It all started with a few cameras, a computer, and an assumption.
First, the cameras. Allagash native and local business owner Darlene Dumond had one. So did Fernando Vallejo, a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, who teaches Spanish and helps coach soccer at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
The two met in 2008. They began exploring the St. John Valley together, bringing their cameras to document the region’s natural beauty.
Then came the computer. When Dumond and Vallejo returned from their adventures, they uploaded their photos to Facebook, the Internet social networking Web site that has become a worldwide phenomenon in the last few years. Facebook allows users to comment on things such as photos, and Dumond and Vallejo couldn’t believe the amount of positive reaction they got in the comments.
Finally came the assumption.
Although there isn’t much of an active arts scene in the St. John Valley, where stunning church architecture is more the order of the day than galleries or museums, Dumond and Vallejo felt there may be an artistic undercurrent. After all, the duo had received all those Facebook comments. They had just held a dual art exhibition at a small gallery on the University of Maine campus here.
Locals who saw them shooting photos on the side of the road would sometimes approach them later in town to ask about cameras or for photography advice.
From their cameras, a computer, and that assumption was born the Maine Photo Exibit Contest — yes, Dumond and Vallejo know the proper spelling of the word is exhibit, but they have their own explanation for that — which the couple launched in December 2009 on Facebook.
“We crave an arts scene, but we also have the ability to generate the arts scene [through] exchanging ideas on Facebook,” Vallejo said. “People send us links to their pictures, or they see us on the street and comment, and we think, ‘There is an art scene.’ We just need to uncover the layers that are keeping it from growing.”
The concept of the Facebook page is simple. Facebook users who are fans — that’s Facebook lingo for users who follow a specific page — of the contest upload their photos to the Web site for the week’s themed contest. Dumond and Vallejo pick a top 10, which are then voted on by the page’s fans. The picture with the most votes wins for the week.
The contest is a kind of democratic art exhibition. Anyone who is a fan of the contest can vote. Anyone can enter. Anyone can win. In four weeks, entries have come from professional photographers, and from high school students.
“It was almost like we had created another thing we had to maintain, another job,” Dumond said. “But because we’re so excited about photography it would almost be like we’d race back home to open the computer to look at Facebook and see what was new, what someone had submitted today.”
Its founders’ hopes for what the Internet exhibit could spark in the St. John Valley run deeper than a contest. Dumond and Vallejo would love for the Facebook page to continue to grow — as of earlier this week the page had 590 members and nearly 400 photographs posted — and eventually spur artistic growth in the region.
Vallejo and Dumond’s dream? An arts center with space for exhibitions, classes and studios which could draw tourists and encourage young people to build their lives in one of the state’s most remote areas.
Although Dumond and Vallejo aren’t able to award actual prizes to the winners, the couple is organizing an event they are hoping will be another step toward their goal of heightening awareness of art in northern Maine. They’re hosting a photography workshop at the Fort Kent town office at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, where local photographers will speak about their work and share tips and the contest winners’ photographs will be discussed.
The workshop is open to the public, which is an important concept for anyone trying to build a movement.
Opening up an exhibition
Darlene Dumond has deep family connections to Allagash that include her parents’ restaurant, Two Rivers Lunch. She lived in southern Maine and New Hampshire for many years, but moved back to the Valley in 2005. Dumond bought Bee-Jay’s tavern in Fort Kent and now serves on the Town Council.
Vallejo’s background is in teaching art and creating his own sculpture, painting, photography and film, but it was Spanish that brought him to Fort Kent three years ago.
Although they’re both busy, they both made time for their photography. Dumond, a youthful 50-year-old who wears her hair in braids, is a familiar face at Fort Kent events such as biathlon competitions and the Can-Am Crown dog sled race, where she shoots for her own interest and for official brochures of the events. Vallejo, 35, was invited recently to paint a mural in town.
When the two met and got to know each other in the winter of 2008, they began taking shooting trips into the areas around Fort Kent and further into the St. John Valley. Vallejo, 35, told Dumond he thought the valley was an exotic place — a strange thought to someone who grew up there.
“I thought he was making fun of it,” Dumond said on a recent evening in the warm, wood-paneled kitchen of her home perched on a bluff over West Main Street. “There’s nobody that loves this area like I do, but for somebody to call it exotic? So I started looking at it, like, could it really be exotic?”
Soon enough, Dumond said, she saw what Vallejo did — the different animals, the piles of snow. But when they returned home from their shoots and downloaded their photos, they realized same subjects got vastly different treatments from each photographer.
“There were days when we couldn’t wait to get out. He was living not too far from here, we’d call and say, ‘Hey do you want to shoot today?’” she said. “I started understanding what my camera could do. With Fernando, it’s really opened that up so I started seeing things here that I had taken for granted for years, looking for light, looking for different ways of shooting.”
The two soon realized they had accumulated a lot of material from their shooting jaunts. Vallejo was already planning an exhibit of his own sculpture and painting at the UMFK’s Blake Library Gallery, so they decided to include Dumond’s photographs and titled the show “Incidental Crossings.”
It was around that time Vallejo introduced Dumond to Facebook. She began tentatively but quickly realized the power of Internet networking and now has more than 1,600 friends. Business at Bee-Jay’s, she said, jumped whenever she posted a notice about coming events at the bar. It got her thinking about what else Facebook could do.
Soon enough, Vallejo and Dumond were posting their photographs to their personal Facebook pages. The positive reactions from both “Incidental Crossings” and their Facebook postings were so overwhelming that Dumond and Vallejo came up with the concept of the online photo exhibit. Dumond and Vallejo also didn’t have any expectations for how – or if – the contest would take off. But it did.
“We thought, ‘Why don’t we just open it up and see?’” Dumond said.
A unique art show
In the first week of the contest, for which there was no theme as there would be in later weeks, there were 149 entries. Ashley Hafford, a 15-year-old sophomore at Community High School in Fort Kent, submitted a photograph she had taken of her family’s cat, Minou.
The photo, of light reflected in the cat’s left eye, was the first-week winner.
“I was so excited, I ran downstairs and told my mom, and showed her all the pictures,” Hafford said more than a month after her win. “I called my grandmother and told her. The next time I posted I didn’t win but I got top 10, and it made me think, ‘Maybe I am really good at this.’”
Dumond and Vallejo said they have been impressed by the quality of the photos which have been entered, and they have purposely made the process relatively simple. They pick a theme (holiday shots and portraits have been previous themes), which they post on the Facebook page and send out to fans in a notification message. Then, they sit back and wait a few days as the entries pour in.
After a cutoff date, Dumond and Vallejo go through the submissions for the top 10. There are few restrictions — only one top 10 photo per entrant, and the top 10 photos all match the week’s theme — but there is one key quality for which the two contest managers search.
“One of the basic criteria is if you can look at the picture for more than seven seconds, it’s a strong picture,” Vallejo said. “We didn’t want to add [too many restrictions] because it gets complicated. The more we receive, the harder it becomes to decide which 10 are the strongest ones.”
Photographers are allowed to use any special effects they want. Sometimes effects enhance the photo, Vallejo said, and sometimes they detract.
After the top 10 images are chosen, they are posted on the Facebook page with the names of the photographers removed. Photographers can tell the friends in their networks which photograph is theirs, but Dumond and Vallejo said people tend to vote for the images they like and not necessarily those of their friends.
For her winning photograph, Hafford used her own camera, a Canon EOS Rebel XSi. She learned to shoot on her own — her high school has a filmmaking program but does not offer photography — and has spent a lot of time shooting in the fields behind her family’s house.
“I use it to de-stress,” Hafford said of photography. “Whenever there’s too much going on I just go off and take pictures out back. Whenever I have spare time I go do it. A couple of my friends go together and we usually go out and take pictures.”
The photograph of Minou was shot recently at Hafford’s home in Fort Kent, at about 2 p.m., which is a time of day the house gets good light. Hafford figured getting Minou to sit still would be her biggest challenge.
“Every time I try to take a picture of her she runs away,” Hafford said with a laugh. “This time she was sitting on the couch and I walked over. I had my new camera so I didn’t have to get too close to her. I just zoomed in and called her name. She looked at me and I took the picture really quick. It turned out really nice. The light was perfect in that second.”
There have been three winners since, including a woman in the Pittsburgh network. Dumond said she’s not sure how the winner found the Facebook page, but the winning photo was taken at the funeral of a soldier in Maine.
Interested in joining in the contest’s fan page to submit photos or vote? Be warned that if you search Facebook for “Maine Photo Exhibit Contest,” you might have trouble finding the page. When they set up the contest Dumond and Vallejo accidentally left the “h” out of the word exhibit, so the contest appears as “Maine Photo Exibit Contest.”
It’s a mistake at which they can now look back and laugh.
“I guess we have to go a different way to get the word out about ourselves,” Vallejo said. “Let’s emphasize the fact that there’s a letter missing. We have to use what we have, the best we can. It’ll make us unique from any other exhibit.”
An exhibit for the future
The growing popularity of the contest has Dumond and Vallejo thinking. What if the contest and upcoming photography seminar could generate enough buzz around the St. John Valley — and Aroostook County — to give people a taste of what it’s like to have a thriving art community?
And what if, Dumond and Vallejo wonder, a thriving art community translates into drawing tourists in the summer months, when there are no snowmobilers or moose hunters or biathletes in training?
“The dream, the idea, would be the possibility that this thing we started had the crystallization of a visual arts center, a place where there would be exhibits and workshops all year round,” Vallejo said. “When that happens, I’ll say, ‘This was really successful.’ It is very motivating, the way it is going now. It is growing.”
The couple thinks an arts center could even have the long-term effect of keeping young people living up north. Hafford, who wants to go into radiology, said she wants to stay close to home but also hopes she can continue to explore her passion for photography. The possibility of an arts center, she added, could be an incentive to stay in the area.
“If we can get young people excited about arts in the valley, we’re well on our way,” Dumond said.
This week, however, there are more pressing matters for Hafford. Dumond and Vallejo announced earlier this week the Week 5 theme is action shots, in honor of the busy winter sports season, which means Hafford and her friends will probably be buzzing with ideas.
“That’s exactly what we do,” said Hafford. “We see each other’s pictures all the time and we talk about which ones we should upload for this one, or that one, and help each other pick our favorite ones.”