Photographer Peter Ralston on Betsy and Andy Wyeth

Peter Ralston is telling me about a boy he once knew. In 1957, when the boy is seven years old, he moves to an old gray stone house in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

By Mel Allen

Aug 14 2008

Andrew Wyeth

“Dead On,” photograph of Andrew Wyeth by Peter Ralston

"Dead On," photograph of Andrew Wyeth by Peter Ralston
“Dead On,” photograph of Andrew Wyeth by Peter Ralston
Yankee classic from February 2000 Peter Ralston is telling me about a boy he once knew. In 1957, when the boy is seven years old, he moves to an old gray stone house in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The house was part of a once-prosperous Quaker farmstead with its own mill and dam. The Brandywine River flows beside the house, and when the boy stands on its banks, he sees birds and tree-covered islands, and except for the distant waterfalls, it is quiet. In summer, with the neighbor’s children and with his two brothers, he swims to the islands. A split-rail fence divides the boy’s house from another large stone house, because once the two houses were part of the mill property. In 1958 an artist and his wife and children move into the other old house. Beside the house is a barn, and that is where the artist occasionally paints. The boy leaps the fence and hides in the tall grass; he crawls on his belly, his elbows scraping the dirt, until he finds the high grass close to the back door of the barn. The barn door is open, and sitting on an old box in the corner of the barn is the artist. The game, Peter Ralston tells me, is for the boy to be still and silent, to hold his breath and actually crawl inside, close enough to watch the utter intensity and concentration of a grownup at work. “The great lesson Andy Wyeth gave me was that you could be an adult and get by in life by being curious and expressive and artistic,” Peter says. “I was like the Wyeths’ dog, just always running through the house. The magical person for me in that house was Betsy Wyeth. She was so motherly and nurturing and nourishing. A very powerful, very astute woman. Andy is as tough and as forceful a person as I’ve ever met, but it was Betsy who painted me into this role I’m in today.” Where Peter Ralston is today is in a chair beside a row of windows in a third-floor, high-ceilinged, sun-filled Rockland, Maine, studio, where his walls are lined with framed photographic prints from Sightings, A Maine Coast Odyssey. The book is a collection from his 20 years of photographing the coast of Maine and the lives of its fishermen that most of us never see. He is dressed in jeans and flannel shirt and fleece vest, and throughout his boyhood story his eyes have not left the window and the streets below. He wears thick tortoiseshell glasses. He sees a policeman in a parking lot place a ticket on the windshield of a green car with Vermont plates. “Hey!” he calls out. “Give ’em a break!” The policeman looks up, waves, and smiles. From his windows Peter Ralston looks out upon the new Farnsworth Art Museum and the Wyeth Center, which houses one of the largest collections of Wyeth art in the country. From a window to the rear of his studio, he sees the bay and breakwater. From another window he can see the hills of Rockport, where his own large graceful house looks out over a pond. He can walk to a spot on his land where he can see Penobscot Bay and far beyond, to the mountains on Mount Desert. The simple act of looking out his window, the simple fact that he is here, talking, remains Peter Ralston’s miracle. Two years ago he suffered brain aneurysms and a major stroke, all aftershocks from what was supposed to be a simple nasal-passage operation. What doctors did not know then was that a hidden tumor sat on an adrenal gland. The anesthesia, coupled with the tumor, caused a near-lethal rise in his blood pressure. After two operations, he lay in a coma for three days. Doctors thought that if he survived, he’d be blind, perhaps paralyzed. He survived — but he needed months of recuperation. He lived in dark, silent rooms. He sometimes sat with a book upside down and thought he was reading. When I sit in his studio, surrounded by his photos, I am reminded that he has not taken a photo in more than two years. “I’m told that I’m the first one to ever survive this,” he says. “I look at everything differently now. Some days I wake up, and when I look at my kids [he has three], I just cry from joy. I’m still me now, but I’m changed. So many people helped me get better. The people from my community. The people I’ve come to know by tying up to their floats. When you’re on the receiving end of that caring, you can never shake it.” We walk together, looking at the photographs on his walls. He looks fit, healthy. “I’ve never felt better,” he says. “Life is so sweet to me now.” 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.” 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.” 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.”