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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography


By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

ROCKPORT, Me.--Blessed with a raw and fragile beauty, a comparative isolation from the bustle and noise of the states below it, and a quality of light that beguiles, the state of Maine has attracted artists of all stripes for generations. It is no accident that some of America's finest landscape and portrait painters-Rockwell Kent, John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Hopper, not to mention three generations of Wyeths-all have found inspiration and comfort in the nation's easternmost state.

It follows that photographers also would succumb to Maine's appeal, finding in its picturesque harbors and colorfully plainspoken people the stuff of great images. (It probably is no accident either that this tiny coastal town is home to one of the nation's oldest-and certainly most prestigious-photography schools, the Maine Photographic Workshops.)

Rockport also is home to the Maine Coast Artists gallery, which has mounted a stunningly ambitious overview of photography in Maine, running in two parts, the first to October 1 and then from October 21 through December 2.

Wandering through the jammed opening for the first part of "Photographing Maine," (1950 to the present) in the huge airy gallery space that once was the town fire department, I was overwhelmed, not only by the stuff on the walls, but also by the company I was keeping. In one corner, there was Mary Ellen Mark talking to friends and admirers. Joyce Tenneson spoke of having to get ready for her son's wedding, while Paul Caponigro held court on a bench in the soft evening air just outside.

But even more important to me was the fact that my own work, from my book on Maine, was hanging with that of photographers I have admired for so long: Ernst Haas, John Sexton, Berenice Abbott, Kosti Ruohomaa, George Tice, Eliot Porter, Arnold Newman, to name but a handful.

It was, as you might guess, heady stuff.

I first came to Maine in the early '80s, lured there, as it were, by the woman I was soon to marry. Judy was a professional photographer concentrating back then on children and dance, and she had told me wonderful tales about going to the Photo Workshops in Rockport and immersing herself in her craft. I was a newspaper reporter at the time and the thought of spending a whole week devoting myself totally to my longtime hobby seemed like anyone's definition of bliss.

So we went to Rockport.

The experience of that high-intensity week nearly two decades ago, studying location lighting with Neil Selkirk, helped change my life. It took a couple more summers in Maine, including two more classes with Neil, but eventually I shed my skin as a reporter and emerged blinking into the world as a professional photographer/writer.

I was fortunate to have had great teachers-Judy was always beside me and Neil is now a good friend, not to mention the finest location portraitist working-but I always will give part of the credit for this sea change in my life to the good vibe I got as soon as I crossed the bridge into Maine.

As I have written before: though parts of the state can be bustling and tourist-run, much of Maine, especially in the rugged areas Down East, still contain places "where you can walk in the woods for hours without encountering a soul; where the music of the evening is in the birds and the crickets, and where the starlit night sky--undimmed by competition from civilization below-burns with a rare spectacular brilliance."

I should add that the journalist in me responded immediately to the earthy, somewhat reticent, but always independent Mainer, even if Judy and I always will be viewed as people "from away." And what better way to get to know one's neighbors than to interview them and photograph them?

What the "Photographing Maine" show taught me (via the excellent and informative catalog essay by John Chandler and Earle Shettleworth) was that this affinity of artist to location has borne many different kinds of fruit.

"Amateur" photography itself was all but born here. One of the most important of the early photographic publications, the American Amateur Photographer, was first published in Brunswick, Maine.

Even the very precursor of the film we take for granted, the dry plate negative, was born in this state, thanks to the inventiveness of Francis Stanley, a portrait painter from Lewiston, Maine, who also ran a photographic portrait studio. Francis invented a reliable dry plate process and his twin brother Fred came up with a means to mass-produce the negatives. George Eastman, who also had invented a dry plate process and wanted to corner the market, eventually bought out the Stanley brothers.

"Thenceforward," notes the exhibition catalog, " the Stanley dry plate was manufactured by the Eastman company but still carried the Stanley name as a sign of its quality and reliability."

(The Stanley twins went on to even greater inventive fame, reinvesting the money they got from Eastman into the design and manufacture of their steam-powered motor car, the Stanley Steamer.)

For more information on "Photographing Maine: 1840-2000," call 207-236-2875.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Ernst Haas
Maine, 1960
©Ernst Haas Studio, Inc./ Getty Images

John Sexton
Birch Trees, Rockport, Maine
silver print

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Big Changes Likely for Leica
When Newer is Better
Street-Smart Guide To Avoiding Camera Thievery
Revisiting a Classic: The Legendary Leica M6
Surge Protection-or Practicing Safe Pix
The Plastic Nikon
The Incredible Shrinking Overhead
Simplified Location Portraiture
Simple (but Dramatic) Portraits

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