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BELFAST, Maine — Old-timers remember a bit of doggerel about the midcoast that once held a lot of truth.
“Camden by the sea, Rockland by the smell, and if you want to go to hell fast, go to Belfast.”
The rhyme harkens back to a tougher, grittier era, one where Belfast’s waterfront boasted chicken and sardine processing plants instead of the picturesque pedestrian pathway that is a draw today. It can be hard to imagine, but a new photography exhibit showing the myriad changes to the Belfast waterfront from the 19th century to today helps bring the past into focus.
“Photographing Belfast’s Waterfront: Then & Now,” which opens this week at Waterfall Arts in Belfast, is the brainchild of photographer and lead curator Liv Kristin Robinson, who has documented the city’s evolving harbor for more than 30 years.
But she didn’t start out by turning her camera’s lens onto the waterfront’s derelict buildings and industrial areas. At first, Robinson, who moved to Belfast from New York City in 1986, took photos of the elegant 19th century homes that sea captains and other well-off types built in the city. It was a chance meeting with renowned photographer Berenice Abbott, who had documented the transformation of New York City during the 1930s, that caused her to shift gears.
The women met at a gallery opening of Abbott’s work. Robinson told the photographer she was a big fan. Abbott asked about Robinson’s own work, and when the younger woman said she was documenting the city’s architecture, the famous photographer sighed.
“She looked at me with such disdain,” Robinson said. “She said, ‘It’s the changing waterfront that’s important.’ I thought, ‘Oh, she’s right.’”
So she began to document what she saw there, from the crumbling pedestrian footbridge to the food processing factories to the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad. At that time, the Belfast waterfront was focused on commerce not tourism. And even though the structures were often not in the best of repair, to her eye, they were often beautiful and always worth recording.
“I wanted to get the beauty in these marginal landscapes,” Robinson said.
But the waterfront was changing fast.
She and other local photographers were there as credit card giant MBNA came to the city in the 1990s and helped transform the waterfront. The company bought and dismantled the former Penobscot Poultry Co. processing plant and the former Mathews Brothers wood fabrication mill, clearing four acres of waterfront. The photographers were there when the residents of Belfast hotly debated whether the city should demolish or save the pedestrian footbridge. In the end, the city voted in a 2002 referendum to rebuild the bridge.
The continued evolution of the waterfront, and her photos, inspired Robinson to create the exhibit. She wanted to expand it to include other photographers and other organizations, such as Waterfall Arts, the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport and the Belfast Historical Society and Museum.
Kevin Johnson, photo archivist at the Penobscot Marine Museum, said that he was delighted to participate and share some of his own photos of the waterfront as well as some from the historical collection. In the exhibit, a viewer can see glimpses of the bustling, shipbuilding town of the 19th century and the busy regional hub of the early 20th century. One photo shows the city’s steamship wharf, with what appear to be hundreds of well-dressed people clustered on it. Another shows soldiers waiting to leave Belfast to head off to World War I, and then another showing the same scene but during World War II.
“Places evolve. There’s good times and bad times,” Johnson said. “Right now, I like to think we’re in a great time in Belfast. Within our lifetimes, it was not the place it is now, for sure. It’s funny how these towns ebb and flow, kind of like the tides.”
Though the industrial era may not have been all that scenic, it was critical to the fortunes of many who lived in the city and the city itself.
“As things got better in Belfast, it pushed a lot of people out. A downside of success is gentrification,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what the solution is. We’re telling the story, not necessarily providing answers.”
Documenting the way familiar places have transformed is important, he said, adding that the photos can make the past seem more real to modern eyes.
“I do think it will give people, especially more recent arrivals to Belfast, a better picture of the town and its history,” Johnson said. “You really get to see the evolution.”
“Photographing Belfast’s Waterfront: Then & Now,” will have its opening reception from 5-7 p.m. Friday, June 18 outside Waterfall Arts in Belfast. The exhibit can be visited virtually on the Waterfall Arts website and in person from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday until the end of August.