After stints in north coastal Florida and the Colorado Rockies, Jason Paige Smith moved with his family to Orono in 2009, looking for a hometown that would put them within easy reach of both ocean and mountains. An editorial and commercial photographer, he soon noticed a trend among his photo subjects here: a lot were in their golden years and showing few signs of slowing down. So Smith launched a photo project in his spare time, traveling all across the state to shoot environmental portraits of active older Mainers in their natural milieus. Inspired by Maine’s highest-in-the-nation median age (44.9, compared to the national average of 38.2), he titled his project and resulting 2019 book The Oldest State: Portraits of a Maine Generation. We caught up with Smith to ask what he’d learned and hear about some of his more memorable subjects.
When you first moved to Maine, did you realize the state had the country’s highest median age?
We never looked too closely at how old the population is — it was honestly kind of a surprise to me. I moved up here with the thought that a lot of the older people in this country lived in Florida. Of course, the older generation here is certainly different than down there, where a lot of people are retired and are transplants, living a different lifestyle than a lot of people here.
How are those lifestyles different?
Well, I don’t want to stereotype — there are certainly people there living similar lifestyles to people up here and vice-versa — but in Florida, the big sales pitch is to retire and live in a condo on the beach and golf. That’s sort of the mantra. Definitely a contrast to Maine, where you think of people who are older and still out there doing a lot of active things that people younger than them may not even necessarily be doing.
Everard Hall, now 76, of Milbridge. A gravedigger for more than 50 years, Hall was profiled by CBS Sunday Morning in 2016. He told the show’s reporter, “Everybody has an occupation they can do perfect — mine is grave digging.” Hall told Smith he’s dug more than 2,400 graves during his career. “Just a really interesting guy,” Smith says.
I joke sometimes that it’s a quintessential Maine experience to be out hiking a tough stretch of trail and just get smoked by an octogenarian.
Yes, who says, “Good morning, this is my third time doing the trail since sunrise.”
Did you have those kinds of encounters?
What would happen is that I would get photo assignments, and the work, a lot of times, was to photograph people who were interesting and turned out to be older. And I started noticing this even as I was hearing negative reporting about Maine’s aging population, how that can affect the economy and so on. But I always had a lot of fun when I would go out and meet these people. I enjoyed talking to them and hearing their stories. That’s kind of how the whole thing started.
Beth Hutchings, now 83, of Eddington. Since 1968, the owner of Hutchings Greenhouse, which she ran with her husband, LeRoy, until his death, in 2015. “She’s awesome,” Smith says. “I’ve gone back to her greenhouse every year and bought flowers for our house and our camp. She made that sweater she’s wearing. She has an entire upper level of her barn full of sewing machines, and she makes sweaters, scarves, hats, and things she sells during the off-season, so she’s busy all year long.”
How did you begin approaching photo subjects?
I’d gotten to know my son’s drumming instructor pretty well and started talking to him about the idea. He said, well, you should photograph my grandfather, he’s kind of this legendary lobsterman in Stonington. So I did that shoot and put it out there on social media for people to see and to read his story, and all the feedback was just really cool. People started contacting me, telling me stories about their grandparents or parents, and I ended up coming up with this long list of people to potentially photograph. It took off from there.
Were you consciously looking for active people, people working in the trades, something like that?
I started out with a list of different jobs or hobbies or things people might be interested in and tried to find people within those circles. But then there were just a lot of surprises that came along. I would get a message from somebody that said, hey, have you talked to this guy? He’s been digging graves for 50 years. So there wasn’t any real criteria — I tried to stay open to what a person’s role or interests might be.
Did it change how you think about your own later-in-life plans? Or how you think about your plans right now?
Yeah, some of these people start to make you question how much you actually do with your weeks, you know? Maybe motivate you to get out there and do a little more. I mean, I don’t think you’re going to see me on a golf course in Florida. The more I talked to everyone, the more a very clear picture came into focus, and it was essentially that you continue to use your mind and your body and do the things you’re passionate about — or you don’t. And the people who continue to are the people who continue to thrive. That whole idea of making the most out of every day, that just really came into focus, to become more present in my mind and everyday life.
Frank Perham, now 87, of West Paris. A western Maine mining legend, Perham had minerals displayed in his basement. “I brought my son, who’s interested in minerals, along as my assistant that day,” Smith says. “While I was setting up, Frank was walking around with him, showing him everything, answering questions. A day or two later, I got a call from Frank asking my address. Then, a few days after, a beautiful piece of quartz was delivered with a handwritten note for my son.”
Jason Paige Smith’s book The Oldest State: Portraits of a Maine Generation ($55, softcover) is available on his website.