Interview with Peter Ralston
Peter Ralston, Dick and Nate, 2012
Peter Ralston is an old friend and one of my favorite photographers. His love of the Maine islands is evident in his work. I’ve always been amazed at how someone “from away” could capture the essence of the islands and the island people in one image. He sees the beauty in the textural rawness of the coast and in the weathered faces that work on the water. One can almost bundle a few photos together and get the sense that the rugged texture of low tide, the dilapidated old boathouse, the warped old dory and the weathered face from decades of salt air and island living are one.
Peter Ralston, The Ages, 2011
Peter Ralston, Jimmy Mac, 2011
Your photographs have always told stories to me. some of that may come from knowing you and being from the area you photograph a lot— the coast of Maine. Your photographs have a real sense of something much deeper than the image captured. Can you share some of that process/approach?
Well, I think the easiest thing in the world is to make “pretty” pictures. It’s also the last thing in the world I want to do. If one’s creative work can burrow down under the surface, and evoke deeper stories, or if the images carry metaphor and bigger stories than the obvious information shared, then I think you’re onto something. I don’t really “try” to go out and mine metaphor, but I become aware of it while I’m out and about in the world. It’s like a second language to me after all these years. And my thing is to stay aware of and ready for it.
Do you have a preference— photographing people or photographing nature— why? Apples or oranges?
I do like photographing both and each presents different challenges and different rewards. Nature and the evidence of our place in it is very rewarding and I find that it lends itself especially well to metaphor. Photographing people is in some ways more challenging simply because, well, others are involved. Having said that,
I think that in some ways the gratification I make in a really good portrait is pretty special when it’s an honest portrait that somehow gets into who the person really is.
Peter Ralston, Deep Freeze, 2012
Peter Ralston, Sanford & Mabel, 2011
Do you take pictures every day? Or does the inspiration come in spurts?
I wish I could say that I photograph every day, but not even close to it. Other aspects of my life as an artist are ever present, you know, business stuff, writing, family, sleep, etcetera. But my camera is never far away and I often drop what I’m doing if something calls to me. What I really love is when I can put all the other stuff on hold and just go out and get lost (so to speak) on the boat, poking around the islands and coast. God, I’m happy when I can do that.
Do you have a favorite season?
Nope, it all works for me. What I like are the edges, the extremes…anything but the “picture perfect” days.” I love fog, storms, extreme cold (sea smoke), big seas (on the boat), night. A “pretty” day is a good time to take a siesta, namely take care of the business stuff and get it out of the way.
Peter Ralston, Noon Tide, 2012
Is there a place you have always wanted to photograph?
I’m working on a new book, one in which I want to go deeper… to me, “deeper” is the holy word. Long ago I worked as a photojournalist and traveled all over… now I just want to go deeper and deeper close to home. The one place to which I seriously want to return is Newfoundland, but first, the book.
Have you ever thought about “moving pictures”? Does film-making interest you?
Many, many still photographers are now getting into that since today’s pro cameras have incredible technological capabilities. I’ve dabbled with it a little bit, but I’m going to stick with my stills. I have a good sound recorder and will make some use of that, but it’s the pursuit of honest and powerful photographs that really does it for me.
Peter Ralston, Battleground, 2011
Your history with andrew wyeth (above) and his family is fascinating. What were some of the most valuable lessons you learned from him?
Since I was eight-years-old, Andy and Betsy have been second parents, exceptional friends, and amazingly generous mentors. They knew when to gently encourage, when to kick my ass, and were always very generous in encouraging and caring. But above all, Andy and Betsy modeled “go deep”. I have been privileged to see what real artistic passion, talent, endeavor, business, and accomplishment look like. While I am very, very careful to avoid channeling or cloning Andy’s work (there are plenty of people out there doing that), their influence is so completely present in me that it will ever inform my work. Read Peter Ralston’s interactive story on the influences Andy and Betsy had on his life here.
Peter Ralston, Honk Musing, 2011
Peter Ralston, March, 2012
I’m a low tide fan and I love how when some people age it looks as if the tide is going out. It’s so beautiful. Andrew Wyeth had a face like that. His face alone could tell stories and you captured that so beautifully. You see such beauty in faces that have lived, loved and worked hard. Can you share your thoughts on that?
I love your vision of aging as a draining tide. It’s so true that when the tide goes out, you see things that are otherwise hidden. I see all of the lines, spots, and wrinkles as stories unto themselves. There is something very humbling and stabilizing to me about being in the presence of older grace and wisdom. Before we know it, we’re gonna be there. We only have a certain amount of time here on earth and a beautiful older person carries their grace like a great whale or ancient trees. I cannot help but imagine all that they have seen and experienced. Look at Andy’s The Patriot or his later paintings of Walt Anderson. He so absolutely connected with them, in very different ways. They meant a lot to him and it so clearly shows. I can think of three of mine that please me.
What is it about Maine that fuels your inspiration?
I love this place…I love it deeply. That’s it. I’m from away (PA) but I knew the minute I arrived here in 1978 that this is where I would spend my life.
There’s a great word in Spanish, querencia. It refers to those places that trigger an absolute, complete and utter sense of safety and belonging. Maine is my querencia. The other thing I have to say about this is to quote T.S. Eliot, who sums it all up more perfectly than I ever will, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
I’m a small town boy, who went out into the world early and finally found home, again, here….as never before.
Peter Ralston, Seaglass, 2012
You’re co-founder of the Island Institute, an amazing organization dedicated to Maine’s working island and coastal communities. is there something about islands and islanders that inspires you so?
You bet. Like I said earlier, these are small towns and I am a small town boy by birth. The communities here are unique in virtually all of salt-water America and many of them have largely managed to hang onto their traditions, families and ethics in the face of overwhelming pressures that have homogenized the vast majority of rural America. I don’t want to idealize these communities, but there are qualities there that contain lessons from which the rest of this sadly divided country could learn much. There’s a straightforwardness that appeals deeply to me. Angela, yesterday the editor of an island newspaper wrote me asking to use a couple of paragraphs from Sightings. That island has had a hard winter— hard weather, several deaths and an especially sad suicide— and someone found this piece I wrote and they want to publish it for all on the island. I have seldom been so (quietly) honored…think of it, me, from away! But this gave me a chance to re-read it and I think it works.
Peter Ralston, Brimstone, 2012
Peter Ralston, Clearing, 2012
If you could photograph anyone (living or deceased) you wanted for a day— how would you arrange that? Who? Where? What?
This will sound strange, because I am not a religious man, per se, but as someone with a deep faith and wicked curiosity, I’d love to have a day with Jesus in his prime in his ‘hood. I would ask you to let me take my sound recorder too, ok? I guess the reason for this is that I think a lot of misinterpretation exists within the confines of organized religion and what a way to clear up some of that. Not to mention having a day with someone who might be able to answer a question or two about some of the greatest mysteries. I wouldn’t even charge for that assignment!
What creature do you most identify with and why?
Our dog Lucy….she gets to explore a lot, she is loved, and loves without reservation.
You have to spend 3 days on an uninhabited Maine island in the summer— you get to select 4 people to join you. whom would you pick?
Family, of course. But, if you held my feet to the (camp) fire, I would say Betty Noyce, Andy & Betsy, and Philip Conkling. If that’s too local, I’d go over the top and choose Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and the new Pope. Wouldn’t that make for some portraits and answer a few more mysteries.
Any Maine secrets you would like to share?
The secrets that really intrigue me can be found in some of my photographs; that’s the best I can do today.
Peter Ralston, Coal Wharf, 2012
Peter Ralston, Thorofare, 2012
Please share your favorite:poem: Hands down, Chart 1203, Penobscot Bay & Approaches by the incomparable Philip Booth.
Whoever works a storm to windward, sails in rain, or navigates in island fog, must reckon from the slow swung lead, from squalls on cheek; must bear by compass, chart, and log.
He weathers rainsquall, linestorm, fear, who bears away from the sound of sirens wooing him to the cape’s safe lee. He knows the ghostship bow, the sudden headland immanent in fog; but where rocks wander, he steers down the channel that his courage dredges. He knows the chart is not the sea.
Film: Forrest Gump, no kidding. My life, in review, feels like his in some ways. All the different chocolates, you know.
Artwork: Almost impossible. But since it’s you, Andy’s The Patriot.
Place: Right where I am.
Maine places that you would recommend to a visitor?
Any unbridged island!
Gallery or museum in Maine?
View more of Peter Ralston’s work here.