Sharon Arnold. M. Aug. 4,9Sharon
Arnold, M. Aug. 4, 1962, giclĂŠe print, 2009
M A I N E : A S TAT E O F P H O T O G R A P H Y
Photographers of NOW The work of five photographers highlights the current diversity of camera vision in our state. BY CARL LITTLE
EARLY A DECADE AGO, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art mounted a remarkable exhibition, “Photographing Maine: 1840-2000.” CMCA curator emeritus Bruce Brown, the person arguably the most knowledgeable about contemporary art in this state, filled the center’s building on Russell Avenue in Rockport from basement to attic with the work of more than 200 artists of the lens. The exhibition was a revelation. While many of us were aware of the deep connections such twentieth-century masters as Berenice Abbott, Rudy Burckhardt, Todd Webb, and Eliot Porter had to Maine, who knew that Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Gertrude Käsebier, Lewis Hines, Arnold Newman, and Paul Strand had spent time here, camera in hand? Like the more recent statewide Maine Print Project, which was also Brown’s brainchild, the CMCA photography show raised awareness of the breadth and depth of an art form actively practiced in Maine. It confirmed what some of us suspected: that for the past century or so, this state of ours has produced—and seduced—more than its fair share of notable photographers. Do we have bragging rights! A short list of distinguished fine-art photographers might include Jeffrey Becton, John Paul Caponigro, Tillman Crane, Jere DeWaters, Judy Ellis Glickman, Maggie Foskett, Denise Froelich, Jane Gilbert, Anderson Giles, Tonee Harbert, Philip Isaacson, Jack Ledbetter, Jocelyn Lee, Rose Marasco, Arla Patch, Dee Peppe, Scott Peterman, Olive Pierce, Chris Pinchbeck, Peter Ralston, Joyce Tenneson, George Tice, Brian Vanden Brink, Frank Van Riper, Todd Watt, William Wegman, and David Wolfe. We also boast an outstanding lineup of commercial and nature photographers. Liv Kristen Robinson, Old Orchard Beach: u Summer #1, digital photograph, 2007
MAINE BOATS, HOMES & HARBORS
Thanks to such institutions as the Maine Media Workshops and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, as well as the state’s colleges, universities, and art centers, these impressive ranks have been growing. We can point with pride to a photographer like Amy Toensing, who attended Salt and then went on to produce photo essays for the New York Times (the migrant broccoli pickers of Aroostook), National Geographic (Monhegan Island), and this magazine (the schooner Harvey Gamage). The work of the five photographers showcased here highlights the diversity of style and subject matter that marks the contemporary photography scene in Maine. We have Liv Kristin Robinson’s vivid Old Orchard Beach images, and Sharon Arnold’s striking tableaux with figures. We also have Thomas Birtwistle’s tributes to jarred and canned goods, and Stephanie Francis and Bridget Besaw’s search for personal and spiritual resonance in the environment.
Thomas Birtwhistle, Dried Clover, from the series “Stocking Up”
Liv Kristen Robinson, Old Orchard Beach: Summer #2, digital photograph, 2007
Stephanie Francis, Piwsoq/Woodpiece sepia digital image, 2008
Liv Kristen Robinson moved from New York City to Belfast, Maine, in 1986. She was looking for a less hectic life that would support her dreams of becoming a fine-art photographer. A chance meeting with Berenice Abbott at a gallery opening in 1988 led her to document Belfast’s changing waterfront. Her handpainted silver prints gained her a following that has grown over the years (Massacre of the Innocents, 1990, from her “Urban Sidewalk Series,” was acquired by the New York Public Library in 2004). Some years ago, Robinson started looking farther afield for the remnants of Maine’s industrial and commercial past. At the same time, drawing on a longtime interest in circuses, fairs, festivals, and the like, she visited Old Orchard
Sharon Arnold, Queen for a Day, 1958, giclée print, 2009
Park. Through digital photography, which she has taken up in recent years, Robinson heightened these carnival images to a level where, paradoxically, they resembled photo-realist paintings. “Growing up with three sisters and a Brownie camera,” Mount Desert Island-
born and -based photographer Sharon Arnold recounts, “it seemed only natural to want to rewrite women’s history through my photography.” Arnold’s latest series, “Icons: Women in the House of Cards,” pays homage, she says, “to women in history (public and private)
MAINE BOATS, HOMES & HARBORS SHOW Exhibitor
. August 7 – 9, 2009
that have made an impact on my growth.” She calls them “my women with attitude.” The photographs were taken with a 35mm Nikon on slow-speed black-andwhite film. They were then manipulated, both digitally and through the applica-
tion of dyes and oil tints, resulting in an evocative layered effect. Arnold embraces this enigmatic look, her figures cast in roles that run from saint to starlet.
Thomas Birtwistle, Spaghetti Rings, Suzie Saver (Bangor, Maine) from the series “Retail”
A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Thomas Birtwistle moved to Maine in 1993, first to Unity, then to Harmony. The subjects of his photographs consist of elements of what he says he is “likely to encounter in the course of an average day.” Birtwistle often creates works devoted to a specific subject. Country fairs, taxidermy molds, and natural history museums number among recent
obsessions. In the series “Stocking Up,” a jar of dried clover receives portrait treatment. The clutch of dried, tumbleweed-like buds becomes an object of stunning and unusual beauty. Like Robinson and Arnold, Birtwistle has been exploring new techniques. In 2008, he switched from making prints in a darkroom to making them on an inkjet printer. While he still mostly shoots film, he now scans the negatives to make the digital files from which he prints. Stephanie Francis was born in Eastport and lives on the Sipayik Reservation of the Passamaquoddy tribe. While her work in print- and papermaking allows physical expression of her self, photography, she says, “is more about reflection.” Francis is drawn to elements she encounters in the landscape. Two of her photographs, Qahnusq/Driftwood and Piwsoq/Woodpiece, she relates to mythic figures. “Qahnusq and Piwsoq lived a terrestrial life,” she explains, but after death, “they were washed out to sea and set adrift to wash ashore in
places unknown. Both provide food and shelter after death as both did in life.” In this light, the aged and worn wood in the photographs becomes animate.
Stephanie Francis, Qahnusq/Driftwood, colored digital image, 2008
Francis recently graduated from the University of Maine at Machias, where she helped organize “Equinox Petroglyph Project: Interpretations by Women and Children” (the exhibition was shown at the Maine State House and the Maine State Museum this past spring). She also recently showed her work at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor as part of its ongoing series, “The Power of Place.”
MAINE BOATS, HOMES & HARBORS
June / July 2009
People and place are compatible, Besaw seems to be saying, when the natural world is respected. Toward the back of the book, there is a photograph of Besaw up to her knees in twilit water, half crouched behind her camera, lining up a shot. Like her peers introduced here, she has the will to find the image that most fits her vision, and then to share it with the rest of the world.
Bridget Besaw, Scott Paddling Butch's Birch Bark Canoe Toward Katahdin, 2006
Bridget Besaw is also focused on place—and on preservation. The worldtraveling photographer has made it a mission to employ her medium, she says, “as an advocacy tool for environmental protection.” Her 2007 book, Wildness Within Wildness Without: Exploring Maine’s Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail, testifies to this focus. Through stunning photographs and illuminating texts by the likes of Bill McKibben and Neil Rolde,
the network of trails that Thoreau, author of The Maine Woods, and his Penobscot Indian guides followed is celebrated. Almost all of Besaw’s photographs in the book feature figures within the landscape. A man silhouetted against the sky paddles a birchbark canoe across still water, with Mount Katahdin rising in the background; a hiker clambers on that same mountain’s notorious Knife Edge.
MAINE BOATS, HOMES & HARBORS SHOW Exhibitor
. August 7 – 9, 2009
Carl Little wrote a foreword for Portrait of a Maine Island: Photographs by Sarah C. Butler. He has written about photographers for a number of publications, including this magazine and Art in America. FOR MORE INFORMATION Many galleries and museums in Maine are committed to displaying fine-art photography. Special kudos go to the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (www.cmcanow.org) for ongoing shows of contemporary work, including the recent, “On and Off the Midway,” which featured 25 photographers, including Birtwistle and Robinson. To see more work by some of the photographers featured here, visit voxphotographs.com, bridgetbesaw.com, and tombirtwistle.com.
The work of fivephotographershighlights the currentdiversity of cameravision in our state.BY CARL LITTLE