BELFAST, Maine — Photographer Neal Parent was 200 miles out to sea snapping pictures on assignment for the magazine National Fisherman years ago when a storm blew up.
The Endurance, the 120-foot fishing trawler he was on, pitched and rolled in terrifying 40-foot seas and 90-knot winds. Parent hung on to his trusty 35-millimeter camera and tied himself in, shooting pictures all the while.
“I was scared to death,” the 69-year-old photographer recalled. “I broke a bone in my hand and cracked a lens. If you’ve never been in seas like that, it’s hard to explain. It’s exhilarating but frightening, and everything is moving.”
After he made it safely ashore and developed the film, he saw that the photos he had worked so hard to get managed to capture some of the beauty, ferocity and power of the ocean. National Fisherman got seven cover photos and three posters out of Parent’s assignment, and the storm became an unforgettable chapter of his 40-year and counting career documenting the coast of Maine and beyond.
“It was luck, but it was scary,” he said of his storm-tossed stay aboard the Endurance. “I don’t recommend it.”
The Belfast resident, whose award-winning images have hung in fine arts galleries across the country, does have some recommendations to share with budding photographers as he reflects on what he has learned over the years.
“Shoot with your heart as much as your eyes,” Parent said. “Don’t go out looking for what’s going to sell. I only shoot what moves me. It could be anything at all, if there’s feeling in it. I realized many years ago that I don’t sell photographs. I sell emotions.”
One of the emotions that has been clearly communicated in his dramatic, black-and-white photographs is his love and appreciation of Maine, a place that Parent stumbled upon 40 years ago when on a camping trip with his young family. His wife, Linda Parent, noticed that the Camden Herald was searching for a darkroom technician and encouraged him to apply. At the time, Neal Parent was working as an illustrator at the Orleans Oracle in his Cape Cod hometown after serving a stint in the Air Force. He got the job in Maine, and they made the move north.
“We fell in love with Maine,” he said.
He also fell in love with photography when Jane Day, the editor of the Herald, told him to go out and take some pictures.
“I had never dreamed of being a photographer ever,” Parent said. “I’d never taken a picture at that time. Then we started using them, and it just grew.”
He learned about his new community from behind the lens, going out in all conditions to take pictures of schooners, wildlife and people, and he learned that he had a real talent for photography. He branched out to start shooting weddings, bar mitzvahs and other events and then started getting calls from magazine editors. Down East Books came to him and asked if he would be interested in putting a book together, and “My Corner of Maine” came out in 1982.
Parent sent examples of some of his work to famed photographer Ansel Adams to get his opinion.
“I think I was young and proud,” he said.
He also was surprised when Adams, nearing the end of his life, wrote back.
“I found your images to be a fine interpretation of the ‘Maine Scene,’” Adams wrote. “I have photographed there many years ago and know how very difficult it is to capture the very essence of Maine.”
As the years have passed, Parent has continued to hone his craft and expand his geographical limits. Since 2001, he has run his namesake art gallery in downtown Belfast, and he loves teaching photography and takes students in his classes on field trips to places such as Acadia National Park, Rockport Marine and Horsepower Farm in Penobscot.
“I learn from every class I teach without fail,” Parent said.
He also goes much farther afield, teaching photographic workshops in places such as France, Italy and Ireland. The next tour is scheduled for Normandy and Paris in September, and Parent said that Paris — the City of Light — is a wonderful place to learn about photography.
“Photography isn’t about learning to use the camera. It’s about learning to see,” he said. “My advice is always to try it. You can’t get across a lake unless you go swimming. You’ve got to go for it.”
As much as he enjoys seeing the world with his photography students, Parent said he always is glad to come back home to Maine.
“I love being here. I have a lot of feeling for the area,” he said. “And I love the beauty of the rugged coast. I just really love it. Wherever we go, I can’t wait to get back.”