On one hand I am at my happiest when I am sort of invisible... just out there, doing my thing. On the other hand, it's been said that my initials are not "PR" for nothing, and reality dictates a bit of promotion, so here it is:
Peter Ralston has photographed the coast of Maine since 1978, drawn especially to the working communities that define coastal Maine’s character.
His work has been seen in countless books and magazines, featured on network television and has been exhibited in galleries, collections and museums throughout the United States and abroad. In 2003 his photography as well as his role as co-founder of the Island Institute was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree at Colby College. In 2010 a documentary short was produced about his work, and an online book/catalog of his Maine prints is available here.
He lives with his wife Terri just a five minute walk from Ralston Gallery, at the head of Rockport Harbor.
"Ralston proves himself, beyond any other photographer of his time, to be the direct spiritual descendent of Winslow Homer in his loving and solemn response to the Maine coast and to the people who live in harmony alongside its austere beauty." - Daniel E. O'Leary, Director, Portland Museum of Art
"This is the best work I've seen capturing the character of Maine's working coast; it gave me goosebumps. Some of the pictures are of people and places I know well, and some are not, but all of them bring out the true character of the people and places they depict." - David Cousens, President, Maine Lobstermen's Association
My photographs are my statement. I don’t pretend or aspire to be terribly intellectual about what I do. I just poke around the nooks and crannies of this coast, always with my camera. That’s about it.
I’m not overly concerned about what I’m doing being considered “fine art.” As far as I’m concerned, I’m just storytelling. These are the places I’ve been and people I’ve met, and sometimes there’s metaphor if you know what to look for.
Like my fishing friends I have spent many 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 investment 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 & come in late, watch the sky and, above all, respect the people and place where I work.
Peter Ralston's photography has appeared in thirty-four books and more than fifty magazines, including American Artist, Architectural Digest, Art and Antiques, Connoisseur, National Geographic, New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, People, Smithsonian, and Time, as well as as on NBC's Today Show. Galleries in this country and abroad exhibit his images.
In addition to helping to represent the work of his friend Jamie Wyeth, Ralston has been the Wyeth family's reproduction photographer of choice since 1978. Although, as a young man, Ralston studied very briefly under Ansel Adams, he acknowledges the greater artistic influence of a lifetime of association with the Wyeths -- close friends and incisive mentors.
Instrumental in forming the Island Institute in 1983, Peter Ralston serves today as its executive vice-president. He has contributed most of the photography and served as art director for the Institute's Island Journal since its inception and continues to spend as much time as he possibly can on and around islands. He lives with his wife Terri and their children on the western side of Penobscot Bay.
The Maine Coast - Quintet/London – 1985;
Cape Cod and the Islands - Quintet/London – 1985;
Maine Island Classics - North Island Publishers – 1988;
Maine Island Kids - North Island Publishers – 1989;
Lighthouses of New England - Quintet/London – 1991;
Sweaters from the Maine Islands - Yankee Books – 1991;
North Island Designs 4 - North Island Publishers – 1992;
Andrew Wyeth, A Secret Life - Harper Collins - 1997 (Cover portrait);
Sightings - Down East – 1997;
Islands in Time - Down East – 1999;
Fishing Grounds - Island Press – 2000 (Cover);
Wooden Nickel - Little, Brown & Company – 2002 (Cover);
Lobsters Great and Small - Island Institute – 2002;
Holding Ground - Island Institute – 2004 (Art Direction and primary photography);
Writing In Stone – University of New England Press – 2008;
A Climate of Change – Island Institute – 2008 (Cover);
Waypoints – Island Institute, 2009;
Andrew Wyeth – A Tribute – Butler Institute of American Art, 2010;
The View Project – Seventy Photographers Reflect Upon Meaning & Perception; 2010, edited by Joyce Tenneson;
Islands in Time – 2011.
Doctor of Laws, Colby College, Waterville, Maine - May, 2003
The Spanish have a word for that place that stirs in each of us a sense of belonging.
When Peter Ralston visited a Maine island for the first time, he'd found hisand along with it a life's mission.
by Mel R. Allen
Peter Ralston is telling me about a boy he once knew. In 1957, when the boy is seven years old, he moves to an old gray stone house in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The house was part of a once-prosperous Quaker farmstead with its own mill and dam. The Brandywine River flows beside the house, and when the boy stands on its banks, he sees birds and tree-covered islands, and except for the distant waterfalls, it is quiet.
In summer, with the neighbor's children and with his two brothers, he swims to the islands. A split-rail fence divides the boy's house from another large stone house, because once the two houses were part of the mill property. In 1958 an artist and his wife and children move into the other old house. Beside the house is a barn, and that is where the artist occasionally paints. The boy leaps the fence and hides in the tall grass; he crawls on his belly, his elbows scraping the dirt, until he finds the high grass close to the back door of the barn. The barn door is open, and sitting on an old box in the corner of the barn is the artist. The game, Peter Ralston tells me, is for the boy to be still and silent, to hold his breath and actually crawl inside, close enough to watch the utter intensity and concentration of a grownup at work.
"The great lesson Andy Wyeth gave me was that you could be an adult and get by in life by being curious and expressive and artistic," Peter says. "I was like the Wyeths' dog, just always running through the house. The magical person for me in that house was Betsy Wyeth. She was so motherly and nurturing and nourishing. A very powerful, very astute woman. Andy is as tough and as forceful a person as I've ever met, but it was Betsy who painted me into this role I'm in today."
Where Peter Ralston is today is in a chair beside a row of windows in a third-floor, high-ceilinged, sun-filled Rockland, Maine, studio, where his walls are lined with framed photographic prints from Sightings, A Maine Coast Odyssey. The book is a collection from his 20 years of photographing the coast of Maine and the lives of its fishermen that most of us never see. He is dressed in jeans and flannel shirt and fleece vest, and throughout his boyhood story his eyes have not left the window and the streets below. He wears thick tortoiseshell glasses.
He sees a policeman in a parking lot place a ticket on the windshield of a green car with Vermont plates. "Hey!" he calls out. "Give 'em a break!" The policeman looks up, waves, and smiles. From his windows Peter Ralston looks out upon the new Farnsworth Art Museum and the Wyeth Center, which houses one of the largest collections of Wyeth art in the country. From a window to the rear of his studio, he sees the bay and breakwater. From another window he can see the hills of Rockport, where his own large graceful house looks out over a pond. He can walk to a spot on his land where he can see Penobscot Bay and far beyond, to the mountains on Mount Desert.
The simple act of looking out his window, the simple fact that he is here, talking, remains Peter Ralston's miracle. Two years ago he suffered brain aneurysms and a major stroke, all aftershocks from what was supposed to be a simple nasal-passage operation. What doctors did not know then was that a hidden tumor sat on an adrenal gland. The anesthesia, coupled with the tumor, caused a near-lethal rise in his blood pressure. After two operations, he lay in a near-coma for three days. Doctors thought that if he survived, he'd be blind, perhaps paralyzed. He survivedbut he needed months of recuperation. He lived in dark, silent rooms. He sometimes sat with a book upside down and thought he was reading. When I sit in his studio, surrounded by his photos, I am reminded that he has not taken a photo in more than two years.
"I'm told that I'm the first one to ever survive this," he says. "I look at everything differently now. Some days I wake up, and when I look at my kids, I just cry from joy. I'm still me now, but I'm changed. So many people helped me get better. The people from my community. The people I've come to know by tying up to their floats. When you're on the receiving end of that caring, you can never shake it."
We walk together, looking at the photographs on his walls. He looks fit, healthy. "I've never felt better," he says. "Life is so sweet to me now."
On his wall I see the hands of a young Port Clyde fisherman gripping the wheel of his grandfather's last boat. I see a Frenchboro lobsterman, his hand lightly touching the shoulder of his young great-grandson, who proudly holds his first cod. A print of the photograph hangs today in the American embassy in Bosnia, a symbol of tradition, permanence, family. Here is a flock of sheep tightly huddled in a boat, bound for Allen Island, where they will live and keep the land clear.
"This is 20 years of my life," he says. "The one thing that counted most with Sightings," says Ralston, now 49, "was what Andy and Betsy thought. They said, 'You did well.'"
He was a restless boy. No matter what private school he was sent to, he soon dropped out. "You have to realize the family expectations for me," he says. "When I was born, there was a silver baby mug engraved with my name and Princeton Class of '72." Instead of Princeton, Peter went "out into the world." He bought a Spotmatic camera and headed to the city. He became a freelance commercial photographer, living what he calls "the noisy life" in New York and elsewhere. He was a hustler, living hand to mouth, "like a clam digger," he says. "Scratching, scrambling." In time, though, he moved back to Chadds Ford and reconnected with the Wyeths.
"One day Andy asked if I would photograph his paintings," he says. "That was the first great gift. That took me into a grown-up relationship with pure geniusnot just Andy's, but Betsy's. These were tough people. So ruthless in their honesty and criticism. Saying, 'That's lovely, dear,' about work doesn't do any artist good. You have to care enough about someone to be honest enough to hurt themthat which hurts, instructs." Peter smiles. "I became really good at photographing paintings. I became as good as anyone in the country."
The second great gift, the gift that would forever change his life, was the Wyeths' invitation to spend the summer of 1978 with them in Cushing, Maine. Throughout his boyhood Peter had heard the Wyeths speak about Maine. "I'd only known their Pennsylvania lives. We didn't go to Maine. I'd see paintings of Maine and hear the stories. It was this mythic land to the north and east. This time was different. I explored the St. George River. I was rediscovering the quieter side of me. I love the Spanish word querencia. It means a place that triggers an instinctive sense of belonging. That summer, Maine became my querencia."
At summer's end Peter returned to Chadds Ford. But he came to Cushing the next summer and stayed into the fall, and then the summer after that, and stayed even longer. He sought fewer and fewer freelance assignments.
In 1980, despite her husband's reservations, Betsy Wyeth bought Allen Island, off Port Clyde. The island, once home to a rich fishery and a thriving school, now lay virtually uninhabitedonly two mainland fishermen kept shacks there. The 450-acre island stood as a wild, brooding symbol of the nearly 300 Maine islands that had lost their people.
Betsy Wyeth said to Peter, "Help me figure out what to do with an island almost the size of Monhegan. We need to clean it up, bring it back to life." For a month or so Peter tramped the island. "The more I saw, the more I know what I didn't know. Whatever it was we were going to do on the island, I couldn't do it alone." He'd heard about Philip Conkling, a Harvard- and Yale-trained forester working with Hurricane Island's Outward Bound School, and invited him to the island.
Philip joined the project as a consulting forester. Weeks together became months. The two men roamed the Maine coast, absorbing everything they saw. They visited islands whose communities had vanished and islands struggling to keep their communities intact. Only 14 islands still possessed year-round communities. In Sightings, Peter wrote: "Allen Island was not about my working as a photographer. Allen was about my paying my dues. By helping reclaim Allen Island, I reclaimed something in myself as well. Allen was the start of almost two decades of exploring the coast and myself."
Philip Conkling and Peter shared a vision that would direct their lives for the next 20 years. They saw Maine islanders as tough and resourceful but living in fragile communities. The forces of modern life were tearing at generations of traditions. "The physical beauty of the islands could not be ruined," Peter says. "But the culture was so endangered. So many were at risk of turning into summer islands only for the wealthy."
Philip's dream was to turn their vision into something that could make a difference. The year was 1983. He had just published a book called Islands in Time. His skills were in demand by the Maine forest industry. Corporate Maine beckoned. He was conflicted over what to do. "Philip came to me," says Peter. "I said, 'Let's get away from salt water.' We went to northern Maine for four days. We came out of the woods with a plan.
They called their plan the Island Institute. Outboard Bound gave the two men a boat. They went to Tom Cabot, surviving patriarch of the famed Boston Brahmin family, who owned a house on Swan's Island, and he donated $10,000. Betsy Wyeth gave them advice. She said, "Peter, you're very good with a camera. Philip, you write beautifully. Put out a magazine, but do it right."
"She factored in the Wyeth standards," says Peter. "And she gave us a handful of valuable signed Andrew Wyeth prints, which we soldand that was the birth of Island Journal." The handsome annual, now in its 17th year, attracted attention. It seemed to announce that the Island Institute had made a commitment to Maine's islands. Some Maine islanders, however, saw something else: two men from away coming to a rescue they were not asked to perform.
"Oh, there was a certain amount of resentment," Peter says. "Still is. The Island Institute is not perceived as an unwavering force for good and light. It's the curse of the missionaries. On an island, everyone knows exactly what everyone else is thinking. Doesn't get any more intimate. You know who's kin, who's friend, who's enemy. Anybody coming in from the outside can be a threat. They don't know which you are. But if you can somehow prove you have the best for the community in mind, the door will open, albeit ever so slowly."
Peter taught himself to be a fine water man, capable of piloting the institute's 26-footer through tides and weather. Wherever he went, his 35-mm Nikon came along. He shot thousands of photos of island life, photos that few people ever saw, except for those he published in the annual Island Journal.
"Winter is the measure of one's resolve and abilities to make it here," he says. And he proved himself a winter man. He was befriended by two Criehaven fishermen, Anson Norton and Gerry Brown. They were the last to hold on, living in simple homes on the water. "We'd go out and haul," Peter says. "I've never been colder than on a boat in winter."
The institute grew. Two men became ten people, then 20, then nearly 30. A $10,000 donation grew to a million-dollar budget. Two million. Two and a half. The 26-footer was exchanged for the 37-foot RAVEN. The institute's mission became one of the strongest island-conservation voices in the country. But Peter was working 60, 70 hours a week, and he'd almost forgotten the quiet place inside that had brought him to Maine long ago. In 1996 he went to his tens of thousands of photos he kept filed away. He looked at them one by one. He wanted to collect his images into a book, to leave a legacy about a Maine few outsiders ever saw. He wanted a book that would go beyond the pretty pictures of the rocky coast that seemed to be everywhere.
"I had to take out the stuff that could live on calendars forever," he says. Downeast Press published Sightings in the summer of 1997. "I heard from the people in the book," Peter says. "They said I'd gotten it: I'd gotten how it was to live on a Maine Island. I now trust and believe that I didn't miss the mark."
The book was a critical and commercial success. He had a show comprising 35 prints from his book. Orders for prints came from around the world. Special prints from outside the original edition were requested. He was, as he puts it, "on a roll." Then came his near-fatal operation and the months of slow, miraculous recovery. In the summer of 1998 he went back on the water for the first time. A friend rowed him out to RAVEN. He hauled himself on the boat, slithering like a seal. When he finally stood on board, he cried. He took the boat out solo. He came back, then soon took it out in fog. In January of last year, Peter went back to work at the Island Institute. He felt his strength returning. What he could not do, however, was pick up a camera. "I'd survived what I should not have survived," he says. "I had to get new bearings. I know I didn't just want to go back to doing more of the same."
Peter Ralston leans forward, fingers on lips. "I want to show you something," he says. He walks into the back room of his studio and comes back holding a black square camera. It is an Ansco Shur-Shot Jr., one shutter speed, the first camera he used as a boy. "I have cameras that cost $12,000," he says. He turns it over in his hands and looks through the tiny viewfinder. "If I can't do something with this old camera," he says, "what good am I?"
He opens the back of the camera. "What's this?" he says. He reaches in and takes out a faded piece of paper. It is a note he has long forgotten, a note from his mother, dated Christmas 1987.
There is a light in his eyes. "I didn't know that was in there," he says, shaking his head. We go to his house in Rockport for dinner. He grills steak and mushrooms, and his son, Will, nearly six, is riding his bicycle outside, clamoring for his dad to take him to get ice cream. Peter takes his Ansco Shur-Shot outside. He calls out to Will, tells him to crouch down. He looks through the tiny lens, framing his son, framing, perhaps, a new beginning. He shoots a single shot. He smiles with satisfaction. "I don't know...," Peter says. "Something's brewing..."
Postscriptwritten October 2002 by Peter Ralston
Things were indeed "brewing." At the time this piece was written I was in the final throes of a very unhappy marriage, which ended in the fall of 1999. In an roundabout way that ending was a blessing for it led to a new beginning in my life. On June 10th, 2000, a local friend called and asked if I'd like to meet a woman who was in town making a movie (In the Bedroom) with her friend Sissy Spacek. I replied that I was not at all interested, but my friend prevailed, and that evening I met Terri Harper. My life changed forever.
Somehow, I knew at once that, at last, I was fully "home." I had found my soul mate. My heart's querencia. I have had another miracle, one at least as remarkable and life enhancing as the medical one in 1997.
The time since then has been challenging in many ways (we have brought our two familiesfive childrentogether), but I have found a peace and happiness which I had never even imagined in my most longing dreams.
Never has a more tender, kind and loving person drawn breath... Terri is the sun rising from the eastern sea every morning, she brings light and purpose to every day, she is the moon and stars lighting the nights and showing the way.
I have wonderful children, a wonderful wife and best friend, a wonderful family. I live in a great place, with special friends around us. The good work of the Island Institute means a great deal to me and now, at last, my old creative juices are beginning to flow like sap in the trees outside this room after a long, cold winter. Life is good... and I am supremely blessed.
P.P.S. My deepest thanks to Mel Allen at Yankee magazine for allowing me to reproduce this article... He's a lovely man and a good friend.
American Artist, American Art Review, American Heritage, Architectural Digest, Art and Antiques, Art-Talk, Audubon, Backpacker, Bangor Metro, Best of Photography - 1986, Boats and Harbors, Boston Globe, Café Review, Coastal Living, Condé Nast Traveler, Connoisseur, Country, Country Journal, Countryplace, Countryside, ART/Das Kunstmagazin, Discovery, Discovery Coast, Delaware Today, Down East, Ein Herz fur Tiere, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Energy Risk, Environmental History, Evening Magazine (TV), Fisherman's Voice, Garden Design, Geo (American and German), Habitat, Horizon, House Beautiful, Islands, Island Journal, Journal of Family Practice, Journal of the National Medical Association, London Times, Maine Times, Martha Stewart Living, Mature Outlook, Metropolitan Home, National Fisherman, National Geographic, National Wildlife, New England Living, New England Monthly, New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Nissan Discovery, Oceans, Offshore, Outdoor Photographer, People, Philadelphia Magazine, Reader's Digest Books, Sail, Smithsonian, Studio Photography, The Furrow, Time, Time-Life Books, Trailblazer, Us, US Air, Views, The Washingtonian, Weekly Reader, Wild Fibers, Women's World, Yachting Library (Italy), Yankee, and others.
Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) - Permanent Collection – 2013
Haynes Gallery (Franklin, TN) - 2012
Portland Museum of Art - Permanent Collection- 2012
Mona Bismarck Foundation (Paris) - Permanent Collection- 2011
Palm Beach Photographic Center (Florida) - 2011
Palm Springs Art Museum (California) – Permanent Collection – 2011
Brooks Institute, Gallery 27 (Santa Barbara) – 2011
Maine Museum of Photographic Arts – 2011
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (Michigan) – 2011
Naples Museum of Art (Florida) – 2010
Dulwich Picture Gallery (London) – 2010
Center for Maine Contemporary Art – 2010
The Hyde Collection (New York)– 2010
Butler Institute of American Art (Ohio) – Permanent Collection – 2010
Chelsea Market Concourse (NYC) - 2010
Carver Hill Gallery – 2009
Liz Moss Gallery – 2009
Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) – Permanent Collection – 2009
Archipelago Fine Art Gallery – 2008
Portland Museum of Art – 2007
Farnsworth Art Museum – 2007
Penobscot Marine Museum – 2007
Center for Maine Contemporary Art – 2007
North Haven Gallery – 2007
Farnsworth Art Museum – 2006
Center for Maine Contemporary Art – 2006
Shaw Gallery – 2006
Domaine Gallery – 2006-2008
Gulf of Maine Research Institute - Permanent Collection - 2005
National Museum of American History (Smithsonian) Permanent Collection – 2005
Farnsworth Art Museum – “Photography from the Collection” – 2005
Harborside Gallery – 2005
Boca Raton Museum of Art (Florida) – 2004
Art of the Sea Gallery – 2004
Farnsworth Art Museum - 2004
Colby College, Permanent Collection – 2004
June Fitzpatrick Gallery – 2003
Art of the Sea Gallery – 2003
Archipelago Fine Art Gallery - 2001
Penobscot Marine Museum – 2001
Maine Coast Artists - 2000
Gallery 357 – 2000
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (Kansas City) - Permanent Collection – 1999
Monhegan Museum - 1999
United States Embassy (Sarajevo) - 1999
Farnsworth Art Museum, Permanent Collection - 1998
North Haven Gallery – 1997
Double Door Gallery – 1997
Between The Muse - 1997
Aomori Prefectural Museum (Japan) - Permanent Collection - 1997
Farnsworth Art Museum - 1993
Portland Museum of Art, Permanent Collection – 1991
Maine Coast Artists - 1990
Maine Maritime Museum - 1989
de Young Fine Arts Museum (San Francisco) - 1988
Arnot Art Museum, Permanent Collection – 1985
Maine Maritime Museum – 1985
Modernage Gallery – 1982
Royal Academy of the Arts (London) – 1981
Brandywine River Museum – 1981
Today Show (NBC) - 1981 & 1982
Delaware Art Museum – 1980
…..as well as numerous corporate and private collections.
Peter Ralston's life is back on track. Well known to readers of Island Journal, Ralston's recent work, presented here and in an exhibition in Rockland during the summer of 2008, deserves special celebration because it reveals an artist more mature and more deeply attuned to life's vicissitudes.
Ralston's own odyssey began when he first arrived in Maine in 1978 at the invitation of Betsy and Andrew Wyeth, childhood neighbors in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. As a young boy, Ralston reveled in the Wyeths' fantastic stories of Maine in words as well as on paper and canvas. Their magic created pictures of an exotic Maine in young Ralston's active imagination that were more than fulfilled upon his first explorations of the coast and islands at age 28. In Maine, Ralston immediately and irrevocably discovered his home and place in this world, as a man, as an artist.
But with perspective derived from years of travel as a photojournalist, the newly arrived Ralston was not oblivious to intense growing pressures on his adopted home. He had seen his birthplace overwhelmed by similar forces, and was particularly alarmed by clear threats to the Maine coast's working communities. In 1983 he and Philip Conkling co-founded the Island Institute as a means of addressing their shared concerns in this regard. The rest is institutional history.
Busy helping to build the new organization, Ralston abandoned his photojournalism career and took up ranging the coast, "going deep" in the manner of his Wyeth mentors, in search of that ineffable millisecond when subject, light and color come together as if by magic. For close to 19 years Ralston quietly accumulated thousands of images captured in moments of tranquillity on the one hand or seizing the moment in great haste much as an artist scribbles a quick sketch on the other. While his photographs were published with little fanfare in numerous magazines and books, little thought was given to self-promotion. But in the summer of 1997, Ralston published Sightings, which earned him both critical acclaim and wide popularity and recognition as a significant photographer of Maine.
And then, in an instant, his life changed. In November 1997 Ralston suffered a severe cerebral hemorrhage coupled with a series of strokes. During brain surgery his heart stopped beating briefly. Shortly thereafter, a tumor was detected. After several surgeries Ralston was, at best, in rough shape with his left side partially paralyzed. But over time, infinite patience and determination on his part as well as support and encouragement from a host of friends have combined to put Ralston's life back in order. However, in his mind two gifts reign supreme.
The first was his marriage in 2001 to Terri Harper, bringing together a combined brood of five children. The second was two friends' gift in 2004 of a magnificent digital camera system. With that great "gift of faith" Ralston abruptly gave up using film and began mastering altogether-new tools for making art.
As the artist has grown ever more comfortable in the digital realm, one rule remains sacrosanct: no digital gimmickry. The thrill of happening upon and capturing that pure "decisive" moment unique from all others is the joy Ralston responds to. Not only does the stunning panoramic view of Penobscot Bay in "The Beginning" illustrate that point, it also helps the viewer understand Ralston's strong attachment to the natural beauty that has kept him in the Midcoast area for nearly 30 years. A newborn day arrives calm and quiet, yet the long lyrical horizontal ripples on the metallic water coupled with a reflection of the sun that scalds the water itself anticipates the day's activities ahead. Islands, dark and somewhat forbidding, counter one another, one from the left, others from the right, while Mount Desert looms across the far horizon. We hear the distant thrum of a boat as a barely visible lobsterman sets out on his daily rounds. Man and nature are awake and at the ready fisherman and photographer, both out for their own catch.
But Ralston does relish what the computer offers him in regards to expressing color and light. He revels in transforming the digital negative, taken directly from his camera, into glowing prints that speak directly to his original vision. As Ansel Adams put it, "If the negative is the score, the print is the performance." Just as painters freely apply color to canvas in their studios, Ralston conservatively manipulates colors, densities and especially light on his computer. "I can now paint with light," he explains. Indeed, subtle variations of color and light are signatures of Ralston's work. Soft light bathed in stillness and solitude coupled with carefully modulated bands of grays, pinks, browns and blues across the horizontal planes in "Hardwood Moon" and "Coal Wharf," and even the harder edges of "Brewster Point," speak of poetic repose.
Ralston responds to various histories. Time passing fascinates him. He is mindful of the seamen of the past who have walked the weather-worn coal wharf, battered but still standing, and those who have worked the seas in seine dories. Ralston invites us to consider our own turbulent times of political and social unrest, especially following 9/11 in "Patriot" in which the American flag is prominently juxtaposed beneath the name of the boat "Brimstone." "South Tower" addresses the loss of the World Trade Center directly, through a stark image of a ledge outcropping pocked with holes and iron deposits recalling fire. But like all relevant art, images resonate on several levels. For this writer, "South Tower" also infers a spiritual dimension suggested by nature's fashioning over many centuries a cathedral-like tower that is as heaven-bent as Antonio Gaudi's renowned stone edifice in Barcelona, Spain. Ralston also pays homage to art history in "David's" where ropes of colorful paint have been flung from a fisherman's arm against an unsuspecting rock in the manner of Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s and '60s.
Isn't it inevitable that Peter Ralston, the miraculous survivor of concurrent near-fatal illnesses a decade ago, has emerged from this experiences with a deeper desire than ever to share in his photographs those aspects of the human condition he has come to value most? Is it too much to suggest that the bones and netting, line and seaweed in "Tangled" and "Requiem" link nature with manmade unions, both messy and intimate? And what is "The Source" if not, in part, a testimony of love, faith and an affirmation of life itself?
Peter Ralston is back in full force. The images on the following pages, and his continued leadership role at the Island Institute, are all the proof one needs.
Bruce Brown was curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport from 1987-2006 and is now an independent curator. His collection of contemporary American prints, assembled on a limited salary as a public school teacher, have been exhibited at the Portland Museum of Art and the Colby College Art Museum.
May 27, 2003
At Colby College's commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 25th, noted photographer and Island Institute Executive Vice President, Peter Ralston, received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in recognition of his work as a photographer, environmentalist, and advocate for Maine's coastal communities.
Colby President William Adams cited Ralston's photographic work by saying, "We honor your devotion to things close to home, for your artistic talent in sharing those things with the world, and the record you have provided of a threatened coastal way of life." Adams quoted Portland Museum of Art Director Daniel O'Leary as having called Ralston "the direct spiritual descendent of Winslow Homer in his loving and solemn response to the Maine coast and to the people who live in harmony alongside its austere beauty."
Ralston is an accomplished professional photographer and writer whose work has appeared in 34 books and more than 50 magazines, as well as having been exhibited in galleries across the United States and abroad. His web site (www.pralston.com) highlights his personal Maine work as well as that of the Island Institute.
Ralston co-founded the Island Institute in 1983 with Philip Conkling. The Colby Citation noted, "the organization is dedicated to supporting the island and coastal communities of Maine in numerous ways, including fisheries projects, community school support, and preserving Maine lighthouses and island post offices," among many other specific projects to that end.
Other honorary degrees were presented to Harvard's acclaimed poetry critic and scholar, Helen Vendler; Clifford Geertz, professor emeritus at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study and one of the world's leading anthropologists; Edward Lorenz, professor emeritus of meteorology at MIT, originator of the "butterfly effect" and founder of the new science of chaos theory; and Sonia Picado, a parliamentarian in the Legislative Assembly of Costa Rica, former president of that country's National Liberation Party, and current President of the Interamerican Institute of Human Rights.
Founded in 1813, Colby College in Waterville, Maine, is one of the nation's oldest and best independent colleges of liberal arts. Colby is known for its intellectual rigor, its supportive campus community and atmosphere, and its global reach.