FORT KENT, Maine — Even before you see the signature in the corner, it’s pretty easy to spot a Jerry Jalbert photograph.

The man who has spent close to four decades capturing weddings, graduations, family moments and the northern Maine landscape on film has put a little of himself into each image, and it shows.

Now, as he steps away from the camera and retires from professional photography, Jalbert has donated his entire collection of negatives and photographic proofs to the Fort Kent Historical Society which, in turn, plans to make them available to the original subjects.

“Photography is not something you do because it’s easy,” Jalbert, 67, said from the Market Street home that has housed his studio for more than 30 years. “You do it because you can see the potential, you are photographing the soul of the image [and] you should always make that your assignment.”

But the man whose name became near-synonymous with St. John Valley portrait photography came close to never looking through a camera lens professionally.

“I was always interested in art,”Jalbert said. “When [our] wedding was photographed in 1971, I told my wife Ethel, ‘I’d like to do this,’ and she said, ‘Why not?’”

At the time, Jalbert was using his artistic and technical skills as a surveyor for the Maine highway commission.

“Drafting was my number one thing,” he said. “I really liked it, and there were days it was so compelling I would not look at the clock all day long.”

But the idea of working as photographer stuck and after completing a three-year program in Connecticut, he officially hung out his shingle in Fort Kent in 1974.

“Business was awfully slow,” he said. “All I had was a small office on Market Street and I did the portrait sittings in my basement or on location.”

Those first 10 years, Jalbert said were the hardest. He credits his wife, Ethel, with not only moral support to keep going, but financial, as well.

“It really was a good thing she had a good job,” he said. “For those first 10 years, every penny I made went into the business.”

But eventually, after moving to his current location on Market Street, Jalbert saw his business flourish as he became one of the more sought-after portrait photographers in the state, winning hundreds of state, regional and national awards along the way.

Since most of his business involved wedding photos, and most weddings take place on weekends, he went for close to four decades without having a Saturday off.

“I feel like today I am just starting my life,” he said. “Now I will have my weekends.”

Despite that, Jalbert said he would not have traded one second of his life looking through a lens.

“I really enjoyed working with families at their weddings,” he said. “My wife would tell me, ‘You are recording the happiest time of their lives.’”

And there were few lengths to which Jalbert would not go to record those images, a trait for which he was well known.

“I had one bride tell me, she had to have me do her wedding because she knew I’d climb a tree and cut down a branch in my suit if it meant getting a good photo,” he said, adding after a moment, “Come to think of it, I might have done that.”

Jalbert lost count of exactly how many weddings he shot, but jokes that there were so many, he remembers important personal and world events not by the date, but by who got married around that time.

He said he loved all aspects of shooting weddings and portraits, but his favorite was when he could go “on location” from Fort Kent to Portland and let his creative juices flow.

“I would stop at nothing to get the shot I wanted,” he said. “And the people were always so cooperative when I’d ask them to do something to get that perfect shot.”

Along the way, he saw many changes in his industry as cameras evolved and digital imaging began to replace film and the countless hours needed to process the images in a darkroom.

“It would be so much easier today,” he said. “Back when I started I was lugging around light meters, battery packs and then had to spend hours in a darkroom; my gosh, it was a lot of work.”

Every remaining trace of his work — including his darkroom equipment — is now in the hands of the Fort Kent Historical Society, and that group’s president could not be happier.

“I love the fact Jerry has given us those images of weddings and people,” Chad Pelletier, society president said. “But what I am most excited about are the commercial images.”

Over the years, in addition to the portrait work, Jalbert had been contracted to photograph buildings and projects around Fort Kent. Pelletier has taken to posting those images on the society’s Facebook page.

“I’ve learned that I can post a picture taken 100-years ago and no one comments,” he said. “But if I post one of [Jalbert’s] taken more recently, like from the 1980s, I get 500 comments.”

Jalbert, who is in the process of cleaning out his studio in preparation to sell it, said he was unsure what to do with all of those images, until his daughter Heidi suggested he contact Pelletier.

“I was in the midst of processing the Velma Daigle collection and saw the potential of having Jerry’s, too,” Pelletier said.

The late Velma Daigle’s photos were donated to the society last year by her niece Mae Martin of Caribou.

But even Pelletier, as happy as he is to add to the collections, knows there can be too much of a good thing, as evidenced by the rows and rows of Jalbert Photography negatives lining temporary shelving in the historical society building.

So, the society has decided to make the negatives available to the public.

No matter how long ago the shots were taken, those subjects in the photos are invited to contact Pelletier and arrange to have those negatives.

“It’s already gotten some response,” Pelletier said. “I had a woman who was so excited — when she got married, they could not afford to have many photos reproduced, now she can have 50 or more.”

As for Jalbert, he is happy his images will find permanent homes.

Now, thousands of smiles, poses and images later, Jalbert has stepped away from portraits and is preparing to enter a new photographic phase in his life.

“I have stopped taking ‘people’ pictures,” he said. “I want to concentrate on landscape and wildlife.”

Jalbert has also been working in the food services area at the University of Maine at Fort Kent and said he will continue to do so for a few more years.

Just as long as he has his weekends off.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.