BELFAST, Maine — Photographer Lynn Karlin moved swiftly through the Belfast Farmers Market on a recent Friday, hunting for new subjects to capture with her camera.
And not just any subjects. Karlin, who jokingly described herself as a “vegetable paparazzi,” comes to the market every week to fill her basket with the plumpest, freshest, most colorful, most visually striking produce she can find. On this October morning, she chooses perfect red radishes, dark green bunches of kale, delicate pink and cream mushrooms, vibrant purple cauliflower, glossy yellow peppers, luscious eggplants and more that she will take home and photograph.
Her fine art portraits of vegetables have hung on the walls of art galleries from New York City to San Francisco; she’s won international awards, including a gold medal in the 2015 Parisian Prix de la Photographie; and she’s been published in the pages of books and magazines. But her work keeps the slight, self-deprecating photographer’s feet firmly on the ground of Maine.
“I get inspiration just looking around at the market. Look at this! This is absolute beauty,” Karlin said, turning towards a farmer’s simple but striking arrangement of beets and other fall vegetables. “I come home and I lay all my vegetables out. Sometimes I make myself a cup of tea, and sit here and study them, and talk to them. If I were to give myself a name, it would be the ‘vegetable whisperer.’ But that’s already taken.”
Karlin, 68, did not, of course, grow up dreaming of one day becoming a vegetable portraitist. But the twists and turns of her life have made the somewhat unusual vocation seem almost like her destiny. She began studying photographer as a high school student in Queens, New York, and went to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for college, where she majored in photography and advertising. She worked as a photographer in New York City for 13 years, where she started in advertising and then moved fairly quickly to taking editorial photos for various publications, including New York Magazine and the New York Times Magazine.
One of her early coups as a people paparazzi came when she had just been hired as a staff photographer for Women’s Wear Daily. Karlin and a colleague had been shooting pictures on the streets of the city and took a break at a burger joint, musing that they would love to spot glamorous former First Lady Jackie Onassis sometime on their travels. Then they looked up.
“Jackie Onassis is sitting there, reading Rolling Stone and eating a hamburger,” the photographer recalled.
She snapped the photo, which landed on page one the following morning.
“They called it the Burger Queen,” Karlin said, adding that being a people paparazzi was not her favorite part of photography. “I would never do that now. But I was young.”
Although the work wasn’t always full of exciting celebrity moments, she enjoyed it. She got to travel the world, taking fashion photographs and even covering the presidential inauguration of Pres. Jimmy Carter. Then, she moved to House Beautiful, where she took pictures of building interiors. But she was realizing that she was ready to leave the city. A friend asked Karlin to come with him to visit Helen Nearing at Forest Farm in Harborside, and the photographer, who had read the book “The Good Life,” readily agreed.
They arrived a little early for their appointment with Nearing, and Karlin noticed a sign next door that said “vegetables.”
“We walked up the driveway, and there was my future husband,” she said.
His name was Stanley Joseph, a charismatic back-to-the-lander, who in 1980 had purchased the 22-acre saltwater farm on Cape Rosier that previously had been owned by Scott and Helen Nearing.
“He was looking for a New York woman,” Karlin recalled with a smile. “I left my career behind. I was ready.”
She replaced fashionable parties, notable architecture and jostling urban streets with snowy fields, spruce forests and the charms and challenges of the farming life in rural Maine. And always, there was the work.
“It surprised me how much work it was,” Karlin said of farming, which she did with Joseph for eight years. “Between the pests and the animals and the time in the hot sun, I really understand what farmers are going through.”
Together, they decided to document their life in the pages of a book. She took the photos and he wrote the words for “Maine Farm: A Year of Country Life,” published in 1991 to some acclaim. The process of creating the book was both time-consuming and satisfying, she said, remembering that whatever farm chore she turned her hand to on any given day, she’d have her old Nikon camera nearby, just in case she saw something to shoot. Among other useful inclusions, the book contained step-by-step instructions on how to make a sauna, how to start seedlings, and how to make Maine specialities like dilly beans and rhubarb wine, along with Karlin’s photographs.
“I think it was one of the first books that came out that told the story of life on the farm,” she said.
The marriage didn’t last — “two strong personalities,” Karlin said — but her appreciation for the beauty of gardens and rural life did. She specialized in taking photos of Maine gardens for a while, then about eight years ago segued into fine art photography of vegetables.
“One day I was at the Belfast Farmers Market and bought a cauliflower,” she said. “I photographed it and said ‘this is really something.’ It’s the beauty that most people don’t see. It’s just amazing what nature has created. They should be on a pedestal, which I did. I raise them up and honor them.”
Her setup is simple: Her studio is just a tiny corner of her Belfast kitchen, and she shoots without special lights or equipment. Just the camera, the vegetables and the light from the sun. Karlin is armed with an assortment of pedestals and trays, upon which she arranges her subjects, and an abundance of patience. Her photography is a slow and methodical process, and she makes minute adjustments to her still lifes until she gets the photos she wants, the ones that elevate ordinary vegetables to something magnificent.
“It takes hours, or days, to figure out what I’m going to do with them,” she said. “I never really know what I’m going to get until it happens.”
Soon, she’ll have much much more room to spread out, as a new studio attached to her home nears completion.
“I think I’ll have to think bigger now,” she said with a smile. “Maybe bigger vegetables.”
And Karlin doesn’t expect to change her routine of going to the farmers market and Chase’s Daily, a farm-to-table restaurant in Belfast that also offers baskets of produce to take home. As the seasons change, so do her vegetable subjects, but they’re all beautiful to her.
“It never feels boring. Every week is different,” she said. “I never run out of things to photograph.”
Photos from Lynn Karlin’s new Tray Series are on display Monday – Friday at the Maine Farmland Trust Gallery at 97 Main Street in Belfast until Monday, Oct. 31.