In 2014, photographer S.B. (Sam) Walker set out on a series of road trips to photograph the state of Maine. The results so far are featured in the exhibition “Nor’east,” on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland from May 29 to Sept. 12, 2021.
“There have been a lot of people who have done projects, photographically and otherwise, in Maine,” Walker told Bangor Daily News in 2019. “A lot of them have really narrow focus, and I wanted to do something that covered a large geographic area, that went across a lot of social levels.”
Walker, who resides in Rockland and Portland, Maine, grew up outside of Boston and visiting the East Raymond camp of his grandmother who raised sheep in South Paris, Maine. His great-great grandmother, Florence Brooks Whitehouse, was a Portland painter, writer and suffragette (and daughter-in-law of the chief justice of the Maine Supreme Court).
Walker photographs in the crisp, clear, black-and-white mode of early American modernists. His images of a clapboard church in Benton and a lobster boat moored in a glassy smooth winter harbor in Frenchboro are contemporary photographs that evoke classic images of Maine village life.
Even the kid in a one-room school house at Isle au Haut, leaning on a wall decorated with President’s Day images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, or the photo of children playing on a rope swing inside a barn at Wrinkle in Thyme Farm, a sheep farm in West Sumner catering to knitters and weavers, feel like contemporary updates on that familiar notion of Maine as quaint, small town, flinty, White America.
But that notion is complicated, troubled perhaps, by Walker’s photograph of the man in a bandana and cowboy hat posing with his Uncle Sam puppet leaning against his car spray painted in a camouflage pattern and his nickname, “Sting Ray,” written on the driver’s door. Or the photo of a Somali man in a sport coat picking blueberries at Union. Or men standing inside Portland’s Expo Center to mark the end of Ramadan. Or the Black girl hoeing a field at Benton, whom Walker identifies as a “Daughter of Somali Bantu Farmers.”
This is a different Maine, a different America—a place that still resembles those old images, but is also a place inhabited by contrasting nationalism and immigrants and people of diverse faiths.
“It was more a windy road, dictated by intuition, serendipity, and strange happenings,” Walker says in a press release. “Over the course of the project, I’ve had the privilege to spend time with 10th generation Mainers, aging back-to-the-landers, young farmers, recent immigrants, artists, ex-convicts, entrepreneurs, drag queens, affluent summer folk, fishermen, crypto-currency traders, and so on. Despite the richness of these encounters, I am left with more questions than answers. To define a time and place is in some sense an impossible task, though, as an artist, trying to articulate what cannot be described is perhaps the best kind of sport.”
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