PORTLAND, Maine — Kosti Ruohomaa’s current reputation as the foremost photographic chronicler of Maine’s fast-modernizing way of life in the 1940s and 1950s is based entirely on a small body of remembered work.
Ruohomaa was widely published in popular picture magazines in his lifetime but those images were always meant to be temporary, trashed and forgotten when the next issue arrived. In more recent times, museums have mounted a few showings of his work, but with only a limited number of prints available. Ruohomaa’s photographs are mainly known via the modest book “Night Train at Wiscasset Station,” first published in the 1970s and still in print.
The vast majority of his more than 50,000 frames of film has remained unseen for the past 60 years — until now. Last month, the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport began putting Ruohomaa’s unpublished archive online, one assignment at a time.
From left (clockwise): Men drive logs on the Machias River for the St. Regis Paper Company in the 1950s in a photograph by famed Mainer Kosti Ruohomaa; A man helps drive logs on the Machias River for the St. Regis Paper Company in the 1950s in a photograph by famed Mainer Kosti Ruohomaa; Men smoke and hang out inside the Rangeley Post Office in a 1958 picture by Kosti Ruohomaa in Rangeley. Credit: Courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum
“As famous and well known as he is in Maine, people have only seen a tiny amount of what he shot,” said Kevin Johnson, the museum’s photo archivist.
After his death in 1961, Ruohomaa’s former photo agency, Black Star, kept a tight grip on his negatives, slides and prints. That changed in the fall of 2017 when Johnson convinced the New York-based agency, which now only exists on paper, to let the museum bring Ruohomaa’s work back home to Maine.
Since then, Johnson and his staff have been sifting through 50 boxes of the photographer’s work. The material is split up into about 500 manilla envelopes, each containing one assignment, replete with negatives, contact sheets, notes and cutlines.
Along with cataloging each scrap of paper, the museum is digitizing every frame.
“We’ve been at it for a solid year and a half,” Johnson said. “We received grants from the Wyeth Foundation and the McEvoy Foundation but the lion’s share has been due to support from Linda and Diana Bean. Making this material available for free on the web is quite a gift to everyone.”
Originally, the museum planned on sharing some of the unseen work at a Maine Bicentennial-themed exhibition last summer. When the pandemic put an end to that intention, Johnson and his staff pivoted to releasing the pictures online. The plan is to upload an assignment or two each month for the foreseeable future.
Not every single picture will make it into the museum’s online galleries, though. For one story, about log driving, Ruohomaa exposed nearly 600 frames. The museum has uploaded 274 of them, which is still a far cry from the small handful of pictures that made it into print at the time.
“Some frames are out of focus, or redundant or poorly exposed. You probably don’t want to see those,” Johnson said. “But you might want to see more than the 10 shots that appeared in the magazine story.”
Ruohomaa photographed national and international assignments but he never covered a war or made glamorous celebrity pictures — and Maine was, by far, his favorite subject.
Included in his archive are photo stories about a one-room-schoolhouse teacher, fly fishing in Rangeley, potato picking in The County and a town meeting in the Knox County hamlet of Washington.
From left (clockwise): A group of men take part in the 1948 Washington town meeting in a photograph by Kosti Ruohomaa; An Aroostook County boy dumps his basket of potatoes into a barrel in a 1950s photograph by Kosti Ruohomaa; A girl in Aroostook County picks potatoes a 1950s photograph by Kosti Ruohomaa. Credit: Courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum
Ruohomaa especially liked to photograph Maine stories in the winter and understood he was doing something different.
“In the summer [Maine] is a bit too idealistically beautiful,” he 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.”
Ruohomaa’s photos are completely devoid of kitsch. They are the opposite of picture postcards. They show a grizzled Maine, as it was, but with an undeniable undercurrent of warmth.
“He really loved the people he photographed,” said Ruohomaa’s biographer, Deanna Bonner-Ganter. “He was really at home with them.”
While researching her book on Ruohomaa, Bonner-Ganter turned up a piece he wrote for the American Society for Magazine Photographers’ annual in 1959. It now seems to sum up his career:
“Photographing the state of Maine has been an attempt to portray traditional characteristics within the mood of the terrain or in whatever shack was hiding them at the moment. Much is hidden in the off-beat nooks and crannies, for this is the way of life that is fast vanishing. It is somewhat regrettable that the traditional individuality and nonconformity of the Maine man is a disappearing trait.”
“Fortunately, too,” he wrote, “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 photochemical] and ointment in the camera shutter.”