PORTLAND, Maine — If you’ve seen Maine songwriting legend David Mallett play anytime in the past 40 years, you’ve seen Mike Burd, too. He’s the tall, ponytailed bass player standing just off to the side. He’s made his creative career slinging low notes and supporting singers like Mallett and Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary fame.
Now, at 64, Burd is finally taking a turn in the center stage spotlight — not as a singer but as a photographer.
This year, Burd self published two photography books — selling nearly a hundred copies. In October, he’s officially opening a one-man show of his images in at St. Lawrence Arts on Munjoy Hill. He already had a spring solo show at a gallery in Farmington.
The St. Lawrence show features more than 20 of Burd’s atmospheric, mostly black-and-white photos. He’s even hung pictures in the restrooms. The images infuse everyday objects and landscapes with generous gobs of mystery and quiet grandeur.
He uses a variety of methods and cameras to make his pictures. Some come from digitally-manipulated phone snaps he’s made while on the road with Mallett. Others were shot on expired film with yard sale film cameras. He even develops some of the film with chemical concoctions that include lo-fi household ingredients like instant coffee.
Burd, a father and grandfather, grew up in Maine and still lives here. He makes his home in Industry and teaches adult-education courses in music and technology in Farmington. In addition to still playing bass gigs with Mallett across the country, Burd leads the Merry Plinksters ukulele ensemble, based in western Maine.
BDN Portland recently spoke with Burd about his musical career and successful move into image-making.
Q: You’ve been performing and recording with Dave Mallett since 1981 and recorded albums with Noel Paul Stookey. Have you played a lot of bass with other folks, too?
A: Sure. A pile of bands, from rock and roll to Gypsy jazz, to folk, to funk to rhythm and blues. You name it. If there’s a bunch of halfwits in Maine, playing as human song pumps, I’ve probably played with them — or played against them.
Q: Has music always been a part of your life?
A: I have a profoundly deep memory as a kid of seeing images whenever I heard music. When I was probably 3 or 4, in my parents’ apartment on Elm Street in Yarmouth, the people in the downstairs apartment had a newfangled hi-fi system. My mom [would watch me] me with my ear to the floor, listening with my butt up in the air, bopping around to the beat of the bass. I could see pictures [in my head] when the music was playing. The visual bit has always been there.
Q: So this isn’t a total left turn for you?
A: No. It’s an evolution, not a reinvention.
Q: When did you first start thinking seriously about photography?
A: I’ve been shooting since I was a little kid. What really got me taking this to a place I’d never considered was the day my son Amos suffered a traumatic brain injury [in a construction accident] in 2017. Anybody who is a parent knows the first thing that ever crosses your physiology is: Keep your children safe and protected. But I’m not a neurologist, I’m not a brain surgeon, I’m not a trauma technician. I was rendered, as a parent, utterly and completely helpless. Among my responses, was to immerse myself into this art — completely bathe myself — as a way to manage my own pain, my sorrow, my inability to know what to do next.
Q: And did it help?
A: [Expletive] yeah, dude. I trusted the art to lead me to a place where I could do something that had some value. I can’t bandage his brain but I can convey a sense of faith and hope to people — myself included. I’m a survivor by nature so I gravitate to things that are life-giving and I kind of took pictures reflexively. The pictures that started to emerge, I’d look at them and say, “Holy [expletive], this is about Amos.” It dawned on me. It made me cry.
Q: These pictures don’t look like direct translations of grief to me. They seem more open-ended than that.
A: I want people to make up their own stories about them. I want them to look at an image and think, “Wow, that reminds me of my grandmother’s farm, or that reminds me of an experience I had when I was 16 years old.” It would be arrogant of me to tell people how to think, or what to think about them. I’m just opening the door. Go ahead and look if you like.
Q: As long as I have been serious about photography and photojournalism, I’ve tried to make my pictures as clear as possible. The idea of them being open to interpretation scares the crap out of me.
A: Try it. It will set you free, baby.
Q: As a newspaperman, I’m required to boil your life down into a couple sentences. Is it fair to say that you’ve dedicated your life to being a caring father, a thoughtful educator and supportive musician — and now, you’re finally doing something that’s all about you, and your own vision?
A: I guess you could perceive it as being that way. But, internally, I perceive it as being all about everybody else. I’m just the conduit. All I’m doing is presenting my audience with the opportunity to connect with the joy, passion, struggle and victory — and the humanity and beauty — that’s all around me. I’m just saying, “Hey, lookie over here.” As an instructor, I’m an advocate. As a bass player, I have a supporting role. As a photographer and artist, I feel like it’s my duty to give viewers the opportunity to see the stuff that I’m gifted with seeing.
Q: But your name is on the show. It’s signed under all the pictures.
A: Yeah. That’s right. It’s a totally humbling experience.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.