Tag Archives: kennebec river

Diary of a River: Maine woman uses 120 pinhole cameras to document the Kennebec

Maine photographer Johanna Moore lives and works on the Kennebec River in Central Maine.  I saw her photos at USM’s Glickman Family Library in Portland. They are on display there through May 29.

I asked her to share her project — how she did it, what it means, and the photos themselves — and she agreed. For that, I am grateful.

– Troy

This project started in a beaver bog near my home in Central Maine. I made several Solargraphs there for an upcoming pinhole camera workshop I was leading for the Harlow Gallery in Hallowell.

Solargraphs are long exposure pinhole photographs. The exposures can be as little as one day or as long as six months. The streaks you see in these images are the sun as it travels across the sky. Any spaces you see between the streaks are overcast days.

Solargraphs track the sun between solstices and mark its rise and decent on the horizon as the earth changes its tilt.

Starting in April of last year I built 120 pinhole cameras out of metal cans of various shapes and sizes and drilled pinhole apertures to match the size of each can. I lined them with photographic paper and, at the summer solstice, travelled the Kennebec River, from Indian Pond to Phippsburg, and set them in place to see what they might capture.

When this project started I looked at it as a way to document the different weather patterns we see from one region in Maine to the next. In a single day it could be raining in the Forks and cloudless at Popham Beach.

I hoped these images would show a visual diary comparing weather over the 170 miles of the Kennebec River

As the project progressed my response to it changed. I met people living and working along the river, saw flourishing farmlands, and boarded up factories.

Kennebec River camera mapI took time out of my days to sit along the Kennebec River in Hallowell to watch the sturgeon jump.

In most areas the terrain leading to the river is steep and treacherous. I would climb down to the river holding onto my cameras in one hand and tree roots in the other hoping
I wouldn’t get sliced up on the broken beer bottles strewn everywhere.

I accessed the river through the generosity of those who donated land to regional Land Trusts, through boat launches and wildlife management areas provided by the state.

Brookfield Renewable Energy operates hydroelectric dams along the river and maintains rest areas, allows water releases for thriving whitewater rafting businesses, boating access points and camping areas. This access to the river was made possible by a long term contract negotiated with the state of Maine.

I accessed the river through the generosity of private landowners who welcomed me onto their land and who enjoyed the project updates I would send them.

Accessing the river and coming away with a body of work was not easy. Out of the 120 cameras I set out, I lost 38 to vandalism or the weather. One camera was set too low and sat in water every time the tide came in and reached the top of the bridge abutment where I installed it.

Another camera was mistaken for a geocache site; the people who found it opened the camera, signed their names to the photographic paper, and left behind a Shamrock bracelet charm.

At Nanrantsouak, north of Norridgewock, I found a memorial which said,  “The Land you walk upon has been a special place to Wabanaki people for thousands of years. A place where children were born and played, a place where elders lived their lives. Walk in respect on this land so over the next thousand years your descendants will enjoy the beauty that surrounds you”

It was through discoveries like this that changed my perception of this project. What started as an experiment transformed into an ode to the fragility of time and place.

A flowing river is a conductor of time, a leaf passes in front of you for a moment, floating on the current and you can watch that moment disappear downstream. You want to reach out and grasp that leaf to hold onto the moment, yet it is out of reach and only its fading memory remains.

The pinhole cameras captured exposures from 63-134 days. In Dan Kany’s recent Maine Sunday Telegram review of the exhibit of this body of work he said of these long exposures,” When you look at something that long, strange things appear.” I agree.

A snapshot of a scene gives you a moment in time. You see all that is in focus for that moment. These images overlay thousands of moments and make those strange things appear — inexplicable shapes and colors that you don’t see in a snapshot.

And when you look at something that long, some things disappear.
When I look at these images I forget that we massacred tribes of people to fulfill European Land Grant claims,

I forget about all the Bud Light bottles and garbage people have dumped along the riverbanks.

I forget that today conventional agriculture, private homeowners, and roadways seem to be contributing more pollution to the river than paper mills and that there are more reporting requirements to import fertile chicken eggs into the state than there are to import pesticides.

I forget that Cianbro has plans to build a superhighway through the Dead River watershed of the Kennebec River as it bisects the State of Maine

I forget about the fragility of this place because, when I look at the images, I see that what has burned into the photographic paper is what is important. I see what is important for the Kennebec and for all waterways

And that’s The River, the life that flourishes there, and the light that shines along its course.

A friend of mine saw the project and said: these river solargraphs are an essay of life’s movement and its range from darkness to a celestial light. They celebrate the river and connect a question.
What is our responsibility as humans to the stewardship of this wonder, and of all the wonders in the world?

– Johanna Moore