a view of Vinal Cove
Boatyard owner Phil Dyer, who learned his trade from an earlier generation of Vinalhaven boatbuilders, made wooden lobsterboats, peapods, and other small craft. He “asked no less than flawless performance from his creations,” Crossman writes.

Photographer Joel Greenberg’s New Book Is a Love Letter to Vinalhaven

In the 1970s and ’80s, he schlepped a bulky, old view camera all over Vinalhaven, capturing the island’s landscape and people. Now, he has compiled more than 100 of those images in a coffee-table book that is resonating with audiences in ways he didn’t see coming.

By Will Grunewald
From our February 2024 issue

Joel Greenberg first laid eyes on Vinalhaven in the summer of 1977, after a friend tipped him off about a house available to rent on the cheap. A few miles from the island’s small downtown, the house had no running water. The commode was a chair perched atop a split rock, with its wicker seat cut out and replaced by a toilet insert. The place did, however, come with sweeping vistas of rolling, sprucy shoreline from its vantage high on a granite ledge. Greenberg, born and raised in New York City, had never enjoyed a view like that. “It was a rustic house, but the location was magic,” he says. “It was just you and the landscape out there.”

In 1983, Joel Greenberg was on the Brooklyn Bridge with his Folmer & Schwing view camera when another photographer snapped this shot of him.
In 1983, Greenberg was on the Brooklyn Bridge with his Folmer & Schwing view camera when another photographer snapped this shot of him. His collection of landscapes from city parks culminated in a 1988 book, Urban Wilderness: Nature in New York City. Every summer from 1977 to 1987, Greenberg hauled his cumbersome camera to Vinalhaven. Soon after, he “realized the need for a steady income” and started a career in wedding photography, setting aside much of the work that’s now featured in Vinalhaven: Portrait of a Maine Island.

At the time, Greenberg was working as a landscape photographer — he cofounded a nonprofit that used photography to promote city parks, which had been his only connection to anything resembling natural spaces when he was growing up. On Vinalhaven, he encountered a different type of landscape. “I saw nature — real nature — that had such intensity and beauty,” he says. “I’ve always tried to put my feelings into each photo I take, and I was so smitten by everything I found on the island.”

That first summer, Greenberg spent six weeks tramping around Vinalhaven with more than 20 pounds of gear. His 1929 view camera was of the big, boxy sort, with an expandable, accordion-like casing. It produced large-format negatives — eight by ten inches — that could render distinctly rich tones and fine detail. Year after year, Greenberg visited the island. Eventually, he bought a small camp on Vinal Cove and turned a spare bedroom into a darkroom. His interests, by then, had extended from the landscape to the people. He shot boatbuilders and fishermen and churchgoing ladies (plus in-the-buff sunbathers who, like Greenberg, relished the nudist swimming quarry).

Many of the photographs were exhibited in a 1989 show on the island, but then they spent several decades in storage in New York, until Greenberg — who continued to return to the island every summer, minus his view camera — started sifting through old files. Now, more than a hundred of the shots are accounted for in Vinalhaven: Portrait of a Maine Island, a coffee-table book that includes vignettes about Greenberg’s photo subjects written by Phil Crossman, whose family has been on Vinalhaven since the 1700s.

At first, Greenberg only had 500 copies printed. “I erred on the side of worrying nobody would buy them,” he says. People did buy them — all of them — and a second printing, of 1,500 copies, is out now. Greenberg has heard from islanders and former islanders and people with connections to the island through family or travel. More than a few told him they were choked up by the memories and emotions the book evoked. “In the past, people have always seemed fond enough of my photographs and impressed with their quality, but nobody ever told me they were teary-eyed when they looked at them,” Greenberg says. “I think that once you’ve been to Vinalhaven, you never forget the place. It has a real power to it.”

Boatyard owner Phil Dyer, who learned his trade from an earlier generation of Vinalhaven boatbuilders, made wooden lobsterboats, peapods, and other small craft.
Boatyard owner Phil Dyer, who learned his trade from an earlier generation of Vinalhaven boatbuilders, made wooden lobsterboats, peapods, and other small craft. He “asked no less than flawless performance from his creations,” Crossman writes.
members of the Vinalhaven's volunteer fire department
Members of the island’s volunteer fire department
Jeffrey Peterson and Sheldon Woodcock sitting on the back of an old pickup truck
Jeffrey Peterson (left) and Sheldon Woodcock (right). “Their adolescent regard is palpable, to such an extent that I wonder if photographer Joel bravely asked them to sit in this old truck bed for a photo,” Crossman writes, “or was this where he found them, and is their countenance simply a reflection of their regard for his intrusion?”
Vinalhaven resident and renowned pop artist Robert Indiana kneeling to chat with French novelist and actress Marie Cardinal
Vinalhaven resident and renowned pop artist Robert Indiana kneeling to chat with French novelist and actress Marie Cardinal. Greenberg befriended Indiana in 1978 and credits the artist with pushing him to focus on people in his photography. “I was only taking pictures of landscapes,” Greenberg says. “But we spent a lot of time talking about art in those days, and Bob kind of figured, why limit yourself?”

To find shops carrying the book or to order a copy online, visit vinalhavenbook.com.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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