Bringing Kosti Home

After Kosti Ruohomaa died in 1961, his legacy as one of New England’s greatest photographers was all but forgotten. Now his photos have a new life.

By Mel Allen

Feb 21 2019


Many of Ruohomaa’s self-assignments centered on everyday life in midcoast Maine, such as this student reading aloud in a one-room schoolhouse in Rockville in 1950.

One day in October 2017, Kevin Johnson, photo archivist at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine, arrived at a warehouse in Fort Lee, New Jersey. His mission: to resurrect a legend. Within 30 minutes he had loaded his SUV with seven two-foot-long boxes crammed with manila envelopes containing negatives, contact sheets, and notes. Each envelope was the result of a photo assignment (about 1,200 total)—the life’s work of Maine photographer Kosti Ruohomaa, who died in 1961 at age 47. Over the years, Ruohomaa’s name had been all but forgotten, except among a small cadre of photographers who after discovering Night Train at Wiscasset Station, a collection of his photographs published in 1977, would say his work had inspired them. Hours after leaving the warehouse, as Johnson crossed the New Hampshire border into Maine he stopped at a sign reading: “Welcome to Maine.” He then photographed the boxes to document the moment when, he says, “Kosti finally came home.”

A year later, I visit Johnson in an upstairs room at the museum to look at a small fraction of the collection. Deanna Bonner-Ganter joins us. A former Maine State Museum curator, she has devoted 30 years to researching Ruohomaa’s life (he supposedly told Andrew Wyeth to “say it like row-home-aboat”). Her 2016 biography, Kosti Ruohomaa: The Photographer Poet, chronicles how he became one of the top names at the famed Black Star photo agency in the ’40s and ’50s. His images of rural New England and its people—mostly Mainers—graced the pages of the nation’s most famous magazines. The way the world viewed Maine at that time was partly influenced by what Ruohomaa showed them. He wrote that he found his Maine “hidden in the offbeat nooks and crannies.” The expression of what he felt for his home region was compared to what Ansel Adams portrayed in the West. 

There may be as many as 50,000 images inside these boxes, all waiting to be catalogued, and eventually scanned and digitized, then placed on the museum’s website for the public’s viewing. It’s an ambitious and daunting endeavor. Bonner-Ganter volunteers at least 15 hours a week to help make it happen. 

Ruohomaa biographer Deanna Bonner-Ganter and Penobscot Marine Museum photo archivists Matt Wheeler and Kevin Johnson.
Photo Credit : Photo courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum

As we open one of the manila envelopes, Johnson says, “I’ve seen maybe only 10 percent of what we have. There are surprises all the time.” Spilling out on a table are images of a river drive carrying timber from the North Woods to paper mills; workers on the family blueberry farm where Ruohomaa grew up, in Rockland, Maine; an island in winter, cold and harsh and strangely beautiful in black and white. “In the summer it is a bit too idealistically beautiful,” Ruohomaa once wrote of photographing Monhegan Island. “In the winter it has guts and drama and doesn’t wear such a pretty face. Anyway, it has the kind of meat my camera likes.”

Ruohomaa was racing time. Alcoholism was eroding his health, and, as Johnson says, “he knew the way the world was evolving, many things would not be around.” After he died, Black Star retained the rights to his work. For decades, it was as though his photographs had been buried with him. When the agency moved its headquarters, his photos landed in the New Jersey warehouse, where they might have languished for years, unseen. But Ruohomaa’s passion was matched by that of Johnson and Bonner-Ganter, who struck a deal with Black Star: The Penobscot Marine Museum would care for the work and return it to the public eye, while the agency would hold publishing rights.

There have already been two exhibits from what arrived in Maine from the warehouse. Johnson thinks they will need $350,000 and three more years to bring Ruohomaa’s world online. A patron has already pledged $100,000, and grants are being pursued. After spending a day with Johnson and Bonner-Ganter, I left thinking about how we often take museums for granted, when at their core they represent labors of love, and sometimes they serve to remind us of what we do not even know we have forgotten. —Mel Allen

To learn more, go to The museum’s exhibits are closed until May, but its offices, research libraries, and archives are open year-round.

In 1945, just as Kosti Ruohomaa was establishing a national reputation, he captured this image of his father, Selim, heading out to milk the cows at the family farm on Dodge Mountain in Rockland, Maine.
Ruohomaa took time out for this self-portrait in a 19th-century mirror while on assignment for Architectural Forum in 1945. Over the years his work frequently appeared in Life, Fortune, National Geographic, and other major U.S. magazines.
Ruohomaa’s wax-pencil edits on contact sheets such as this c. 1950 one (in which a family friend demonstrates how to eat a lobster) show “how he went about realizing his vision and his method of approaching a photo story,” Johnson says.
An up-country fisherman peddles fresh haddock outside a 1945 town meeting in Washington, Maine.
Selectman Archie Lenfest reads a report during the Washington, Maine, town meeting. Ruohomaa photographed three different town meetings in Maine as part of his pursuit of folkways; photos from this shoot were published in The Boston Globe.
Documenting traditions was important to Ruohomaa, who captured these drivers working their pike poles on the Machias River branch in April 1954. He enjoyed the experience so much he asked the St. Regis Paper Company if he could photograph the log drive again in 1958. The last log drive in Maine would be held in 1976.
Many of Ruohomaa’s self-assignments centered on everyday life in midcoast Maine, such as this student reading aloud in a one-room schoolhouse in Rockville in 1950.
In the summer of 1951, Ruohomaa received a call from his friend Andrew Wyeth inviting him on a trip to Louds Island to bring back a hearse (as the story goes, Ruohomaa was excited because he thought Wyeth said “nurse”). Ruohomaa ended up documenting the journey from start to finish. Here, Ralph Cline rows Wyeth to shore from Dick Percy’s lobster boat.
Ruohomaa took a number of photographs of Andrew Wyeth at the Cushing, Maine, farmhouse shown in Wyeth’s Christina’s World. In this 1951 image, Ruohomaa captured the artist, right, in a relaxed moment with the woman who posed for that same painting, Christina Olson, and her brother, Alvaro.
This 1950 photograph shows children at play at the Ruohomaa family farm. According to photo archivist Kevin Johnson, Ruohomaa would often pay youngsters a dollar to be his models while doing their everyday activities.
This shot of a young woman at a clambake in South Thomaston, Maine, may look effortless, but other frames from the camera roll show how hard Ruohomaa worked to get the exact right moment.
Another memorable image from Ruohomaa’s visit to the 1945 town meeting in Washington, Maine.

All photographs from the Kosti Ruohomaa Collection at the Penobscot Marine Museum, Searsport, ME. Courtesy of Black Star, White Plains, NY.

SEE MORE: Kosti Ruohomaa | Additional Photos