Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: nature photography

Peter Ralston: Capturing Maine’s Magic

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.


“Front” (all photos by Peter Ralston)

This is the Maine experience tourists love.

The Beginning

‘The Beginning”

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.

Greater Reward

“Greater Reward”

Peter’s comments are from an interview in Maine Magazine:

Peter Ralston

Peter Ralston


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.

The Captain

“The Captain”

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.

The Blizzard Begins

“The Blizzard Begins”

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.

Island Farm

“Island Farm”

There is an independent spirit. There is a spirit and an ethic and a mojo and a community.

The Far Sea

“The Far Sea”

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.

Holding Ground

“Holding Ground”

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:

Peter’s Eye from Peter Ralston on Vimeo.

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.

Two Crows

“Two Crows”

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.

The End

“The End”

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.

The Creative Challenge of “That Tree”


Unless noted, all photos by Mark Hirsch. I’d like to thank Mark for permission to use his photos for The Vision Thing.

Why did photographer Mark Hirsch give himself such a difficult creative challenge – a test of his imagination, vision and ability to see the world with fresh eyes?

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On the face of it, it seemed so simple. He had admired an old Bur Oak on his way to work every day for 19 years – but had never stopped to really “see” it.

An iPhone Photo Journal documenting A Year in the Life of That Tree

So one day he decided to photograph it. And the creative challenge he set for himself was to capture a different image every day for a year.

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Sometimes it gave him great joy, sometimes it seemed like utter folly. He put up daily images on his facebook page and called his project That Tree.

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Mark had spent 20 years as a photojournalist before he left to do corporate and editorial photography. Before he started his creative challenge, did he think about what it would take to capture a new image of That Tree each day for a year? Why did he set such a high bar for himself?

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Mark Hirsch “I hit a roadblock on Day 160. I remember the day because I thought, ‘My god, how can I do this for 205 more days?’ Then I slowed down, looked more closely, gave things more consideration, and found the picture.”

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As a photojournalist and corporate photographer Mark always had someone else choosing the story or defining his subject matter – his mission was to be “creative” within the boundaries defined by his editor or corporate client. It’s a situation that poses a high risk of burnout since you typically only have one frame of reference and the work can become very repetitious. That Tree posed a different kind of creative challenge.

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For this project, Mark would make his own decisions about how to visually represent the tree. He also decided to add another layer to this creative challenge – he would leave all his professional gear at home. The only tools he would bring to the task would be his photographer’s vision, a tripod and an iphone. Yes, all of his images were shot with a cell phone.

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Mark Hirsch:  “Simplicity can be liberating. You fall back on the most important tools, your visual aptitude and awareness of the world.”

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Think about it – it’s a tree – how many different ways can you express the concept of “tree” over the course of a year? Yes, the change of the seasons will help, as will the changes in the light. You can work with time of day, exposure, framing and focus. But then what? Wittingly or not, Mark had set himself a daunting creative challenge.

Mark Hirsch:  “It was never easy and it never came naturally. But when I found that scene, situation or moment that made me comfortable that I had made a worthy picture for the day, it was incredibly rewarding personally. At some point, I really began to appreciate the contemplative nature of my visits to that tree.”

Screen shot 2013-06-10 at 2.13.51 PMIf you look at his work over the course of the year you can see a few subtle changes. He moves from the more informational approach of photojournalism to the more evocative approach of art photography. His framings become more interesting as does his vision of That Tree – making the images more emotional and reflective – more poetic.

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If you take a look at his year’s worth of images on his website, you’ll see that they’re a great testimony to his ability to think creatively and visually – and find new ways to capture the decisive moment.

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For many of us, when we encounter something new we observe, categorize and then file it away in our brain. “Oh, what a magnificent tree,” we might say – and then go about our business and never really pause to “see” it again.

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But think for a moment about the process Mark would have to go through to find his images. He would have to quiet his mind to become an active observer. He would have to develop mindfulness – that’s how he discovered the moth hiding in plain view on That Tree. 

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He would have to open his eyes to find new ways of seeing… and free his thoughts so he could explore and find a deeper essence of That Tree. He would have to try to capture all that with his iphone.

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Then, he would have to do it all over again day after day for a year. That was how he met his creative challenge.

Mark Hirsch:  “I was never very good at slowing down but I am now. I’ve learned to see things differently. And I’ve embraced an incredible appreciation for the land in and around that tree.”

HirschMark by Patrick Durkin

Mark Hirsch, photo by Patrick Durkin

His work will be published in a book coming out in August. Mark calls it That Tree: An iPhone Photo Journal Documenting a Year-in-the-Life of a Lonely Bur Oak.

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Mark came to see the tree as its own ecosystem. Given the plants, birds, squirrels, deer, insects and other creatures sheltered or fed by That Tree, Mark saw the interdependency of all those living things.

Mark Hirsch:  “ I would not label myself an environmentalist, but I have always had a grand appreciation for the environment. My relationship with That Tree has awakened a new-found vision, and appreciation for the fragility of our world and our need to embrace a more sustainable use of our resources.”

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We’re often encouraged to “stop and smell the flowers.” Mark made himself do just that every day for a year and in the process found a deep connection with that lonely bur oak. So what do you think? Do you practice your own mindfulness or set creative challenges for yourself? Leave a comment and let me know.