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Leslie Bowman: Family Album

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Lubec, Maine – Family Albums can be a mixed blessing.

For every great picture of little Ray or Rosie throwing horseshoes or learning ballet, there tend to be far more like those of cousin Bobby – raucous, out-of-focus and maybe a little bit drunk – holding the dog by its ears.

It would be wonderful if someone could edit our family albums to can the clunkers and keep the keepers. Better still if the family album touched all of us, stranger and family member alike.

The universality of photography – its ability to show that all peoples and cultures share basic human traits – is one of the things that makes this art form so compelling and accessible. It is no accident that the catalog for one of the most popular photography exhibitions of all time, the Edward Steichen-curated "Family of Man," remains in print nearly 50 years after the show first opened in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. That 1955 show was derided by some at the time as being too sentimental, but the work has proven itself over the years to be utterly immune to such carping.

On a much smaller, yet no less genuine, scale is the work of Maine photographer Leslie Bowman, whose work I have followed in the local press here for a decade and a half, and who – finally – has mounted an exhibition of her remarkable pictures from the tiny coastal town of Lubec.

I first became aware of Leslie's work in the Quoddy Tides, a newspaper out of Eastport, Maine, that bills itself as the easternmost newspaper in the US. [This "easternmost" tag is ubiquitous in Down East Maine. Lubec, where Judy and I summer, rightfully calls itself the easternmost town in the country, home to the easternmost point in the United States, West Quoddy Light. Why "West" Quoddy for the easternmost point? Too long a story. E-mail me and I'll tell you.]

The opening this week for Leslie's small, elegant show at the Lubec Memorial Library was as low-key as she is. The refreshments at the library were brownies, cookies and dip; the drink of choice lemonade. But the images on the library walls, many of which I recalled from her years at the Tides, were as fresh and wonderful as ever. In fact, at its best, Leslie's photography echoes the work of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, as well as that of Kosti Ruohomaa, one of Maine's best known photographers. All these shooters, Leslie included, are and were masters at capturing the telling gesture, the antic pose, the decisive moment. In her depictions of life in Maine – and especially in this exhibition of life in Lubec – there is, to be sure, the hand of an artist with a keen eye for composition. But more important, there is the warm appreciation of someone who knows what it takes to make a life in this hard and beautiful place.

Leslie, like Judy and me, is a transplant. Now 49, she grew up in the DC area, traveled all over getting her bachelor's and master's degrees in fine art, then moved to Down East Maine with her husband Normand in the 1970s.

"In the early 1980's," she wrote, "I began working for the Quoddy Tides....The owner and editor, Winifred French, was tremendously supportive and gave me free rein to shoot whatever caught my eye. She would celebrate and often publish in her newspaper my sometimes 'quirky' photos..."

"It was in the first year of working for her that she [ran] 'Freeze-Dried' [a photo of] T-shirts on a frozen line, as a full four-column image on the front page..."

The canny Mrs. French knew what she had in Leslie.

There is emotion in her work that is never mawkish, humor that is never cruel. There are images of great natural beauty and images of nature's toll. Who can look at the tearful joy of the high school graduates depicted in a wonderfully spontaneous flash picture and not be moved by a similar memory? Who can view three marvelously animated old ladies blowing out the candles on the cake at Frantie Cookson's 101st birthday party in 1996 and not see the triumph of life over old age?

And who can view Leslie's striking picture of a stark winter at Henrietta and Irving Mahar's farm and not call to mind the rugged beauty of Maine as seen by Life Magazine's Kosti Ruohomaa in the 1950s, before alcohol cut short his life?

For all her strong landscape images, it is Leslie's people pictures that speak loudest to me.

"I get some pleasure in witnessing someone's life," she told me this week, "of being in the moment with their lives."

In rural Maine, that often can mean people by themselves, doing their own thing – oblivious to the non-threatening woman with an ancient Tri-X-loaded Minolta SLR and two lenses, who is recording their lives for the "album."

Look at Rachel Rier, for example, excitedly practicing her baton-twirling in the new dance studio at the Lubec Grange Hall, and see how Leslie catches her between two bright bursts of window light, as if the little girl were practicing her routine in a building in the clouds.

Or another image, of a pie eating contest. I shot the same contest on the same day, July 4th of last year, and my picture made it into the Downeast Coastal Press.

Leslie's picture is better.

And on another July 4th, in 1995, I defy anyone to come up with a better, funnier picture of a frog-jumping contest than the one Leslie made of a little girl being as surprised as her frog by the outcome.

If Leslie's pictures, like those in the Family of Man show, accentuate the positive, even the sentimental, at the expense of life's harder, more brutal edge, so what? Anyone can point a camera at a car wreck or a murder scene. It takes an artist – and a human being – to celebrate life and skirt the edge of sentiment, without plunging into sentimentality.

Leslie Bowman's website: http://www.bowmanstudio.net

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Leslie Bowman
"Roadside Scene, 1980's" typifies Maine photographer Leslie Bowman's clear eye for design. But her people pictures are the real treasures.

©Leslie Bowman
These three elderly ladies fairly sparkle with life as they blow out the candles at Frantie Cookson's 101st birthday party in 1996.

©Leslie Bowman
I was there. I made a similar picture. But Bowman's shot of Megan and Hayley Simmonds at Lubec's July 4th pie-eating contest has mine beat by a mile.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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