Photographer Peter Ralston on Betsy and Andy Wyeth
Instead of Princeton, Peter went “out into the world.” He grabbed 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 genius — not 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 them — that which hurts, instructs.” Peter smiles. “I became really, 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 the 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 uninhabited — only 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 knew 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. Outward 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 sold — and 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 befriended two Criehaven fishermen, Anson Norton and Jerry 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.