In A New Light

A photographer transforms himself and his art 

By Bruce Brown, Island Journal, 2008

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 tranquility 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.


Bridget LeavittArticle