Photographer Peter Ralston on Betsy and Andy Wyeth
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.
“I had to take out the stuff that could live on calendars forever,” he says. Downeast Press published Sightings in the summer of 1997. “I heard from the people in the book,” Peter says. “They said I’d gotten it: I’d gotten how it was to live on a Maine island. I now trust and believe that I didn’t miss the mark.”