PORTLAND, Maine — All writers lead exciting lives.
Or, at least, that’s what photojournalist Doug Bruns believed when he set out to capture Maine scribes at work. For nine months the Portland-based photographer and self-described “reader” traipsed across the state to photograph writers — including famed novelist Anita Shreve and Pulitzer Prize winners Richard Ford and Richard Russo — in their writing chambers.
The result is the Maine Literary Portrait Project, a series of 50 black-and-white photos of contemporary Maine writers on display through October at the Portland Public Library’s Lewis Gallery.
“I wanted to do this for the experience and to support Maine writers,” Bruns, who is donating these portraits to his subjects’ town libraries when the show closes, said.
Long fascinated by wordsmiths and their practice, Bruns said the experience was eye-opening.
“I think music is the highest form of creative disciplines. Writing comes second,” he said. “As a photographer and occasional writer, I was intrigued by the understanding of the writing process.”
Also, like many lovers of the written word, he wanted to peek behind the pages into the writing life. Much to his surprise, they let him.
“As a photographer, it was voyeuristic,” said Bruns, who allowed these known Maine novelists, journalists, professors and poets to call the shots during the process. He asked writers, such as Nicholson Baker, “how do you want the reading public to see you?”
The popular South Berwick writer works in a car, so logistics were tricky. Bruns photographed the bearded Baker on a picnic bench. Poet Megan Grumbling conjures her muse on the beach. Bruns let each dictate the scene and didn’t overshoot or overthink it.
“I wanted to demonstrate respect to their craft” and capture a writer’s truest habitat — “solitude, the mechanics. … What does their writing space look like? Where do they work?”
He used a vintage Hasselblad, a medium format camera loaded with black-and-white film. In this old school format, Bruns could shoot only 10 photos per session. The controls helped. “I believe the creative process should have some constraints — otherwise it’s too loose,” he said. “There was no artificial light: just me, a tripod and a camera.”
Under this medium, the portraits have a timeless quality. “They are very 1960s, because back then there was no other way to do it.”
Inspired by the artists he photographed, Bruns emerged with a newfound respect for their craft.
“When I went into the project, there was a great deal of mystique around writing in my mind,” he said. A few months in, those preconceived notions dissipated.
“These are people who work really, really hard for very little return,” said Bruns. “Few are able to pull it off in a big way.”