vankevich
Ocracoke is famous for capturing people’s imagination.
It did to Michael Corlis. He, in turn, captures with a camera the island’s stunning beauty that causes speed-scrolling Facebook viewers to hit the pause button. It did to me.
“I live in a beautiful state (West Virginia), but there’s something about Ocracoke that makes me want to photograph it,” Corlis said about the island. “It’s a magical, soulful place.”
Growing up in Ho-Ho-Kus, a small northern New Jersey town in Bergen County, he later discovered a passion for both architecture and photography while a student in the early 1970s at the University of Maryland. He singled out Professor Arnie Kramer as his inspiration.
“Once he taught the technical basics, he wanted us to forget the camera and just see,” he said.
Halfway through the program he met Deborah Adcock.
“She was an amazing woman and I asked her to marry me very quickly–six weeks after that,” Corlis said. “Everybody calls her Sam and half the island probably knows her. I’m the bashful one; she’s not.”
With a change of plans after getting married, he started his own design/building business. They later moved to Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, to study alternative architecture that incorporated solar energy, wind power and alternate fuels. Back then, Goddard was known. as an innovative, experimental and progressive college. It was there Corlis met Stewart Brand, founder of the “Whole Earth Catalog.”
While at Goddard, he met some students on their way to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to build a passive solar home. He followed them to help build it in St. Michaels. Since Sam’s family was in that area, they stayed, and he worked on building projects near Annapolis. But he found the urban traffic unbearable.
“Sitting at a stop light one day for three or four cycles before I got through the intersection, it just suddenly, in my mind, popped up, and I said, ‘I gotta get out of here,’” he said.
“I got an interview, was hired and did both 33 years until I retired a few years ago,” he said.
He and wife, Sam, have been visiting Ocracoke for two decades.
“Once I retired in 2015, we visit more frequently and stay three or four weeks at a time,” he said.
Last year, Corlis worked with Ann Ehringhaus as part of the Ocrafolk Festival photography team. He would have done it again this year, had it not been canceled due to the pandemic. Ehringhaus, one of Ocracoke’s famous photographers, thinks highly of his work.
“I think his landscape work is just magnificent,” she said.
For the past couple of years, Corlis has produced an Ocracoke calendar. The 2020 edition came out about the time Hurricane Dorian struck and he decided to donate the proceeds to the nonprofit, Ocracoke Alive.
“Most of my landscapes are wide angle, but there’s not a wide enough angle lens for Ocracoke with the big skies and the expansive views and all the variation in colors and textures,” he said.
Maybe not, but Corlis photographs get close.