• June 5, 2015

A Beloved Beach House and a Lesson in Letting Go

Becky Harlan

“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.”

Picture of a man and a woman lying on pastel beach towels on a sandy beach as people walk by in the background
Propert’s parents, Bill and Val, lie on the beach in the early summer.

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.”

The Fenwick Years, 2008-2014, Matt Propert
Propert’s late dog, Brasil, on a bed at the Fenwick house
Picture of an orange town hanging on the back of a door, bathed in golden light coming through the blinds
A towel dries in the upstairs bathroom.

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.”

Picture of a woman with long brown hair blowing in the wind standing on a deck during a storm, shot through glass with rain on it
Uliana on the back deck during the start of Hurricane Sandy

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.”

Picture of the ocean during a storm, seen through a window reflecting the bulbs of Christmas lights
Christmas lights are reflected in the windows during a storm on December 26.
Picture of a street in a beach neighborhood, seen from the deck of a beach house at sunset
A view of the street from a window in the Fenwick cottage

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.”

Picture of an orange and yellow yin yang hanging on the wooden wall over a white bed, golden window light falling on the wall and the bed
A skimboard that Propert’s uncle made by hand hangs in one of the Fenwick house’s bedrooms.
Picture of a man in a navy polo giving a shirtless man a haircut on the deck of a beach house facing the ocean
Propert’s uncle Chris gives his uncle Frankie a haircut on the deck.

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.”

Picture of a dog running in the distance, across a small stretch of sand with blueish green water on both sides
Propert’s dog, Brasil, runs across the beach after a major storm had passed over.

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.”

Picture of an old family photograph in a wooden frame, with seven people, some young boys in beach wear and some adults in dress clothes, standing in front of a car
An old family photograph shows Propert’s great uncle John and his wife with his grandparents and their three boys. His family has been coming to Fenwick for over 60 years.

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.”

See more of Matt Propert’s photos on his website and follow him on Instagram.

There are 14 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Matt
    June 2, 2016

    Great piece and hits very close. Just left Fenwick Island and our family cottage that became a home and my 90 year old father yesterday. I hope you can find a way to keep it and all of its memories

  2. Myra
    June 19, 2015

    I love this story. My favorite pic is Uliana standing on the deck. Do whatever you have to to keep this gem. I too have been blessed to have my family beach house in coastal NC. Every summer when I go back there it’s like I recharge for the winter. The memories are wonderful as I’m sure they are for you. If you sold I’m sure it would leave a hole in your heart. Like you, I take tons of pictures while I’m there. It’s like I can’t get enough pictures of the beach, and when a storm rolls in that’s even better!!! I’m sure we can all relate to that! Please try to hang on to your home.

  3. Cookie
    June 16, 2015

    Hope Propert’s relatives are able to keep the beach house which has been in their family for generations. Times do change — some family members move far away; some want their own space rather than sharing a house. Our family members, over the years, bought additional small places on our inland lake in MI so it’s not the like the “old days” when we were all crammed into Grandpa’s cottage. And there’s TV & internet today. But the lake, water sports & nighttime sky are still the same. We still gather around a campfire at night. Propert may have relocated to the West Coast but I bet he’d be most happy knowing that the place is still there to come back to! I recommend The Big House by George Howe Colt. Mr. Colt believes that summer houses are the emotional center of many families. I agree.

  4. Gary Lea
    June 16, 2015

    I hope you find a way to keep it! A close friend of mine just sold their vacation home in the north Georgia mountains along a large trout stream. After trying to rent it to help pay the upkeep and other yearly costs, they had to stop renting due to total disrespect of the property and furnishings! My wife and I were one of only 2 families allowed to stay after that. We as they felt something of a great part of life when it sold. After only 30 yrs. of going somewhere still
    pristine , I can’t imagine what your heartfelt Attachement would feel like if you find no other option. Sincerely,G.L.

  5. Ron
    June 15, 2015

    Touches something deep inside, bittersweet memories

  6. Anita
    June 15, 2015

    Simple sweet memories and places like these are no longer appreciated or cherished in these changing times. You must make an effort to hold on to them. it will indeed be a blessing if you succeeded.

  7. Steve Barker
    June 14, 2015

    Just wonderful and captivating. I was particularly drawn to the photo of Brasil on the bed with her front legs crossed. One of our sons has a Lab/Rotweiller mix Dolly that does the same thing.

  8. Al Max
    June 14, 2015

    Dude! Don’t sell it!

    Auction weeks; Do Airbnb; buy one of those little no check-up required insurance policies;,,,,, something.

    You won’t regret it.

  9. Brian
    June 14, 2015

    Great pictures! I could smell the plastic smell of the physical NatGeo magazines.

  10. José Durant Broden
    June 14, 2015

    Wonderfull story and photos, make me remind the vacations with my familie in a place named Chuquibambilla in Peruvian Andes

  11. olehippy13
    June 14, 2015

    Thats a cool photo journalistic story. The end of something thats been a family tradition, is hard to let go. Life is very fragile.
    former VietNam Medic

  12. Mike
    June 14, 2015

    As a boy a cottage like that came into my life a time or two. . Then somebody sold it.
    I can’t imagine any of my uncle’s cutting anothers hair like that.
    Thanks for your story

  13. Rosula Avendano
    June 6, 2015

    …letting go of anything dear to you is really hard. I’ve got the chance to stay in my former boyfriend’s cabin house in the mountain of North Carolina and every time I was leaving the place, I felt a great sadness leaving behind all the beauty of the nature surrounding the cabin house and the man that own place.

  14. Donna
    June 5, 2015

    Poignantly beautiful. This evokes a feeling of sadness that is sweet and warm which everyone understands.

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