North by East
Wide Angle View
For photographers in Maine, it's all too easy to get swept away.
A few years ago, workers renovating the historic McLellan House in Portland came across some binders containing the records of the Portland Camera Club, an amateur photography group formed back in 1899. One report detailed an ill-fated excursion to Ogunquit where the photographers were planning to have a lobster bake on the beach while also making a few pictures. Everything went swimmingly until the tide came up.
"They managed to salvage the camera gear, but apparently, they ended up having to go out to eat," laughs Dennis Marrotte, a Westbrook photographer and current member of the Portland Camera Club. He says he fully understands his forebears' preoccupation that day. "You get so enthused about the photography, you forget about everything else."
Cameras tend to have that effect on people. The impulse to capture a moment and preserve it forever is a deeply primal one. A photograph represents a minor victory for us — a way of holding onto the past, if only in two dimensions, long after the tide has fallen and the beach has been swept clean.
Maine being a nostalgic sort of place, where history pokes continually into the present, it's only natural that we are a state of photographers, both amateur and professional. Almost since the invention of the daguerreotype, we've been visited by some of the foremost artists ever to wield a camera. Alfred Stieglitz, Clarence H. White, Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, Kosti Ruohomaa, and Elliot Porter are but a few of the luminaries who came to Maine to make pictures, and thanks to their efforts — as well as those of lesser-known talents — Mainers today have an intimate relationship with our recent, shared history. Visiting the past is as easy as flipping pages in an album.
Of course, one of the great joys of photography is that you don't need to be a professional to take a snapshot. If this was true a hundred years ago, it's even more so in this era of cell-phone cameras and Adobe Photoshop. So it's no surprise that the Portland Camera Club is still going strong a century later. These days, the seventy-five-member group holds weekly meetings at the American Legion Hall in South Portland to discuss slide and print photography, share advances in digital imaging, or listen to guest speakers. And while the club's founders were mostly well-to-do Portland gents, women now make up nearly half the club's roster, with some hailing from as far away as the midcoast.
It's likely that future generations will look back at the work of today's Portland Camera Club with the same sort of nostalgia we feel about their forebears' images. One recent exhibit featured pictures taken exclusively with disposable cameras, perhaps a reasonable precaution for those preoccupied shooters who might find themselves stranded at high tide.
Bouquets & Bridezillas
In recent years Maine has increasingly become a prime location for weddings. While Maine photographers have been recording couples' trip down the aisle for generations, changes in photography styles, equipment, and even the business climate here have fueled a whole new interest in wedding photography. We talked to Michele Stapleton, a photojournalist based in Brunswick, about the state of the industry today.
What changes have you witnessed in wedding photography?
There's been a real change in the wedding field in the last ten or more years. The majority of wedding photography used to be heavily based on posed shots, but that changed when Denis Reggie shot John Kennedy Jr.'s wedding to Carolyn Bessette as if he was covering an event for a newspaper. He's credited with creating wedding photojournalism, and that's the buzzword now. You go to any wedding photographer's Web site and you'll find "I'm a photojournalist," or "I offer photojournalism," like it's vanilla or chocolate, something that you can turn off or on.
How has the reputation of a wedding photographer changed?
I think that there are a lot of photographers who at first were reluctant to go public about the fact that they did wedding photography. They didn't want their commercial or editorial clients to know that they did weddings, as if that made them less of a photographer. When the style of wedding photography evolved into photojournalism, all of a sudden the more progressive photographers sat up and took notice. And because editorial rates have really remained stagnant in terms of inflation and what it costs to run a business, you see a lot of photographers who ten or fifteen years ago said "I'd never shoot a wedding" are now embracing it, because it's just a smart business decision.
Where are the most popular spots in Maine for weddings?
In Maine, there are a lot of really nice weddings in some gorgeous venues. I love working at Mount Desert Island, just because Acadia is my favorite part of Maine even though it's a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Brunswick. The hot spots for weddings are Bar Harbor, Camden, Boothbay, and Kennebunkport — the places where the big hotels are. I'm more partial to the places that are more photogenic and which consistently do a good job of making a couple's vision for their wedding come true.
Any advice for brides?
If I were planning a wedding I would plan it at one of the hotels that has the meal and the dancing inside, but with picture windows that look outside and beautiful grounds so that guests can go outside if they want to. These brides always look at the weather forecast ten days out and it's almost always rain that far out and you just don't want that stress. Sometimes people just don't realize how late summer comes and how early fall comes in Maine.
We need the truth: Is bridezilla for real?
You hear horror stories about bridezillas and mothers of the bride that are basket cases, but in truth that's a very small percentage. The couple and their families are excited, they've worked for a long time to plan the event, and it's usually a very happy day. It's stressful for the photographer because you only get one shot at some things — they're not going to do it again if you miss the kiss — but there are a lot of worse ways to make a living.
What issues do photographers in Maine face?
I think photographers have the same problems that any small business has in Maine — my health insurance just went up, again, for instance — but we do this because we love it. It really is hard because people just don't realize how expensive camera equipment is and the cost of everything else it takes to run a business. They see Wal-Mart or Snapfish selling a four-by-six-inch print for nineteen cents, and they want to know why I want six dollars for it.
I think the hardest thing about making a living here is that photography in Maine is very seasonal. My first year freelancing I had a very busy summer, but only one small job during the entire month of January. The work drops off dramatically during the winter, so that's when I learn new software and attend seminars; this year I'll even do some interior painting in my new house.
Here's one bet that won't be collected.
An international feeding frenzy over a reward for photographs of Bigfoot, the abominable snowman, or the Loch Ness monster has put a Portland resident square in the middle of the debate over legendary creatures. This past autumn Loren Coleman, a retired University of Southern Maine professor and author of more than twenty books on hidden animals, had planned to announce at a conference at Bates College in Lewiston that a subsidiary of Hasbro Toys was offering a $1 million reward for photographic evidence leading to the live capture of one of the three monsters. The bounty was quickly scaled back to $5,000 over fears that Bigfoot hunters might end up shooting themselves or other people while traipsing through the forest.
The reward offer came from Wizards of the Coast, which produces a popular trading card game called Duel Masters, and the initial announcement took a rather tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the bounty. Coleman says the reward report began as a comment in a newspaper article about last fall's Bates College Cryptozoology Symposium. (Cryptozoology is the study of hidden animals, Coleman's lifelong specialty.) The Associated Press picked up the story and ran it worldwide.
"It set off this global frenzy," Coleman explains. "I was getting phone calls from as far away as Australia. Wizards of the Coast said their lawyers had looked at it, and they were afraid people could get killed in the woods chasing after Bigfoot."
Bigfoot is generally described as an oversized hairy humanoid that allegedly frequents the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest, but there have also been reports of Bigfoot-type creatures as far afield as Minnesota and Texas. Coleman hasn't logged any Bigfoot sightings in Maine, although the state is home to plenty of reports of strange forest creatures in the Rangeley area, black panthers in Waldoboro, and sea serpents in Casco Bay.
Hasbro chose Coleman for the announcement because of his widespread reputation as a cryptozoologist. Besides his many books and lectures, Coleman has worked as a consultant on several television shows and movies and has one book optioned as a possible movie. His interest in the offbeat topic began as a teenager when he saw a television show about the Yeti, or abominable snowman.
After decades of skeptical obscurity, Coleman says he has seen an explosion of interest in cryptozoology in recent years. "I used to be one of the few people in the country who would talk about cryptozoology," he explains. "Now you see television shows like X-Files and Surface use the topic all the time."
Coleman appreciates that people may chuckle at the idea of Bigfoot, but he points out that people also laughed at the thought that the ivory-billed woodpecker might still survive in Arkansas or that a race of tiny humanoids lived on an island in Indonesia until recent times.
"The Hobbit people had been part of local folklore for centuries before proof of their existence was found," he says. "It all just reinforces the notion that everything isn't known."
Something to Howl About
Expect animal rights activists to be barking mad again.
No one would blame the folks at the Washington County Conservation Association if they decided to lay low this winter. Last January, when the group announced that it was holding a fund-raising derby with prizes for whoever killed the most coyotes, it drew responses from the Baldacci administration, the Humane Society of the United States, and animal activists across Maine and the rest of the country.
But things work differently Down East, and instead of retreating from the spotlight, this year wily organizers lengthened the derby to stretch from December to April. "All the publicity was actually a big help to us," explains Ed Renaud, the group's president. "We tripled our membership, we were able to get a meeting with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, and we're looking at introducing legislation in the next session." Renaud hopes that the competition will bring much-needed cash into the group's coffers, funds which can then be spent on the group's primary missions: deer habitat restoration, anti-poaching education, and youth programs. The rules of the derby are somewhat different this year, though: prizes will be given for the largest coyotes, instead of for the most killed.
In Washington County, where outdoorsmen say it's not uncommon to hear several families of coyotes howling back and forth on a cold winter night and where annual deer kills have plummeted from 5,000 in the 1940s to about 400 last year, in part due to the burgeoning coyote population, the need for better predator control and more deer habitat restoration often takes priority over the concerns of out-of-state activists. "It's unfortunate that [activists] seem so narrow-minded about this," Renaud says. "The association is doing more to help wildlife, certainly, than PETA is. When we were working on repairing deer fences, we certainly didn't see any PETA folks around."
Perhaps if these Down East hunters and the animal-rights activists opposing them could better understand each other's shared goals, more than just deer fences might be mended.
What's a lightning flash doing in a snowstorm?
The rumble of distant thunder is a summer sound, the background music to a fast-moving rainsquall on a hot July afternoon. But keen-eared Mainers shouldn't be surprised to hear that same boom and burbling crackle in the middle of a January snowstorm. And according to the weather experts, midwinter lightning and thunder are more common than many people suspect.
"You hear thunder in winter for the same reasons you hear it in summer," explains meteorologist Bob Marine at the National Weather Service office in Gray. "It's not uncommon in large [winter] storms to see lightning and, of course, the thunder that results."
Winter thunderstorms, though, need more catalyst than just a humid, sun-warmed, summer day. Marine says they usually develop in the bigger nor'easters, when "you get a large amount of heat coming in from the south and mixing with a bunch of cold air coming down from the north and northeast." The collision of the two gigantic air masses creates "a lot of instability, a lot of mixing, and a lot of lift" as the warm air rises over the cold, he adds. The resulting air currents create the conditions needed for lightning bolts.
The rarity comes in actually observing the lightning, since falling snow tends to obscure the flash and muffle the bang. "Chances are it's fairly nearby if you can see it or even hear it," Marine observes.
Thanks, but we'd prefer to keep it at a distance, even in winter.
Profiles in Paper
In Maine, Polaroids weren't the first instant images.
Long before Polaroids or even Box Brownies, Mainers had a form of instant imaging that depended on finely honed blades rather than Kodak film. They made or bought silhouettes — profiles of individuals cut from black paper and mounted on white backgrounds. And one of the finest collections of silhouettes in New England is on display through this year at the Maine State Museum, thanks to an anonymous donor and the keen eye of a Waldoboro publisher.
"They're striking images," says Ed Churchill, the museum's head curator. "They really stop people in their tracks."
While silhouettes aren't uncommon ephemera from pre-photography days, the museum's collection is unique for its size — 238 individual images — and is noteworthy for the fact that they were all done by the same person and identified by the name, date, age, and place of the subject. "You rarely get that sort of detail with silhouettes, especially in a collection this large," Churchill notes.
The silhouettes were cut by Galen Jerome Brewer, a prosperous Brewer farmer (his grandfather John was the city's namesake) who turned them out between 1844 and 1854. "They're mostly bust silhouettes — head, neck, and shoulders," explains Deanna Bonner-Ganter, the museum's curator for photography, art, and archives. "He traveled around Maine quite a bit — Mount Desert Island, Deer Isle, other places — and apparently did silhouettes of people he met or traveled with. The silhouettes were like memoirs of where they were, the way people use postcards today."
Surprisingly, perhaps, silhouettes are often very faithful to the models' features despite their small size — usually only two and a half by three inches. "They are remarkable resemblances," Bonner-Ganter notes. She particularly likes a series of silhouettes Brewer did in the 1850s during a trip he took to Dutch Surinam in South America. "Brewer made silhouettes of a Dutch plantation owner and his family and some of the slaves he owned," Bonner-Ganter says.
The museum was able to buy the collection at auction last year after being alerted to its presence by Samuel Pennington, publisher of the Maine Antique Digest in Waldoboro. "The silhouettes were for sale in Lunenberg, Massachusetts," Bonner-Ganter recalls, "and I went down to see them almost immediately. The next day we decided we needed to buy the collection and started raising funds."
Thanks to a generous anonymous donor who volunteered to underwrite the acquisition, the museum acquired the collection for about $38,000. "We were bidding by telephone from up here," curator Churchill recalls, "and when we heard that we'd won, there was quite a celebration."
Brewer stopped producing silhouettes in the mid-1850s, about the time the first daguerreotype studios opened in Bangor and Brewer. But his images remain today as a reminder of how people once saw each other in Maine.
How Cold Is Cold?
You know it's really cold outside when:
- Your pets won't move more than ten feet from the woodstove.
- The legislature passes a bill making the greeting "Cold enough for ya?" legal grounds for assault.
- Your nostrils freeze shut as you go out the door.
- Your dog starts using the cat's litterbox.
- Your glasses ice over when you come inside.
- Your breath freezes in front of you and then hits you in the face as you walk into it.
- You buy a second electric blanket — for your car's engine.
- You learn the definition of a "three-dog night" firsthand.