DEER ISLE — It was freelance furniture photography that led Darwin Davidson to discover what has become one of his life’s greatest passions.
The Deer Isle photographer graduated with a degree from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1958 and got a job as a photographer in a commercial studio in New York City, specializing in interiors and home furnishings. After working there for 15 years, he set out on his own to do freelance work and made frequent trips to High Point in North Carolina — “the furniture capital of the world, at that time,” he said — for commercial photography jobs.
In 1990, a fellow who worked with Davidson in High Point mentioned a relatively new bluegrass festival being held in nearby Wilkesboro. While not a bluegrass fan, per se, Davidson and his wife, Jackie, had lived in Greenwich Village when it was the heart of the folk music scene and enjoyed attending shows there. “You ought to go up,” Davidson’s colleague told him, and so he did.
“We went up and sat in the rain for three and a half days,” Davidson said with a chuckle, recalling his first trip to MerleFest. The festival, then in its infancy but now in its third decade, was named after Eddy Merle Watson, who played guitar with his father (and bluegrass legend) Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson before the younger man’s death in a tractor accident in 1985. Despite the rain, Davidson found he had a fondness for the music he heard.
“Boy, I really liked it,” he said. “Within a few years, I really had the bug.”
And so his first trip to MerleFest led him to other festivals in subsequent years: the International Bluegrass Music Association’s event (then in Louisville, Ky., later in Nashville, Tenn. and now held in Raleigh, N.C.); Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, N.Y.; and closer to home, the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival in Massachusetts and the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival in Brunswick.
After several years of being in the audience Davidson began shooting the shows with his camera and documenting the performances of the dozens of bands and artists sharing their music with the crowd. Though it might seem an unlikely transition from photographing inanimate pieces of furniture in a studio setting to snapping shots of dynamic musicians on stage, it came naturally.
“I’m a photographer,” he said. “I get a little antsy just sitting. I want to photograph things.”
And so it is that Davidson has come to meet and know some of the biggest names in the bluegrass music world: Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Jerry Douglas and Steve Martin (in addition to his comedic skills, Martin is a Grammy Award-winning banjo player), among others. Davidson said the music’s simplicity is what appeals to him most about bluegrass.
Simplicity also is the approach Davidson brings to his work when he is photographing festivals. He has one camera, a Canon EOS model, with a monopod and three different lenses (70-200mm, 24-70mm and 16-35mm, the latter reserved for big group shots). He never uses a flash for stage shots and instead relies on existing light and an appropriate ISO speed.
The standard bluegrass instruments are guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass. Others include the mandolin (the man commonly called the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, played mandolin), Dobro (a brand-name resonator guitar), occasionally a harmonica and — very rarely — drums.
While Davidson played the trumpet in junior high school and enjoys listening to it today, he is now content to photograph and not perform. He said people will sometimes ask him if he plays guitar, and he responds: “I’ve got too many friends who play the guitar — I don’t want to embarrass myself.”
One of those musician friends is Paul Anderson, who plays mandolin in the Maine bluegrass band Blue Northern and who got Davidson involved in the other arena of his bluegrass passion: the WERU radio show “Bronzewound.” Anderson started the show the same week WERU began operation in May of 1988, and the show takes its name from a particular type of guitar string made of steel but wound with bronze.
Davidson stopped in at the station and got to know Anderson after his early trips to MerleFest. Anderson asked him if he would do some interviews at future festivals, and Davidson agreed. When work took Anderson to southern Maine he was succeeded as host by David Manski, who later asked Davidson to co-host. Davidson began that role in the fall of 1997, and later became the primary host, though things have now come full circle and Anderson is back in the area and hosts once or twice a month. Caren Mulford and Marilyn Ryan also are involved with “Bronzewound.”
Hosting the show has helped underscore the familial nature of the bluegrass community even though it reaches across the globe. One night at WERU, Davidson got a request for the Swiss-based trio the Kruger Brothers. Though he knew of them from the festival circuit it caught him off guard. “Yeah, but how do you know the Kruger Brothers?” The caller said he had lived in Switzerland and represented the group. “Where are you calling from tonight?” Davidson asked. The man was calling from Northport.
It led to the Kruger Brothers coming to Maine and going out on a lobster boat, and they later wrote a symphony with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra. Lobster also figures in Davidson’s bond with the Steep Canyon Rangers, a bluegrass band that plays with Steve Martin and whose members have hosted the Maine photographer in their North Carolina home in exchange for a feast of lobster he has shipped from Maine.
Davidson’s ties to Deer Isle stretch back almost a half century to 1972, when Jackie did a three-week residency at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. They had two young children at the time, and Davidson explored the island and surrounding area with them while Jackie was at Haystack. They liked the area and later bought property in Sunshine and made a home there.
His studio has been housed in the H.P.A. Spofford building, built in the late 19th century, since 1992. Home to the town’s post office prior to that, it was owned and operated (he was also the postmaster) by Wilfred Weed, who agreed to sell to Davidson when a new post office was built just down the street in the early 1990s. Davidson extensively renovated the building in the summer of 1992 and marked completion of the work with a grand opening of “the new old Deer Isle post office.”
Today the second-floor space Davidson uses for his studio is filled with boxes of photographs, shelves full of bluegrass CDs and milk crates full of bluegrass LPs. The albums have come from other collectors who have had to make space in their homes — and also from Davidson’s trips to festivals, particularly when one was held in Nashville for several years.
“In Nashville you can get into big trouble at music stores,” he said with a smile. “I’m running out of space.”
To learn more about Davidson, visit darwindavidson.com.