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Picture perfect: Looking through the lens with Peter Ralston

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Picture perfect: Looking through the lens with Peter Ralston (photo courtesy of Peter Ralston)

ROCKPORT – They say a photo is worth a thousand words. If you ask Peter Ralston about one of his photographs, he might give you a million. 

Ralston is a prominent Maine photographer, one who has photographing the coast of Maine for nearly 40 years. His photography has appeared in 34 books and well over 50 magazines, a list of noteworthy periodicals that includes prominent titles like American Artist, Architectural Digest, Art and Antiques, Connoisseur, National Geographic, New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, People, Smithsonian and Time. You may have also seen his photos on NBC’s Today Show. His work is regularly exhibited globally and has been added to the permanent collection of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian.

Ralston started taking photos when he learned how to walk.

“I got into photography really young,” he said. “Growing up, I didn’t have an iPhone or a computer – we didn’t get a TV until I was 10. In that era, it was all about magazines. The great magazines were Life and National Geographic. Those magazines seemed to really be all about images. The whole idea of creating pictures really mesmerized me and I can’t draw a stick figure so I decided to become a photographer.”

Ralston believes that magazines sparked his interest in photography, but the real reason he became a distinguished photographer is the influence of his creative mentors. When Ralston began his photography career, he studied briefly under Ansel Adams, but he claims his greatest artistic influence is the Wyeth family. Ralston grew up in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, neighbors with the Wyeths. The family was generous to Ralston during his upbringing, telling Ralston they saw something in him; Andrew Wyeth himself taught Ralston about the concept of “deep art.”

And ultimately, it was the Wyeths who convinced Ralston to move to Maine.

In 1978, the Wyeth Family invited Ralston to spend the summer with them in Maine. “They gave me their guest house in Cushing for the whole summer,” said Ralston. “It was really amazing, I got to see all these places and meet all these people that I had seen in Andy’s paintings. It was this unbelievable intimate introduction.”

The summer infatuated Ralston so that he eventually made the move to Maine in 1984. He claims that after moving to Maine, he cannot see himself living anywhere else.

“There’s this Spanish word, querencia, it means those places that trigger an absolute complete feeling of safety and belonging and that’s what Maine was to me. I felt that way very very quickly.”

After moving to Maine, Ralston began to adopt a photography method he likened to the methods of the fishing community. In his artist statement, he writes, “Like my fishing friends, I have spent long hours, usually alone, often with nothing to show for a lot of work but a sense of having been there and having tried, going over the same ground again and again, often disappointed, occasionally coming back with a worthy catch to show for the endless investments of what Melville referred to in “Moby Dick” as ‘Time, Strength, Cash and Patience.’ Like the good fishermen, I’ve had to know my territory and respect the rules, be ready to take a few calculated risks when it felt right, look people in the eye, keep the gear as simple as possible, get out early and come back in late, watch the sky and above all, respect the people and place where I work.”

This method creates astounding photographs, but the underlying reason that Ralston’s photos are distinctive is his passion for place and strong community relationships.

“I profoundly love where I live and work for two reasons,” he said. “One is that it’s beautiful but anyone can take pretty pictures of a beautiful place. Two is the people…I find the people more interesting and more compelling than the physical beauty of the coast. I’ve gotten to know a lot of people and I’ve formed deep relationships with several different communities. I think those relationships show in my portrait but what really drives my work is my passion for place. I really love it here. I believe all of that appears in my photographs and makes them unique in a way.”

Another reason Ralston’s photos are noteworthy is because every photograph offers a different story. Ralston explained, “There’s two types of stories behind my work. There are anecdotal stories and then for some there is the story of what motivated me.”

Ralston’s most iconic image – titled “Pentecost” - describes an island adventure. “Pentecost” is a photograph of sheep in the dory. He says the photo came about only because everything lined up perfectly. He detailed the photo’s origins on his blog:

“Back in 1980, Betsy Wyeth, wife of Andrew Wyeth, bought Allen Island, off the mid-coast of Maine, and asked me to help her figure out what to do with it. One of the first priorities was clearing the northern end of the island, land historically in pasturage, but lost in the 20th century to scrub reforestation. Sparing you the details of the clearing process, we knew that once clear, the challenge would be keeping the land open. There was one answer, one with great historical precedent, and that was sheep.

“So my great friend, and Allen Island partner-in-crime, Philip Conkling and I contacted the owners of an island eight nautical miles away, and made arrangements to purchase a number of sheep from their long established island flock. We also made arrangements with two Port Clyde fishermen to help us get the sheep to Allen Island. The night before the sheep resettlement was to occur, the two repaired to the local watering hole where they were at the receiving end of many ribald and off-color comments about their upcoming rendezvous with sheep. Sheep jokes….you know. “Maine, where the men are men and the sheep are nervous.” And on and on and on. The next morning, all went well until we got to the distant island at which point the disheveled skipper announced, “There’s not a single one of those goddamn things getting on this boat today.” We had no choice but to borrow a dory into which we loaded the sheep.

“Towing the laden dory behind SUSAN L, we set a course for Tenants Harbor where two sheep were to be dropped off on a small island at the harbor’s mouth. It was while delivering those first two sheep that the crew, worse for the wear incurred the night before, decided that the hair of the dog was the only sort of critter in which they could immediately get interested, so a smaller boat was dispatched to procure a case of Budweiser “pounders.” In the course of that particular operation, I decided I would borrow Betsy’s Aquasport from which I could take photographs of the SUSAN L towing the dory… a good idea, it turns out, on my part.

“On the run to Allen Island, we ran into a fog bank off Mosquito Island and all of a sudden the light went silvery…magical. From the center console of the Aquasport I quickly took a number of photographs as we were sliding into the cat’s paw of the fog, one of which is Clearing. Wanting a different angle, I gave the helm to Philip, telling him that I was going up to the bow and he was to get me right close up to the port quarter of the dory. I was using a wide-angle lens, and I wanted more in my foreground, so I kept yelling to Philip, ‘Get closer, get closer dammit!’ We both knew that we had achieved maximum proximity when the bow of the Aquasport slammed the stern of the dory a mighty blow. At that very second I managed to squeeze off one vertical frame, aka Pentecost.

“No sheep were lost that day, the Budweiser significantly improved the morale of both the SUSAN L and Allen island crews, lasting friendships were made, the meadows of Allen Island were on their way, and I made a photograph that would for years be seen around the world.

Not a bad day.”

In a recent photo, Ralston captured a photograph named “River of Heaven.”  The photograph depicts the Milky Way over a herd of schooners. According to Ralston, the picture tells a tale of syzygy - “It was just one night where all these elements swam into alignment without me really doing a thing.”

This past summer, Ralston took a break from photographing the Maine coast and went on the trip of the lifetime.

“I didn’t think there was enough dynamite in the world to blast me out of Maine in the summer until I got invited on the trip of a lifetime,” he said. “I went on this 180-foot private yacht to the Arctic. There were really two different parts to the trip. There was Greenland which was all about the big ice. There was one town called Ilulissat which is just amazing. It’s got one of the fastest glaciers in the world, this glacier moves at six feet an hour – the glacier produces these gigantic icebergs, including the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. The other part was the high Canadian Archipelago, which I liked even more. It’s remote and inaccessible. It’s polar desert – the end of the Earth. We saw 13 polar bears. We saw whales, walruses, musk ox on and on. It was all really impressive.”

Ralston took photos of the natural beauty of the location, but he also recorded images of global warming indicators.

“Going to those parts deeply affected me,” he said. “I came back absolutely humbled and amazed by what I had seen. I had some good photographs from the trip, some that depicted the natural beauty of the place but the ones that mean the most to me are the ones that show indicators of climate change.

“I saw these Inuit sled dogs and I learned that across the Arctic, people are shooting their dogs and not rebreeding them because there’s no seals for anyone in the Arctic to eat. One town there used to be 8,000 sled dogs but today there are 2,000. In another place, I was at almost 75 degrees latitude and I was photographing some little beautiful polar flowers and all of a sudden there’s this bumblebee in front of me. I was just amazed.

“I was in one Inuit village and I saw a guy getting some fish out of his net and I figured he was catching char and I went down to check it out and he was catching salmon – salmon has never been recorded as being part of the Artic ecosystem. These are huge changes.

“The permafrost is disappearing and now Inuits are using freezers. You know that line ‘Oh he’s so good, he could sell freezers to the Eskimos?’ Well, you really can now sell freezers to the Inuits.”

Since returning from the Artic, Ralston has given presentations on the climate change indicators he saw.

“I feel a really deep moral to share what I saw up there,” said Ralston. “I am not a scientist, I am not sharing statistics. I’m sharing stories about what I saw and there is no reason to doubt my images.”

The Arctic presentations are not the only way Ralston spends his time; he is also working on a new book.

“I have a new book coming out,” he said. “It’ll have 20 years of photographs like my first book [“Sighting”]. The difference between the two books is obviously a lot of new images and I have also tried to go deeper. It’ll probably come out in the spring of 2019 - maybe even earlier.”

In the meantime, you can see Ralston’s work at the Ralston Gallery at 23 Central Street in Rockport or visit the artist online at ralstongallery.com. To learn more about the stories behind each of Ralston’s photographs, visit ayoobnet.net/ralstongallery/blog. To watch Ralston’s Arctic presentation, visit vimeo.com/24334188. 

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