It’s a tedious, daylong drive under the best circumstances from Fort Lee, New Jersey, to Searsport, home of the Penobscot Marine Museum in midcoast Maine. But the drive home over Columbus Day weekend felt unusually swift and purposeful for Kevin Johnson, the museum’s photo archivist.

On that drive, Johnson carried as cargo seven brown banker’s boxes filled with envelopes overstuffed with prints, negatives, contact sheets and handwritten notes of the late Maine photographer Kosti Ruohomaa. Johnson picked them up at a warehouse in New Jersey just outside of New York City, where the Ruohomaa archive has resided in the care and storage of his New York agency for the past half-century.

“Three Quarter Century Club,” by Kosti Ruohamaa. This 1947 photo taken in Portland was included in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) exhibit “Family of Man,” curated by Edward Steichen in 1955. Ruohamaa’s original caption read, “Edward Rogers Castner, who ran a general store in Damariscotta, Maine, for 60 years, gives his wife a fine ride. Both husband and wife are 80 and have been married for 60 years.” Photos by Kosti Ruohomaa/Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum and Black Star photographic agency

Johnson packed the seven tattered boxes bound by plastic straps in the back of his car and hightailed it for Maine. He was repatriating Ruohomaa’s photographs with the place that mattered most to him, and Johnson felt the photographer’s presence in the car with him. “While I didn’t have any ghost sightings, it really resonated with me at that moment that his work was coming home,” Johnson said.

Ruohomaa – pronounced “row-home-a” – was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1913 and moved to Maine in 1924. His parents bought 240 acres on Dodge Mountain in Rockland, where they harvested blueberries.

As much as any other artist, except maybe his friend Andrew Wyeth, Ruohomaa was responsible for the image of Maine in the outside world during the 1940s and 1950s, when his mostly black-and-white images appeared on the covers of Life and Look magazines and many others. He was a rugged man and was motivated to capture the grit and grease of Maine instead of its light and shine. He went into the woods with lumberjacks and onto the decks of trawlers with fishermen. He preferred Monhegan in the winter and considered Maine summers “a bit too idealistically beautiful” for his tastes. He photographed the town meeting in Washington in 1948 to show the nation how small-town Maine conducted its affairs.

Like a lot of Mainers, Ruohomaa couldn’t wait to leave Maine – and, later on, was eager to return. He finished high school in Rockland and moved to Boston to study painting and drawing at the Boston School of Practical Art. He worked commercially, then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as an animator for Walt Disney.

He began taking photos in 1944 and signed a contract with the Black Star photographic agency in New York. That brought him back east and launched his art career. He loved shooting pictures of Maine in all its seasons and worked hard to promote the idea of Mainers as honest, hard-working people.

Johnson holds Kosti Ruohomaa’s c. 1950 photograph of Andrew Wyeth, right, and Ralph Cline, a sawmill operator who is rowing them to Louds Island off Port Clyde. Wyeth was headed to the island to purchase a hearse he’d seen advertised for sale and planned to return it to the mainland via lobsterboat. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

He died young, at age 47, in 1961, and his memory slowly faded. His photos were the subject of one book, “Night Train at Wiscasset Station,” published in 1977. Written by Lew Dietz, the book shows mid-20th-century Maine with one-room schoolhouses, lobsters and logging. A few years ago, now-retired Maine State Museum curator Deanna Bonner-Ganter began restoring Ruohomaa’s memory and rebuilding his image. She organized a yearlong exhibition of his photographs, followed by a biography that she wrote about his life and career, “Kosti Ruohomaa: The Photographer Poet.” At the same time, the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland prepared a show examining Ruohomaa’s friendship with Wyeth and their shared subject matter.

“Maine Fog,” a 1947 photo of Kosti Ruomomaa’s father at his farm on Dodge Mountain in Rockland. Courtesy Penobscot Marine Museum

After finishing the biography, Bonner-Ganter and Johnson began exploring bringing his archive home to Maine. The archive itself had been largely forgotten after it was moved out of Manhattan many years ago, when Black Star gave up its downtown offices. Johnson heard rumors that the archive had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy while in storage in New Jersey and was pleased and relieved when he saw for himself that those rumors were not true.

With the blessing of Ruohomaa’s family, Johnson and Bonner-Ganter simply wrote a letter to Black Star, asking if they could take over the care and storage of the archive, bring it home to Maine and give it the attention it deserved. It proved easier than they expected. Black Star readily agreed.

“They are keeping publishing rights for a while, which is fine,” Johnson said. “We are allowed to do whatever we want in terms of exhibitions and putting it online and using it for educational purposes.”

The archive fits in the Penobscot Marine Museum’s larger mission. The museum owns the largest collection of historic images in Maine and, under Johnson’s direction, has mounted several historic photography exhibitions and made its collection available to scholars for research and publications.

The Ruohomaa archive appears to be in great shape, Johnson said. It consists of thousands of medium- and large-format negatives, 35mm negatives and slides, as well as contact sheets and vintage prints. The archive is mostly organized by the assignments Ruohomaa completed for national magazines, with each assignment contained in an envelope with his notes and captions. He marked his crops and edits with wax pencils on contact sheets.

“It gives an insider’s look at how Kosti approached an assignment, what he was going for and how he chose within his own work the images that would stand for his assignment,” Johnson said.

It’s also very local. “There were hundreds of assignments, either that he was given or that were self-assigned,” Johnson said. “More than a third of them are Maine-based, and most of those are within the area of Knox and Waldo counties.”

Johnson points to his favorite frame from the contact sheet of a photo essay demonstrating the various stages of eating a lobster. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Bonner-Ganter has come out of retirement to volunteer at the museum three or four days each week, helping to create an inventory for a more complete understanding of the contents of the archive. Working with Ruohomaa’s photos and negatives directly is a privilege, she said. She has studied Ruohomaa’s pictures for 30 years, interviewed many of the people who knew him best and wrote the most complete biography about him.

Working hands-on with his images has given her a different level of appreciation for how he saw and was inspired by Maine.

“Here was a man who really loved Maine,” she said. “Maine was beloved to him, and I can see that more clearly looking through what I am looking at now. He captures the essence of Maine and Maine’s culture and Maine’s landscape – and the weather. He looked for the moods of Maine and those mood changes, and knew how to capture them.”

A frame from a Ruohomaa contact sheet of a photo essay demonstrating the stages of eating a lobster. The man in the photos, Stanley Powell of Washington, Maine, was a friend of Ruohomaa’s family. Photo by Kosti Ruohomaa/Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum and Black Star photographic agency

The first public display of the photos will happen in April, when Johnson will organize an exhibition of Ruohomaa’s images with a maritime theme at the Camden Public Library. After that, Johnson will begin raising money to digitize the collection so it’s widely available. Preliminarily, he estimates he will need to raise between $50,000 and $100,000 for the task. “But before we can start looking for money, we need to know what we have and what we need,” Johnson said.

Bonner-Ganter thinks Ruohomaa would be pleased that a Maine institution led the effort to reclaim his work and bring it home.

“For all these years, his work has just been put in boxes and put away in storage,” she said. “He’d be thrilled to know that his work is being cared for by the Penobscot Marine Museum. It’s the perfect place for the collection. Finally.”


Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.