We scoured 175 years worth of images to find the 10 Most Iconic Maine Photos of All Time. Acclaimed to obscure, joyful to haunting, they’re the shots that tell Maine’s story.
One scholar describes George W. French as “Maine’s official Vacationland tourism photographer.” And, as it happens, it’s scholars and archivists to whom French is best known, despite a prodigious portfolio spanning 50 years. That’s a shame, because as the photographer of the tourism-promoting Maine Development Commission from 1936 to 1955, French did more than any other artist to give visual expression to the then-nascent concept of “Vacationland.”
Nowhere is that concept better displayed than in this color photo from Ogunquit Beach in 1955. It’s all Avalon and Funicello, all Perry Como singing “Ko Ko Mo,” a distillation of the post-war American leisure mythos so sunshine pure, you can almost smell the Coppertone. And yet, there’s something not so nostalgic about it, a timelessness that Steve Bromage, executive director of the Maine Historical Society, picked up on when he splashed the image across the organization’s triannual newsletter a couple of summers back.
“It’s not what you expect from a historical photo,” he says. “It’s sexy and a little glamorous — and at the same time, it feels like a scene that could be right next to you at the beach today.”
French likely took the (seemingly staged) shot for the Maine Development Commission, but if the MDC ever used it, no one can point to where it ran. Most of what the agency produced, says Maine state historian Earle Shettleworth Jr., were pamphlets and brochures at state welcome centers and rest stops — printed evidence that Maine lived up to the “Vacationland” slogan it tacked onto license plates in 1936. French delivered 20 years worth of stirring images, mostly black-and-white, of pastoral landscapes, contented hunters and anglers, and cherubic kids at play. But he was also a devoted chronicler of working people — on docks, on log drives, in farm fields and blueberry barrens — and the best of his work invites comparison to the roving photographers of the Works Progress Administration.
The best way to explore French’s catalog these days is to dig through the collections at MHS or the Maine State Archives. But former Maine State Museum curator Deanna Bonner-Ganter says it’s high time Mainers saw more of French’s work. The author of Kosti Ruohomaa: The Photographer Poet, a biography of French’s better-known late-career contemporary, Bonner-Ganter thinks the forgotten photog behind this Ogunquit Beach throwback deserves similar volume — and acclaim.
“He brought ‘Vacationland’ into the forefront of what Maine was,” she says. “And of what Maine is.”