Sharp Images From 50 Years of Maine Media Workshops

A Portland Museum of Art exhibit takes a snapshot of a half-century of boundary-blurring photo workshops in Rockport.

Mary Ellen Mark’s The Damm Family in Their Car, Los Angeles, California (1987)
Mary Ellen Mark’s The Damm Family in Their Car, Los Angeles, California (1987)
By Michaela Cavallaro
From our August 2023 issue

In 1973, itinerant sailor, writer, and photographer David Lyman persuaded 150 of his fellow shutterbugs to meet at Union Hall, overlooking Rockport Harbor, for the first of what he called the Maine Photographic Workshops. Several years earlier, Lyman had been in Vietnam, documenting the work of a construction battalion for the Navy. After that, he lived in Vermont, working for a small-town paper and a ski magazine. The choice of Rockport for his new project was a bit of happenstance — he wanted to create an experience like he’d recently had at a photo workshop in Aspen, Colorado, and scouted around Camden until a local contact suggested he check out Rockport instead, describing it as “practically a ghost town.” 

That first year, Lyman worked connections to bring in a lineup of instructors that included photographers from National Geographic and Life, a New York fashion photographer, some photography professors, and one of the country’s foremost landscape photographers. His big-tent approach encouraged attendees to blur artistic boundaries in ways that are now getting a fresh look in Drawn to the Light, an exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art. “It was a really unique place, where things separated by museums and by editors could coexist,” says Anjuli Lebowitz, the museum’s associate curator of photography. “It made for lots of cross-pollination.”

three men in a field wit scissors
Rodney Smith’s Three Men with Shears, No. 1, Reims, France (1997)

Although photography had become a popular phenomenon by the mid-1800s, art critics and curators were slow to treat it as a truly creative form, rather than just a mechanical process. By the time Lyman held his inaugural workshops, though, photography had at least a few decades of serious consideration under its belt — photos were finally “something to be looked at and talked about,” says Elizabeth Greenberg, who co-curated the PMA show. She heads up academic programming at Maine Media Workshops + College, as Lyman’s Rockport project is known today. In 1979, the workshops acquired a small campus half a mile up the road from the harbor, and over the years, the curriculum expanded to include cinematography, broadcast journalism, and writing. Certificate and master’s-degree programs in visual storytelling and filmmaking joined the offerings too. In 2007, Lyman, now a longtime midcoast resident, turned everything over to the nonprofit Maine Media, which had formed to operate the school for the long run. 

At the PMA, the focus stays squarely on photographers who have made their mark over the workshops’ 50-year history. Students have come from more than 100 different countries and gone on to work as photojournalists and fine-art photographers around the world, but Greenberg and Lebowitz decided to focus specifically on faculty members who have influenced the broader field. Many of the works are pulled from the PMA’s Ernst Haas Memorial Collection, founded in 1998 in honor of an Austrian-American photojournalist and workshop instructor whose work hangs in the show. Mary Ellen Mark’s black-and-white portrait of an unhoused Los Angeles family expresses what Lebowitz describes as “incredible intimacy . . . and also duress.” Jay Maisel’s vibrant, textural “Blue Wall with Doves” evidences fresh experimentation with composition in color photography. A silvery reflection of woods in a stream is by Paul Caponigro, who taught at those very first sessions in Rockport and to this day still welcomes participants to his studio, in Cushing. 

The impressive records of so many of the instructors made selecting works a tall order. “There’s no way to have included everyone,” Greenberg says, “but I think the show really reflects the voices that have been in the conversation.” Lyman rightfully makes an appearance too, with a wintery black-and-white of Rockport Harbor. It’s a lovely image: the docks, dories, and shoreline dusted with snow, a steep bank of clouds building on the horizon. But Lyman’s greatest contribution to the field, it’s probably fair to say, was his vision to turn a little nook on the Maine coast into a hotbed of photographic creativity. 

The show runs through September 10. 7 Congress Sq., Portland. 207-775-6148.

MARK (1940–2015), GELATIN SILVER PRINT, 10 3/16 X 10 1/4 IN. PMA, MAINE. GIFT OF THE ARTIST FOR THE ERNST HAAS MEMORIAL COLLECTION, 1998.74. IMAGE COURTESY THE MARY ELLEN MARK FOUNDATION; SMITH (1947–2016), GELATIN SILVER PRINT, 10 9/16 X 13 INCHES. PMA, MAINE. GIFT OF LESLIE SMOLAN, 2022.19.1. IMAGE COURTESY LUC DEMERS. OPALENIK (1947-), GELATIN SILVER PRINT, 13 5/8 X 10 1/2 INCHES. PMA, MAINE. GIFT OF THE ARTIST IN MEMORY OF JEAN-PIERRE SUDRE FOR THE ERNST HAAS MEMORIAL COLLECTION, 1998.54.2. IMAGE COURTESY LUC DEMERS; MAISEL, (1931-), DYE TRANSFER PRINT, 14 5/8 X 21 7/8 INCHES. PMA, MAINE. GIFT OF THE ARTIST FOR THE ERNST HAAS MEMORIAL COLLECTION, 1998.73. IMAGE COURTESY LUC DEMERS.

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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