A trip to coastal Maine with its lilting summer days creates powerful memories: pungent sea breezes wafting over the rocky coast, mournful gulls circling in a brilliant blue sky, the heavenly scent of rugosa roses, welcoming wood porches and seafood so fresh you can still taste the ocean – a feast for the senses.
This is the Maine experience tourists love.
But Maine is a complicated state with a host of communities and cultures. Life can be hard, winters are fierce and the close village communities that defined coastal Maine for generations are vanishing.
Photographer Peter Ralston has spent decades trying to capture the romance of Maine’s people and places. He focuses his lens on Maine’s etherial beauty and portraits of the tough-minded people who call it home.
Peter’s comments are from an interview in Maine Magazine:
There were once 300 year round island communities off the coast of Maine. Today there are 14 or 15, depending on how you count them… There really are no other places left like we’ve got here in Maine, where there’s a coast-wide maritime culture still very much intact.
To help sustain the year round working coastline and island communities, Peter co-founded The Island Institute.
The pressure is just so intense, the pressure that would wash away these communities where people have lived for 13 generations. There are families that have finished off the same shore side, the same wharfs and so forth for 13 generations in some places.
Life in Maine’s tiny communities is a mix of independence and relying on friends and neighbors.
It’s a great mix, which is why these communities are so intense and everybody does know everybody and everything about everybody. If I were to drop this bottle now on an island, they’d know about it on the other side of the island before it hit the ground… I’m a small town boy, I love it close and intimate like that.
Coastal Maine’s rugged beauty has inspired artists for decades.
There’s the light. The light is flat out different, always been very keenly aware of light… It’s unique. We get the old, “Wait five minutes, the weather’s going to change.” There are all these fluctuations and that’s dramatic and exciting and edgy and wonderful and thank God we have the winters we do. Yes, I’m quite partial to the winters.
There is an independent spirit. There is a spirit and an ethic and a mojo and a community.
These are not easy places. There is danger. Anytime you’re fooling around on boats and going back and forth and there’s fog and there’s night, there’s winter and there’s ice, all of it, not to mention those pesky ledges, it adds something.
Peter has a natural curiosity and warmth that helps him gain the confidence of the people he photographs. His own story is as moving and poignant as the images he captures. In a way, his photographs are an extension of himself – they reflect his gentleness and respect for the people and places he encounters on his island wanderings. Here’s a lovely video about Peter and his work:
Like the man, Peter’s work has a sense of quiet reflection. There’s a meditative quality there, too, as each image suggests a story.
I think there really is a quality in these communities that you simply don’t find in other places. That’s true today. What artists of 100 years ago were finding, I think if you go back and look at what some of the great ones were painting then, even then, a 100 years ago they were on to that.
The images captured by Peter’s eye reflect Henri Cartier Bresson’s idea of the decisive moment. In his own way he’s like a street photographer focusing his lens on the people and byways of coastal Maine. Looking at his work, you feel like you just stumbled on a moment rich in local color and character. I think that’s what makes his photographs so fresh and natural.
You can see more of Peter’s work here and he’s working on a new book about Penobscot Bay to be released in 2016. I’d like to thank my friend Ann Ramsey for introducing me to Peter’s work. I’ve also been captivated by coastal Maine’s light and haunting beauty. It’s a magical place.