Photographer Peter Ralston on Betsy and Andy Wyeth
“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.”The book was a critical and commercial success. He had a show comprising 35 prints from his book. Orders for prints came from around the world. He was, as he puts it, “on a roll.” Then came his near-fatal operation and the months of slow, miraculous recovery. In the summer of 1998 he went back on the water for the first time. A friend rowed him to the Raven. He hauled himself on the boat, slithering like a seal. When he finally stood on board, he cried. He took the boat out solo. He came back, then soon took it out in fog. In January of last year, Peter went back to work at the Island Institute. He felt his strength returning. What he could not do, however, was pick up a camera. “I’d survived what I should not have survived,” he says. “I had to get new bearings. I knew I didn’t just want to go back to doing more of the same.”
Peter Ralston leans forward, fingers on lips. “I want to show you something,” he says. He walks into the back room of his studio and comes back holding a black square camera. It is an Ansco Shur-Shot Jr., one shutter speed, the first camera he used as a boy. “I have cameras that cost $12,000,” he says. He turns it over in his hands and looks through the tiny viewfinder. “If I can’t do something with this old camera,” he says, “what good am I?”
He opens the back of the camera. “What’s this?” he says. He reaches in and takes out a faded piece of paper. It is a note he has long forgotten, a note from his mother, dated Christmas 1987. “Peter … It’s a real tug to part with this, but I think the time has come for you to add it to your collection. It holds many memories for me … It was given to me in 1947. The camera went off to camp with you when you first went. I like to tell myself that perhaps it played some small part in your developing love of photography.”
There is a light in his eyes. “I didn’t know that was in there,” he says, shaking his head. We go to his house in Rockport for dinner. He grills steak and mushrooms, and his son, Will, nearly six, is riding his bicycle outside, clamoring for his dad to take him to get ice cream. Peter takes his Ansco Shur-Shot outside. He calls out to Will, tells him to crouch down. He looks through the tiny lens, framing his son, framing, perhaps, a new beginning. He shoots a single shot. He smiles with satisfaction. “I don’t know,” Peter says. “Something’s brewing.”
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