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Photographer Peter Ralston on Betsy and Andy Wyeth

Photographer Peter Ralston on Betsy and Andy Wyeth
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On his wall I see the hands of a young Port Clyde fisherman gripping the wheel of his grandfather’s last boat. I see a Frenchboro lobsterman, his hand lightly touching the shoulder of his young great-grandson, who proudly holds his first cod. A print of the photograph hangs today in the American embassy in Bosnia, a symbol of tradition, permanence, family. Here is a flock of sheep tightly huddled in a boat, bound for Allen Island, where they will live and keep the land clear.
“This is 20 years of my life,” he says. “The one thing that counted most with Sightings,” says Ralston, now 49, “was what Andy and Betsy thought. They said, ‘You did well.’ ”

***

He was a restless boy. No matter what private school he was sent to, he soon dropped out. “You have to realize the family expectations for me,” he says. “When I was born, there was a silver baby mug engraved with my name and Princeton Class of ’72.”

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.”

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