#1 Peter Ralston’s stories have stories. That’s how it feels, anyway, when you walk into the 66-year-old photographer’s Rockport gallery, intending to talk about a single exquisite image from 1980, but instead you end up — delightedly — following a series of digressions upon digressions, road tales from a decades-long career in photojournalism: about drinking in a small-town bar alongside swastika-wearing WWII reenactors, about embedding with an Italian-American pyrotechnics cabal at a Monte Carlo fireworks competition in the decadent ’80s. And — always, unavoidably — about exploring the Maine coast alongside the Wyeths, about Ralston’s lifelong kinship with Maine’s first family of fine arts.
Ralston grew up next door to Andrew and Betsy Wyeth in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. They were a second family to him, and he spent his childhood playing on the wild islands they owned in the Brandywine River. He knew Maine as the place where they spent summers and saw it conjured on canvas after canvas.
“Growing up, Maine was as exotic as the heart of Africa,” he says. “Not only would I see Andy’s paintings, which were incredible to me, but with the paintings came their stories. It was like being in a book — tales of pirate fisherman and skullduggery and sex and intrigue. So in ’78, I ended up here, driving around with Andy in the Jeep and going around with Betsy on the boat. That was the year she bought her first island in Maine.”
The story of Pentecost begins when Betsy Wyeth bought her second Maine island, in 1980, when Ralston was 30 years old and had made the midcoast his home. Allen Island consisted of 450 wild acres in Muscongus Bay, 4 miles southwest of Port Clyde. When the English explorer George Waymouth put up there in 1605, he called his anchorage Pentecost Harbor, after the Christian holiday he spent there, celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit.
There’s a trace of the sacred in it — in the light, in the title — plus a hint of the absurd, the faintest whiff of the freewheeling nature of that day at sea.
After clearing the island’s north end, Betsy opted to keep the land open with a resident sheep herd, a time-honored method on Maine’s islands. Ralston and a buddy, Philip Conkling — with whom he would go on to found the Island Institute in 1983 — arranged for the purchase of several sheep from a neighboring island. To retrieve them, they enlisted help from a pair of Port Clyde fishermen, but the skipper didn’t want livestock aboard, hence the tow-behind dory.
To hear Ralston tell it, Operation Sheep Transit was a fairly carefree affair. Beers were consumed. Ralston borrowed an AquaSport to tail the dory and get a few shots. Conkling took the helm, and as a fog settled in and the light went soft, the pair damn near tipped the dory as Ralston urged him to get “closer, closer, dammit!” He took this shot while standing wobbly in the bow, just as it managed to collide with the dory’s stern.
Today, Pentecost is the most recognizable of the 24 highly recognizable images that comprise what Ralston calls his Master Prints series. It graced the first cover of the Island Institute’s Island Journal in 1984. He’s sold prints to collectors on every continent but Antarctica. And while Ralston treasures both the moment and the memory, he remains at a loss to explain the photo’s long and profound appeal.
So I’ll try. Pentecost manages to convey much of what’s integral to the Maine character: Our pastoral and seagoing heritage. A sense of Yankee grit and practicality, yes, but also adventure and ingenuity. There’s a trace of the sacred in it — in the light, in the title — plus a hint of the absurd, the faintest whiff of the freewheeling nature of that day at sea. You pause to admire this photo, and you know there is a story behind it.
Which is, after all, just what we treasure in our most iconic photos. Stories. More stories. Stories without end. Amen. — Brian Kevin