PORTLAND, Maine — It wasn’t easy for photographer Smith Galtney, 47, to find what he calls his “calm, content midlife.” It lay on the far side of a chaotic early adulthood. Getting there, he first had to climb the ladder of New York’s cutthroat music business, kick a drug habit, bail out to nowheresville Maine and then master a whole new system of self expression.
It was a difficult path to tread but Galtney pulled it off.
The proof is on the walls at the University of Southern Maine’s AREA Gallery on the Portland campus. That’s where you’ll find his first solo photographic exhibition, “My Principal Ghost.”
The subtle collection of black-and-white images are about photographing something that isn’t there, something you can’t see — in this case, the past. The images are Galtney’s attempt at showing the continuance of his own convoluted, chaotic youth by photographing its concrete imprint on the present.
A rundown clapboard house sits in a patch of unkempt bushes just beyond a manicured lawn in one picture. It suggests something unsettling lurking just outside of a comfort zone. Another photo shows last year’s cat-o-nine tails dissolving into random windblown fluff. It’s perhaps a reminder of each season’s impermanence.
Two images show a box of an old friend’s cremated remains. It was someone he used to do drugs with, someone who didn’t make it. The box of ashes is all that’s left.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Galtney’s father died when he was a teenager. At the dawn of the 90s, he left his southern home, entering college in New York City. He intended to be a filmmaker. Instead, he ended up in a class taught by influential rock music critic Robert Christgau. That changed everything.
Impressed by his work, Christgau set Galtney up with an internship at the Village Voice. That led to a successful music writing career that saw him published in the New York Times, GQ, Rolling Stone, Time Out New York and others.
But even at the height of his career, Galtney wasn’t happy. He also had a growing drug and alcohol addiction. After getting married to a supportive man with a good job on Wall Street, Galtney got out of the city and moved to Panther Pond in Raymond in hopes of putting his life together and figuring out what he wanted to do next.
First, he went to rehab. It was after that when his husband urged him to take a photography class. That’s when it clicked.
Now, Galtney is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies photography program here in Maine and the International Center of Photography in New York. He works as Director of The Bakery Photo Collective in Portland. In 2014, he was commissioned by the Frannie Peabody Center to create “SeeingME: Profiles of Resilience,” a series of portraits highlighting the diverse individuals who represent the AIDS/HIV community in Maine.
Q: It must have been awesome being a music writer in New York City?
A: It was a great job throughout my 20s and even into my 30s. But eventually what happens is the musicians you’re interviewing start getting younger than you. I had a big identity crisis throughout the early 2000s. There were so many things coming at me that made me think, I’m not a part of this anymore.
Q: Did you have some kind of turning point where you knew you were really done?
A: Yeah, to put it all much shorter, I grew up loving music. I became a rock critic and I reached a good height in the business. In 2001 I wrote two features for GQ. I was very well paid for them. They flew me to Nashville to hang out with Lucinda Williams for a weekend. I was like, “Yeah, this is what I want to do.”
Then, I kind of had a moment.
She was a wreck that weekend — and this is when I was still drinking — and I just got trashed with her. She was a sad drunk. It wasn’t a cool drunk … and I didn’t write about any of it. I realized, I just can’t do this to a person. It was in that moment I realized I’m pretty [bad] at this job. I never had it in me to be mean to people. I always wanted to be their friend. I wasn’t a really good journalist.
Q: Was that the low point for you?
A: Then there was some serious drug bottoming out. It got pretty gnarly. I went to rehab.
Q: Wow. By this time you’d moved to Panther Pond, out in Raymond. This is when you took up photography in a serious way?
A: Yes. If you quit alcohol and drugs, it’s usually a pretty good idea to pick up an activity that’s totally new. At first, I started cooking because if you do meth for an extensive period of time, the last thing you’re going to do is whip up some pancakes. Cooking was interesting for a little while but it’s not quite my thing.
Q: When you finally found photography, was it love at first sight?
A: I can’t recall a more instantaneous obsession. I’d been sober for about six or seven months [when I took my first class] but it was like, holy [excrement], this is something.This is going to get me. There was something about photography that was so fearless for me. Writing used to stir up every insecurity — but with photography, if it sucked I was like, “Let’s take some more.”
Q: I first became aware of your work through social media pictures of your bulldog, Kate. I’m happy to see she’s in this show. You’ve said she was crucial to your journey out of rehab and into photography. In this picture, she’s facing away from you, looking into a beam of light. Is this photo about her passing?
A: She was amazing. Bulldogs are just very still and pliable. She taught me how to become a photographer. Her passing was so much worse than I expected. It brought on this crazy life assessment. I was like, “You have no idea what you’ve given me.” There’s something about that picture. It’s like, her work is done. She going into the light. She’s saying: “You’re good from here. You don’t need me anymore.”
There’s an opening reception for “My Principal Ghost” on Thursday, Feb. 21 at 5 p.m. at the University of Southern Maine’s AREA Gallery in the Woodbury Campus Center, on the Portland Campus. Galtney will host an artist’s talk at 6 p.m. The exhibition will be on view through March 29.