Brunswick photographer wins prestigious Guggenheim fellowship for river project

Posted April 15, 2013, at 12:50 p.m.
Swimmers and Swinging Bridge, Topsham, Androscoggin River, Maine, 2012” is a unique ambrotype that’s part of Brunswick photographer Michael Kolster’s photographic work documenting the rise and fall of American rivers, including the Androscoggin River. Kolster was selected as a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow for his work.
Courtesy of | The Times Record
Swimmers and Swinging Bridge, Topsham, Androscoggin River, Maine, 2012” is a unique ambrotype that’s part of Brunswick photographer Michael Kolster’s photographic work documenting the rise and fall of American rivers, including the Androscoggin River. Kolster was selected as a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow for his work.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Winners of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s Fellowship shouldn’t have to answer their own phones.

Particularly, Guggenheim Fellowship winners who receive the prestigious honor for their photography work shouldn’t have to answer the phone while processing film in a darkroom.

But Brunswick photographer Michael Kolster did answer his phone. And, after a brief pause to finish the time-sensitive film wash, called back.

Kolster, a Bowdoin College associate professor of art, was chosen for a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship for his work documenting American rivers affected by the country’s industrial rise and decline, starting with the Androscoggin.

“It’s an incredible opportunity in two different ways,” Kolster said of the award. “In a practical way, it’ll provide funding and support for me to go out and pursue the [river] project. But it’s also a kind of validation of the questions that the project is asking: ‘What is it about a place where we have these complex mixtures of natural and human forces?’”

Kolster and 174 other winners were chosen on a basis “of distinguished accomplishment and future achievement” from a field of more than 3,000 applicants, according to a statement from the Guggenheim Foundation. The award brings with it up to 12 months of funding to allow recipients to pursue their respective work.

Another of those 174 winners also hails from Bowdoin College: L.S. Asekoff, a 1961 alum and professor of English at Brooklyn College, won a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry.

As for Kolster, the award is seen as a way to continue his work on rivers.

“The Guggenheim will help me to continue to take photographs in Virginia and Pennsylvania,” Kolster said, including the James River and Schuylkill River, respectively, which flows through part of Philadelphia. Additionally, he will travel to Idaho to shoot the Teton River, and to southern California for the Los Angeles River.

For the rivers project, Kolster also collaborates with Matthew Klingle, an associate professor of history and environmental studies.

He uses an archaic “wet plate” photographic process to make his river pictures, which are called ambrotypes. Kolster soaks a glass plate in a chemical solution, inserts the wet plate into the camera, captures the image and processes the plate on the spot.

Instead of film, a faint negative image is chemically transferred to the glass plate. When displayed in front of a dark background — Kolster prefers black velvet — “the faint negatives become glowing positive images,” he said.

The ambrotype process was invented in the 1850s, about the same time America’s industrial revolution was beginning to pollute rivers with factory runoff. Many of the chemicals drained into the rivers that Kolster now is photographing were used in the advancement of photographic technology.

The irony is not lost on Kolster.

“The Androscoggin is where the project began. It’s got a lot of characteristics that other rivers in the country share,” he said. “It’s cleaner [than it was] but not altogether clean. It’s an amazing fishery, but even more so to think that 40 years ago there was nothing alive in it.”

This year marks the 89th series of Fellowship awards.

Other 2013 recipients include David Parker for choreography. Parker is one of two sons of legendary American detective fiction novelist Robert B. Parker, creator of the Boston-based “Spenser” detective series.

Other past winners include iconic American composer Aaron Copland, photographer Ansel Adams, Henry Kissinger, writers Eudora Welty and Vladimir Nabakov, and poet and Harlem Renaissance activist Langston Hughes.

To view more of the artist’s work, visit http://www.michaelkolster.com

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