BELFAST, Maine — Local photojournalist Richard Norton always had the same question for his friends, the other young artists working and living in Waldo County in the 1970s and 1980s.
“What are you doing? What are you making?” he would ask, Lorna Crichton recalled Thursday morning. She said that a lot of people talk about doing things, but that Norton actually did them.
Norton, who died in 1988 at the age of 41, helped inspire Crichton to make more art. She and her husband, Alan Crichton, are behind Waterfall Arts in Belfast, a nonprofit contemporary arts center. This summer, Waterfall Arts is mounting a retrospective of Norton’s photographs beside an invitational art show with works done by his friends and contemporaries. The exhibit marks 25 years since his death and will run through Aug. 23.
The last quarter-century has brought many changes to Belfast — a community noted 25 years ago for its chicken and sardine processing factories — and Norton’s photographs capture the essence of the beginning of that change. The mostly black and white photographs hanging on the walls of the arts center depict a small blue-collar city which was very rough around the edges and much less of a tourist destination than a gritty, interesting place to live.
Norton worked as a photojournalist for both the Republican Journal and the Waldo Independent from 1978 to 1988.
“It was not real pretty,” Crichton said of Belfast back then. “It was very different … there was no gentrification at that time.”
Norton’s viewframe found subjects as varied as serious-looking teenage girls marching in parades downtown, a chicken farmer looking over his flock contemplatively, high school wrestlers grappling, local ladies cheering on an all-male revue, and an older woman raking the chicken feathers from her small lawn that drifted there like so many autumn leaves.
“He definitely had that uncanny necessary ingredient to be a photographer, to recognize that instant in time,” Dennis Pinette of Belfast, a well-known artist and one of Norton’s good friends, said. “He was a really good photojournalist.”
Pinette and Crichton both describe Norton as a people person who seemed to know everyone in the area, in part because he photographed so many local events — the parades, the high school athletics, people hard at work in dangerous or dirty industries. He also took pictures of the other artists who were beginning to come to Waldo County in that time. Only a couple of the photos in the exhibits were landscapes — which speaks to Norton’s passion: people doing things, Crichton said.
“He was a very warm guy,” she said, and showed some words jotted down in the exhibit’s guestbook by a visitor from Connecticut.
“These photographs are giving me chills,” the woman wrote. “I can see how much he loved us humans.”
Norton also was a moving force behind the creation of Belfast’s first art gallery, called Artfellows and located in the upstairs of the Oddfellows Hall.
“He pulled it all together,” Pinette said. “He was the Pied Piper. He would walk into a room and know who should be introduced to whom, just this grass-roots groundwork of people. He wove it all together.”
When Norton died unexpectedly of a heart condition, it was devastating for his family and friends. Fellow artists got together and raised money for an art scholarship in his name to be given to local high school students, Crichton said. And even though it has been a quarter-century since his passing, the exhibit’s opening last month drew a lot of people.
“People want to see what it was like then. And people remember Richard,” she said.
Pinette said that seeing the photographs exhibited together is powerful.
“It was very poignant,” he said. “There’s a sort of reverence about it. It was a really happy thing, too. It was long overdue and I was glad to see it.”
The Richard Norton Invitational and Belfast 1978-1988 exhibits will be on display through Friday, Aug. 23, at Waterfall Arts at 256 High Street in Belfast. For more information, please call 338-2222 or visit www.waterfallarts.org.