For years around the holidays, Al Wachlin Jr. and his family packed into a van and drove from Philadelphia to northern Maine to visit relatives. They would return to Pennsylvania with hundreds of pounds of potatoes, from which the family would make dishes for potato parties in January.
So it seemed fitting that more recently photographer Wachlin piled his cameras and other equipment into the van to visit the same area of Maine. This time, Wachlin didn’t come back loaded with potatoes. Rather, he came back with a series of photographs of Aroostook County potato houses now on display at the 3rd Street Gallery in Philadelphia through Dec. 28.
“Aroostook” documents both the old and new potato houses all over The County, from just north of Houlton to Fort Kent.
Wachlin grew up in Philadelphia and spent some of his college years at Northeastern University in Boston. His connection to Maine is through his father, Presque Isle native Al Wachlin Sr., whose mother was in Aroostook County until about three years ago, when the family moved her closer to them.
The Wachlin family’s return visits to Aroostook County helped spark Wachlin’s interest in the houses.
“As my interest in photography grew, so did my interest in the potato houses,” he said. “I felt like they have lot of character to them. They’re unique and interesting structures. My typical idea of a barn was a big red barn with a door, but the potato houses have a unique layout. Some of them are L- and T-shaped, and I thought that was a little unique.”
Wachlin’s show consists of photographs of both older and recently built potato houses, although at first he concentrated on the older structures. As the newer buildings started to prevail in the landscape, however, Wachlin began to include them in his work.
To juxtapose the differences in the older and newer structures, Wachlin printed the photographs using two different methods. For photos of the old potato houses, he used a handmade paper, stressed the paper so it wrinkled a bit, and applied a coating that gave the pictures a crackled appearance. The photographs of the newer potato houses were printed on an aluminum sheet that has been treated so it is able to go through an inkjet printer.
“The technology represents the images themselves,” Wachlin said. “I had some really positive responses with the mirroring of old with new, using modern materials to show modern barns made from steel, and using [aging] techniques to show the older barns.”
Philadelphia is a long way from Aroostook County, but the opening of Wachlin’s exhibit drew several people with Maine connections to the gallery, including a couple from Lewiston and a woman who told Wachlin a relative in her family had been a potato farmer in northern Maine.
The potato houses and their gradual disappearance from the landscape play into Wachlin’s interest in the aging of buildings. If the houses weren’t endangered, he said, the structures probably wouldn’t be as interesting to him.
“That’s another thing that also draws me in the city, taking pictures of houses that are weathered and abandoned,” Wachlin added. “I’m interested in life cycles. At one point, this building had a purpose. It’s the same thing whether it’s a barn in northern Maine or a row house in Philly. Things are either repurposed or they fall apart.”