A Gifted Maine Photographer, Gone Too Soon

When 30-year-old Alec Hartman passed away in 2019, after years of struggles with depression and anxiety, Maine lost a talented photographer at the start of a promising career. His stirring images of landscapes and wildlife endure.

Photos by Alec Hartman
Text by Jennifer Finney Boylan
From our March 2022 issue
Engaging with others was hard for Alec, who died of complications from Asperger syndrome and anxiety, explains his mother, Charlie Hartman. But she remembers when an admirer wanted to talk photography at his first art-fair booth, at age 13. “He had this look of terror,” she says. “Then, before my eyes, he just bloomed. He must have spent a half hour talking. Photography was the way out for him.”

Time’s a goon, right?” says one fictional character to another. “You gonna let that goon push you around?”

The other character, Scotty, shakes his head. “The goon won,” he says.

It was hard for me not to think of these lines, from Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, when I gazed upon my old friend, Charlie Hartman, in a Waterville restaurant — the great Buen Apetito — last summer. My wife and I were attending the Maine International Film Festival at Railroad Square Cinema, and after our movie, we’d stopped in for chiles rellenos and margaritas. But then, mid-guacamole, a voice called out to me. “Jenny? Is that you?”

I’d known Charlie in the early ’90s, during my first few years teaching up at Colby, when she and her then-husband, Peter Nutting, operated the Iron Horse Book Store. Back then, the Iron Horse was a lighthouse for booklovers in central Maine, a store passionately curated and unsparing in its devotion to authors and readers. It hadn’t lasted, but then, what does, right? Time’s a goon. I hadn’t seen Charlie for a dozen years or more. 

But in the interim, time had had its way with all of us.

Clockwise from left: Alec’s father, Peter Nutting, was with him for a snowshoe trip up Saddleback Mountain on a windless morning after a snowstorm; a barred owl in Rome, in the Kennebec Highlands, where Alec lived for several years; Alec often photographed bogs and wetlands — like this one, between Stratton and Coburn Gore — while watching for moose. “He could be unbelievably patient when it came to photography,” Peter says. Click a photo to enlarge.

“We should have lunch,” Charlie said. And then, with a look that stabbed me to the heart, she added, “There’s a lot to talk about.” 

When I met up with her a few weeks later, at the Lion’s Den Tavern, on Waterville’s Main Street, I was pretty sure that whatever Charlie wanted to talk about was not about to raise my spirits.

And in this, I was not wrong. Her beloved son, Alec, had been found dead two years before. 

I remembered Alec from when he was a child just a couple of years older than my own. Near the part of the Iron Horse where the children’s books were kept was a sign: ALEC’S ROOM. Even now, I can see that child sitting on the floor of the space that bore his name, surrounded by books. 

Distantly, I remembered that, as Alec got older, it was clear that he was on the autism spectrum. He had traveled a hard road. Raising him and looking out for him had consumed the heart of Charlie’s life. I don’t know if it had figured into the end of her marriage with Peter, but it surely couldn’t have made their path any easier.

Left: “Alec loved the golden hours around sunrise and sunset,” Peter recalls. On a trip to Mount Desert Island with his dad, for an art fair, Alec padded off in the small hours to shoot the sunrise and got this image of a dawn-lit deer mid-leap on Thompson Island, off MDI’s northwestern tip. He called the photo “Learning to Fly.” Right: Wildflowers on Sugarloaf Mountain, where Alec spent a summer and loved to hike. Click a photo to enlarge.

“The thing is, though,” Charlie said to me, there in the Lion’s Den, “Alec did find his way. He found something in photography that gave him a sense of passion, that gave him a way of showing what it was he saw when he looked out at the world.”

Alec’s photos do just that, although to see the world as Alec saw it is to see it in both its profound beauty as well as its harrowing sadness. Some of the photos — a mountain covered with crystalline snow, a deer captured mid-leap, the sun bursting over a hill and shining in lake water — are so gorgeous, all you can do is shake your head in wonder at them, at the profound glory of life on this planet. 

And others — well, I look at one of a winter sun struggling to shine on a dark landscape. It’s somber and haunted and profoundly, achingly sad. 

Clockwise from left: Alec called this image, taken in Sidney, “Spectral Light,” and he never told Charlie the source of the glow; Alec was 13 when he took this portrait of a neighbor’s ewe, in Vassalboro; a “River of Lupines,” as Alec called this image, along the Realty Road in the north woods, west of Ashland. Alec would often pour over his Maine Gazetteer to find remote places to shoot, both parents recall — and they usually accompanied him on such adventures. Click a photo to enlarge.

I cannot imagine what it’s like to lose a child, and the sorrow that Charlie and Peter bear is, in the end, unfathomable to me. But I also know that it is a gift to have someone in your life who had a vision, as Alec did, even for a little while. It is an additional gift that these photos survive him. They ask us to open our hearts and to try to have compassion for all of the people with whom we share this world, people who see the world through the unique lenses that time, that goon, brings to us, with all its attendant joys and sorrows.

Clockwise from left: A kayak on Vassalboro’s Webber Pond, where Alec liked to paddle; in Rome, Alec lived in a former one-room schoolhouse not far from French Mountain, where he took this sunrise shot; Alec took the photo he called “Light and Shade” in his childhood backyard, in Vassalboro, on a mill pond along the China Lake outlet stream. Click a photo to enlarge.

One day, when I walked back into Alec’s Room in the old Iron Horse, he had a copy of Charlotte’s Web lying there on the floor next to him. Thinking of him now puts me in mind of some of Charlotte’s final words to her friend, Wilbur.

After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.

Alec’s photos have lifted up my life a trifle. For that I am grateful — to Alec, and to the people who gave him life.

One New Year’s Eve 2007, Alec convinced Charlie to drive through the night to catch the year’s first sunrise at Lubec’s West Quoddy Head. After the family gave a print to then-governor John Baldacci, “First Day, First Light” hung in the governor’s office.

A permanent exhibition of Alec Hartman’s images is displayed at the Vassalboro Public Library (930 Bog Rd. 207-923-3233.) Visit alecphoto.com to read more about Alec and see more images — from Maine, Alaska, Canada, and elsewhere — and click here to donate to a fund to catalog and archive Alec’s yet-unseen work.