SEARSPORT, Maine — Kosti Ruohomaa was a photojournalist during the golden age of picture magazines in the 1940s and ’50s. Shying away from pretty postcard images, Ruohomaa documented the true face of rural Maine and showed it to the rest of the world. He worked for the famed Black Star photo agency in New York City for almost his whole career.
Since his death in 1961 at the age of 47, Black Star has kept a tight grip on Ruohomaa’s entire archive of prints and negatives. Most of his work has never been published or seen by anyone outside the Black Star office.
But that’s about to change. Last month, Ruohomaa’s work came home home to Maine.
Black Star struck a deal to send all of Ruohomaa’s prints and negatives to the Penobscot Maritime Museum in Searsport. The agency is retaining publishing rights, but the museum is free to research and exhibit the work. It’s also planning to scan and upload the famed shooter’s work to a searchable online database. It will be free for the public to browse and enjoy.
“Kosti would be very happy to know his photographs have returned to Maine,” Ruohomaa’s cousin, Janice Lachance, said in a prepared statement.
Ruohomaa’s work sits apart from other image-makers who have trained their lenses on Maine. Winter didn’t scare him indoors or out of state. He reveled in it, even photographing landscapes by winter moonlight. Where others are drawn to lupins and lobster boats at summer sunsets, he was more likely to photograph his father, struggling through blowing snow, trying to reach the family’s barn in a blizzard on top of Dodge Mountain in Rockland.
Ruohomaa knew he was doing something different.
“In the summer (Maine) is a bit too idealistically beautiful,” Ruohomaa once wrote to a friend. “In the winter it has guts and drama and doesn’t wear such a pretty face. Anyway, it has the kind of meat my camera likes.”
In addition to being published in countless magazines during his lifetime, Ruohomaa’s pictures have adorned the walls at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland and the Maine State Museum in Augusta. A biography, “Kosti Ruohomaa: The Photographer Poet,” by Deanna Bonner-Ganter was published last year.
Ruohomaa’s biggest exposure, since his death, came from a 1977 book called “Night Train at Wiscasset Station” by Ruohomaa and writer Lew Dietz.
He photographed assignments outside Maine as well. He shot across the country and in Europe, but he’s best known for images of his home state.
“He championed Maine,” Penobscot Marine Museum photo archivist Kevin Johnson said. “Many of the stories he did on Maine were ones he pitched himself, and I think he wanted to share what was special about Maine to the rest of the world. I think that’s a significant thing. His pictures have become iconic symbols of what it means to be from Maine.”
The museum already has the largest collection of historic images in the state. Its holdings number over 200,000 images. All it took for the museum to add Ruohomaa’s work to its stash was simply asking.
Johnson drafted a letter, along with Deanna Bonner-Ganter and a few of Ruohomaa’s Maine relatives. They asked Black Star for the work, and they said yes.
Last month, Kevin Johnson drove to a warehouse in Fort Lee, New Jersey. There, he was given seven cardboard boxes of Ruohomaa’s negatives, prints, contact sheets and handwritten captions. The work represents about 1,200 assignments Ruohomaa shot for Black Star.
“Though Kosti is fairly well known and respected, only about 10 percent of his work has been seen before,” Johnson said.
Seeing Ruohomaa’s contact sheets is particularly interesting to Johnson. The sheets reveal images from an entire roll of film. They show how the photographer set up his shots and zeroed in on the exact frame he wanted.
“I think it will be very eye-opening for people to learn about his working process,” Johnson said.
But Ruohomaa fans shouldn’t expect to be browsing the database anytime soon. There’s a lot of research, scanning and preservation work to be done first. Johnson estimates it will cost $50,000 to $100,000 to get that done.
“Off the top of my head, we’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 negatives,” Johnson said. “But I think it’s a doable thing. I think there’ll be grants that we can find and maybe some philanthropic people who find it to be a worthy cause and want to support us.”
While researching her Ruohomaa biography, Bonner-Ganter turned up a piece he wrote for the American Society for Magazine Photographers’ annual in 1959:
“Much (of Maine) is hidden in the offbeat nooks and crannies, for this is the way of life that is fast vanishing,” he wrote. “It is somewhat regrettable that the traditional individuality and nonconformity of the Maine man is a disappearing trait. Fortunately, too, there remain in the state, a number of cantankerous, stubborn individuals who spit with disdain at the notion of being vitaminized into conformity. Theirs is the stuff that puts life blood into dead hypo [a photo chemical] and ointment in the camera shutter.”
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