September 16, 2019
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Mainers are old, but still doing things ‘most people half their age don’t do’

Photo courtesy of Jason Paige Smith
Photo courtesy of Jason Paige Smith
Everard Hall, 72, of Milbridge, Maine. Hall has been digging graves by hand for more than 50 years, and has buried more than 2,400 souls during his work as a gravedigger, including many family members and friends.

Maine people are the oldest folks in the country. There’s more oldsters here, relatively speaking, than any other state in the union. That fact is usually seen as an economic and health care conundrum to be solved. But for one Maine man, it’s a photographic opportunity and something to celebrate.

About a year ago, Orono photographer Jason Paige Smith started his “The Oldest State” project. Since then, he has made more than a dozen monumental portraits of seniors around the state. Each intricately crafted photograph is coupled with a paragraph or two about the subject. Most of his subjects are still active. All look happy with who — and where — they are.

All the photos can be seen on Smith’s website, and a few are hanging at the Gracie Theatre at Husson University in Bangor.

Courtesy of Jason Paige Smith
Courtesy of Jason Paige Smith
Third generation miner Frank C. Perham, 84, in West Paris, Maine. The family tradition all started when his grandfather’s cows, moving from one area of a field to another, helped unearth a large feldspar deposit. From there, his grandfather helped get the feldspar mill going in 1926 and his father, Stanley, started a mineral store in 1919. Frank worked with his father when he was growing up and, like his father, earned a geology degree from Bates College. In the 1950s Frank also served a tour in Korea and became very skilled with explosives. Being good at placing explosives gave him work with the state of Maine for road construction projects, but also gave him the opportunity to mine on weekends. The pockets he’s found over the years and discoveries he has made now sit on display at both The Smithsonian and as close as the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum in Bethel, Maine. Frank has given many lectures over the years and also has created a display of many of his finds in the basement of his home, where people stop in to hear his many stories and learn about Maine’s minerals from someone with an unbridled passion for minerals and lifetime of experiences.

Smith hasn’t had any trouble finding subjects for his pictures. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and its 2017 American Community Survey, the median Maine age is 44.6. The country’s national median age is 38. That standing is not new; Maine has been named the oldest state many years in a row.

Smith, 41, grew up in Florida. He’s a journalist by schooling and spent time living Colorado. Smith and his family moved to Orono a decade ago. His photo clients include The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Walmart, Down East magazine, WEX Inc., and Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center.

Courtesy of Jason Paige Smith
Courtesy of Jason Paige Smith
Ann Bradford, 82, has been hiking to the summit of each of Acadia National Park’s 28 peaks every summer since she was 75. Her love for this park and Mount Desert Island is profound and inspirational.

Q: Why photograph old people?

A: When I moved up here and I didn’t think much about the median age being older than the rest of the country. But the longer you live here, the more you hear people talk about it. Every time I’d go out on an assignment — you know, traveling around the state — I’d get to [meet and] appreciate the older people who are here. I think they really say a lot about the state, they kind of make up what the state is, as a whole.

Q: Are they more interesting than younger people?

A: I wouldn’t say that, but they certainly have a much longer life’s story to tell. They’ve got some decades of experience under their belts. I’m sure there are a lot of really interesting younger people here as well, and I’ve met several of them. But there’s something about the fact that these people are still doing these things. Some of the things they’re doing, most people half their age don’t do them. I guess it motivates me to get out there and do more.

Courtesy of Jason Paige Smith
Courtesy of Jason Paige Smith
Andy Gove, an 88-year-old lobsterman from Stonington, Maine. Still actively out setting traps, Gove got his first lobster license in 1937. Gove has been working in the same harbor since he was a boy and his vast knowledge of the water and the region has earned him accolades in search and rescue operations when the Coast Guard asks for his help.

Q: How do you find these folks? How do you choose them?

A: That’s been interesting. When I started the project, I had a short list of people from different walks of life. I wanted to include as much diversity as I could and approach it from different angles. The first person I photographed was a lobsterman. When I posted it on Facebook, a lot of people reacted to it and I started getting all these messages about other people [who would be good subjects]. So it turned into this cool, kind of organic process, where I would post a picture and then I’d get all these interesting referrals — and it’s people I never would have thought of, real surprises.

Q: Is it hard to convince people to get in front of your camera?

A: There’s been a few people who weren’t interested, but, for the most part, people have a lot of fun with it. And it’s nice to work with them. They usually have a little more time on their hands to do something like this. It’s an interesting process to show up with all my gear and talk through things. I just photographed a guy in Newcastle and I set up in his living room. It’s a great opportunity to talk to them while I’m setting everything up. It’s fun to see them go back and talk about [old times]. I think it does bring back a lot of memories.

Courtesy of Jason Paige Smith
Courtesy of Jason Paige Smith
George Dunn, 85, has had a lifelong passion for flying. He first got his license in 1952 and now shares that passion with seven other members of his family who fly and own planes, including his son who now flies KC-135s for the Air National Guard in Bangor. He and his family, known as “The Flying Dunn’s,” have been part of the Beech Hill Pond community for several years—Dunn has lived on the pond, year round, for more than 45 years and hosts an annual Fourth of July event at his hanger that draws more than 1,000 people each year.

Q: I love the captions on these photos. I appreciate a photographer who isn’t afraid to write a little. I think photos say a lot, all at once, but they often don’t say anything definitive, or specific. You need words for the fine details.

A: Yeah, that’s the journalist in me coming out. I feel like it would be doing my subjects a disservice not to include [the captions]. I think there’s more going on than you can put in the pictures.

Courtesy of Jason Paige Smith
Courtesy of Jason Paige Smith
Donna Loring, 70, of Bradley, Maine, is an author, broadcaster and tribal elder of the Penobscot Nation. Growing up on Indian Island, raised by her grandmother, Loring earned a degree in Arts in Political Science from the University of Maine and also graduated from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. She became the police chief for the Penobscot nation and was the first female graduate of the Academy to become a police chief. She later became the first female director of security at Bowdoin College. Loring served in Vietnam, stationed fifty miles north of Saigon, where she processed all casualty reports of Southeast Asia. She was commissioned to the honorary Colonel rank by Former Maine Governor Angus King and appointed Aide de Camp, advising King on women’s veteran’s affairs. Loring has served several terms on behalf of the Penobscots in the state legislature and is responsible for the required teaching of Maine’s Native American History in the state’s schools. She’s the host of a monthly radio show called “Wabanaki Windows,” and in 2017 Loring received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Maine. She currently serves as the Senior Advisor on Tribal Affaires for Governor Janet Mills.

Q: Where are you going with this project?

A: That’s the million-dollar question. Everyone wants it to be a book, which I think would be fantastic. But, of course, I’d have to figure out a way to fund a thing like that. I don’t know how, exactly, it will play out. It’s been pretty interesting on its own, online, but I’d love to see a printed edition of it somehow, somewhere — and a lot of the people I’ve photographed don’t use the internet. So, I always send them a print just to show them how it all turned out.

Q: For now, you’re going to just keep on shooting?

A: There’s enough stories to tell out there that I could do one of these a week, forever.

 



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