BROOKLIN — If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit you love peeking inside other people’s homes.
No? Just us. OK.
Voyeur or not, you’ll enjoy seeing famed American photographer Eliot Porter’s classic kitchen in the family’s big house on Great Spruce Head Island in Penobscot Bay. You’ll get up close to the great watercolorist John Marin’s weather-beaten shack on Carrying Place Island off Phippsburg. Ever wonder where conceptional artist William Wegman and his Weimaraner dogs live? You’ll tour the photographer’s rustic lodge on Loon Lake in Rangeley including a glimpse of models Flo and Topper’s vast wardrobe used in the photo shoots.
This statewide house tour of more than two dozen of Maine’s major artists — both living and deceased — takes the form of the photos and text in “At First Light: Two Centuries of Maine Artists, Their Homes and Studios” (Rizzoli Electa, 2020, $55). Penobscot seasonal resident Walter Smalling Jr., who divides his time between Maine and Washington, D.C., shot the living spaces and studios in the 240-page book. Each artist has a chapter written by art curators and scholars. They include Anne Collins Goodyear and Frank Goodyear III, a husband-and-wife team who co-direct the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, and Michael K. Komanecky, chief curator of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. Maine Poet Laureate and Deer Isle resident Stu Kestenbaum wrote the foreword.
“At First Light” starts with Blue Hill’s first Congregational minister, Jonathan Fisher, a man of wide-ranging pursuits and interests — often compared to Thomas Jefferson — and ends with Wegman.
The art, particularly the paintings, make more sense when you see where the artist was living and working when they were created.
“The photographs really worked with the art,” said Smalling.
For example, one can imagine Charles Herbert Woodbury’s painting his oil “Ogunquit Beach” after seeing Smalling’s photo of the artist’s clapboard studio on the shore of Perkins Cove.
The featured artists, spanning more than two centuries and working in a wide variety of media, include: Jonathan Fisher, Winslow Homer, Frank Weston Benson, Charles Herbert Woodbury, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, N. C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, Jamie Wyeth, Marguerite and William Zorach, Rockwell Kent, John Marin, Eliot Porter, Fairfield Porter, Rudy Burckhardt, Yvonne Jacquette, Ashley Bryan, Lois Dodd, Alex Katz, Bernard Langlais, Robert Indiana, David C. Driskell, Molly Neptune Parker, Richard Tuttle and Wegman.
“At First Light” is Smalling’s 26th book, but you also may have seen his work in the glossy pages of Architectural Digest. For 10 years, Smalling served as photographer for the National Park Service and the National Register of Historic Places.
Smalling’s success as a photographer is surely connected to a passion for light, which started before he held a camera.
“For me, light is perhaps the most evocative sense,” said Smalling.
He recalled laying in bed as a child and watching the sunlight.
“The light would come through the window and I’d be struck with this incredible sense of well-being,” said Smalling. “I’d think for a moment ‘everything is right with the world.’”
“I wanted other people to know what I was feeling,” he said. “To give someone else that same sense.”
“My favorite is winter light,” he said. “It comes in lower, at an angle. It’s softer.”
But Smalling also likes dramatic lighting.
“One of my things is I like it to look natural,” the photographer said. “That it was there before I got there. It doesn’t always work.”
“My goal was when I added light, it should look like the light was always there,” he said. Strobe lights, for example, mimic sunlight.
Smalling, traveling with his partner Ray Rhinehart, shot all the homes and studios, traveling across the state, driving to hinterlands and boating to islands during the summer of 2018.
“Because I have often done work as a photographer in historic preservation, going to old houses belonging to artists from the past felt very familiar,” Smalling wrote in the book’s notes. “I have a system. I go into a house and sit down and wait until the place speaks to me and I hear those voices from the past. I can see what eyes had seen sometimes a hundred years ago, sometimes decades — what brought people here and what inspired them.”
Of his more than two dozen books, one of Smalling’s favorites featured homes of the 18th century.
“The people who built those houses worked with what they had,” he said. “They knew if you made a building one-room deep, you would get light from all sides.”
In deciding which artists and which spaces to include in the book, Smalling had met with Earle Shettleworth, the former director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.
“Walter is one of the most experienced architectural photographers in this country,” said Earle Shettleworth.
“I think we’re very fortunate he has applied his considerable talents to recording and interpreting the artists’ homes and studios of Maine,” said Shettleworth. “I really find the book fascinating in that it has such a breadth of coverage. It starts with the late 19th century with studios such as Winslow Homer, goes into early 20th century with N.C. Wyeth, goes into mid-20th century with Andrew Wyeth and into more recent years with Jamie Wyeth.”
Some of the artists such as Ashley Bryan are still very active, the historian said. “I think that in the bicentennial year, Maine has been very well served by the publication of this book
The book was very much a group effort and yet still it managed to get done.
“There were almost no disagreements,” said Smalling.
The book was released in 2020 to commemorate Maine’s bicentennial.
Unfortunately, the book was released in mid-March, just as most of the country was shutting down from coast to coast because of COVID-19. So, the parties and readings and fanfare planned to promote “At First Light” were all canceled.
But all was not lost.
The book “had a lot of positive energy,” Smalling said. The photographer heard from many who bought the book and spent a few minutes every day during the early months of the pandemic reading a few pages.
“It calmed them down,” he said. “I was very happy with that.”
“Two people in the book have already died,” the photographer noted. David C. Driskell, a leading authority on African-American art and a multimedia artist himself, died April 1. He was 88.
Molly Neptune Parker, a master basketmaker, died June 12.
Smalling recalled Parker as being “full of energy and warmth.”
Smalling enjoyed the work whether the artists were still alive or not.
“The Wyeths did not disappoint at all,” he said.