An Artful Life
Photographer Peter Ralston's Rockport gallery reflects his deep connection to the state and to the Wyeth family
Peter Ralston points at a tiny object in a framed photograph hanging on a back wall of his Rockport gallery. Peering closely, I can see that it’s a seagull, flying low over the water in a striking view of Penobscot Bay shot at dawn, the Camden Hills rising dark against an orange sky. Governor Janet Mills has recently chosen the piece for over the fireplace in the reception room at the Blaine House in Augusta, which clearly makes Ralston proud. “Nobody will ever in a million years see that I actually spent time trying to backlight its wing just a little bit,” he says, moving his finger to another tiny gull. “And the tail in that one—I just get lost in it.”
The eyes, hands, and creative brain behind Maine’s most iconic photographic images, Ralston is giving me a thorough and animated tour of the gallery he and his wife, Terri, opened in 2011. Why in quiet Rockport instead of bustling Rockland or Camden? “I can walk six minutes and I’m home. Three minutes across the road and I’m in my skiff; row three minutes and I’m in my boat,” says Ralston. “Enough people find us; some stumble across us and some know my work and come looking for us. And it all kind of works. We’re so freaking lucky.”
Luck comes up a lot in our rambling, occasionally intense conversation, as does Ralston’s comparison of himself to Forrest Gump. There is an element of “right place, right time” in his life’s fascinating trajectory, but also raw ambition, grit, and a willingness to see and seize opportunities. Making photographs has been Ralston’s life’s work, and while he detests the term “fine art photography,” his native talent was nurtured and inspired by the first family of American art. Ralston Gallery is as much about the Wyeths, particularly Andrew, who died in 2009, and his 97-year- old wife Betsy, as it is about the photographer whose name is over the door. Here is Ralston’s intense portrait of Andrew, titled “In His Eyes,” made for the cover of Wyeth’s authorized biography, Secret Life. There is a portrait of Betsy all in white, looking patrician and completely at ease, draped into a chair in the white- painted bell tower of the lighthouse on Southern Island, the first Maine island she purchased, and where artist son Jamie now spends summers. The photograph is titled “Keeper.” I am drawn to “That Hour,” which shows Andrew and Betsy in a room with a high chair rail and two windows, seated at either end of a long farm table lit with tall candles. A candlelit chandelier hangs overhead, and their large white dog is asleep on the wide board floor in the foreground. Betsy looks amused, one hand on her fork and the other on her hip, while Andrew is laughing, open-mouthed, as he pours wine into a glass.
Of course the photograph has a story, made possible by Ralston’s nearly lifelong close friendship with the couple he calls simply “Andy and Betsy.” The relationship began in the late 1950s, when Ralston was eight years old and the Wyeths moved in next door to his family’s home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Ralston’s father was a Princeton-educated engineer, and his son was expected to follow in his footsteps—Ralston’s silver baby cup was even engraved, “Princeton 1972.” But Ralston knew early on he wanted to be a photographer, a calling prompted by his young fascination with the images in Life and National Geographic, and encouraged by the hours he spent hanging around the Wyeths’s home next door. Instead of Princeton, Ralston embarked on what would become a successful career as a photojournalist, based in New York and traveling the world when the opportunity arose. Then the Wyeths reached out, asking him to photograph the paintings. In 1978, over dinner in Chadds Ford, Betsy informed Ralston he would be coming with them that summer to their home in Cushing—Ralston’s first visit to Maine and one of several seminal moments in the complex weaving together of his life with the family. Many of those moments are captured in photographs hung in the gallery and in Ralston’s memorabilia-filled office. “Here I am over on Allen, looking back at Benner and there’s their house,” he says, gesturing to a wide-angle shot of Benner Island, which Betsy bought in the late 70s, after purchasing adjacent Allen Island. “There’s the school-house Betsy had brought over on a barge from Cushing— drug it out there and stuck it on the end of the house.”
In typical Ralston fashion, we have circled back to the story of the photograph I admired. The old schoolhouse became the Wyeth’s dining room, and Ralston’s image recalls one of Andrew’s paintings titled Witching Hour. In it, the room is empty and slightly tilted, the table unoccupied. A gust of wind is blowing through, extinguishing the candles in the chandelier, and trees outside the windows are black against a brooding sky. “It’s really a portrait of their marriage,” says Ralston of the painting. “Betsy is every bit Andy’s equal—brilliant, tough, headstrong, willful… they really loved each other, but they could get into it.” The night he took the photograph, the three of them were having dinner together. “We were all having a jolly night, and I said, ‘I’ve got a tripod, how about we do a picture?’ This will be “Happy Hour,” not Witching Hour.
Another seminal moment in Ralston’s deep connection to the Wyeths came after Betsy bought Allen Island. She and Ralston hired land conservation expert Philip Conkling to help them figure out a plan for the 450-acre island. Ralston and Conkling became fast friends, and went on to found the Island Institute, a nonprofit that supports Maine’s island and coastal communities. His work with the institute gave Ralston access to the people and places that make up the body of his photographic catalogue. “It took awhile, and slowly we were welcomed out on the waters, and into the boats, and into the homes, then mainly into the hearts,” he says. “And now I’ve got people out there I would chop my arm off for this minute. And they’d do the same for me.” Ralston refers to his beloved boat, Raven, a 37-foot lobster boat–style craft with a fly bridge, as his “live-aboard tripod,” allowing him to make photographs like the one that will hang in the Blaine House. “I go out early in the morning, wheeling around with the boat doing the thing that I love,” he says, describing the challenge of getting Raven positioned precisely “like a giant video game, while there’s someone fishing over there, and you dare not get in the way and foul their line.”
Ralston references the light on the tiny gulls to explain that for him, making a photograph is more than capturing an image in his camera. He quotes Ansel Adams, the famed photographer with whom he once studied and who— previously unknown to me—was also a musician. “He said, ‘the negative is the score, the print is the performance,” says Ralston. “You’re out there with your camera and in a fraction of a second you write your score. But it’s in the dark room that you really perform it. Now I work with digital files, but it’s the same thing; you can reach into the score and say to the third flute, ‘come in on that note.’ Digital is what made me love printmaking.’”
With the exception of eight limited-edition photographs from an influential 2016 trip to the Arctic, Ralston’s work available at the gallery is dedicated to Maine. I mention that some of these have a painterly quality, which he says he has heard before. “Glint” shows a gull perched on the stern of a wooden skiff illuminated in the late-afternoon light against the blue-black water; the title refers to the glint in the bird’s eye Ralston captures. The grassy foreground of “Painters,” a photograph of the keeper’s house and light tower on Southern Island, echoes the field in Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. A collection of photographs called “Relationships” illustrates Ralston’s penchant for metaphor. “Tangled,” an image of rope snarled with a hank of rockweed, recalls the solace lovers find to weather life’s storms. And in “The Lesson,” an abandoned classroom in an old island schoolhouse, he sees life’s transience. “The danger for me is not just making pretty pictures,” Ralston says. “Telling stories with a camera is writing with light, and most of what we hang here is more like painting with light. People aren’t necessarily going to buy portraits.”
Ralston Gallery is also a source for limited-edition prints by Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, as well as access to original work by all three generations of Wyeths, including N.C. For high-level photography collectors, the gallery offers limited edition-prints, presented in linen-covered museum-quality boxes, a sample of which are displayed in the center of the modestly sized space. These include “Pairings,” 20 poems by Conkling paired with 13” by 19” inch prints by Ralston. “I had always wanted to do a book with Philip’s poems and my images, but with publishing now, you’re always doing battle with the accountants,” says Ralston. “We wanted something of real excellence, so Terri said, ‘Do it on your own.’” Portland printmaker David Wolfe did the letterpress work and the folio’s thick, beautiful paper came from England and France. “We had so much fun putting this together, because we didn’t have to cut any corners,” Ralston says.
His opinion of current-day publishing notwithstanding, Ralston is working on a new book, his first sinceSightings: A Maine Coast Odyssey was published in 1997. Instead of using his computer at the gallery, he’s organizing his images on the long wooden floor of a nearby building that used to be a livery, and later a fire station. “I’m really seeing it, now that I’m laying out the book, that I have a foot in both camps—journalism and the stuff that’s more from the heart,” he says, taking a pause and extending his arms. “But everything’s for the heart. Because this is what I live, this is what I do, this is where and what I love. I swear to God the whole deal is like Forrest Gump. I’m just so freaking lucky.”