When he first came to Acadia National Park 14 years ago, John Putnam just didn’t get the buoys.
Sticking out of the sea like a sore thumb, the lobster-trap markers and sea-lane placeholders struck the professional photographer as wildly out of place, marring the bucolic luster of one of the loveliest places he had ever seen, Putnam said.
“What kind of national park is this, I thought, where I can’t get a photograph of the landscape without a bunch of manmade objects floating around in my image?” Putnam said. “I was young, I was a poor photographer, and I didn’t understand what I was seeing.”
Today, Putnam says, he sees the buoys in a totally different light. The photographer, who specializes in landscapes of Mount Desert Island, has collected some knockout images of the island, and his focus is on showing only what he sees, he said.
“I never add or remove anything. It would be so easy with today’s software, but it is important to me that people know that what I am showing them is real,” Putnam said. “My work is observational, but it is also documentative, though I try to show my subjects in an artistic way.”
Putnam is happy to discuss what he looks for — and finds — in his pictures, he said. He recently answered some questions about his craft from the BDN. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: The photographs you have shared have a surreal, almost alien vibe to them. Is that an accurate description?
Putnam: I’m trying to document what I see in an artistic way. I look for patterns, shapes and unique views. I want to surprise the viewer. With these images, I wanted to show the unexpected. I have shots of Bass Harbor Head Light and Jordan Pond that I really like, but I’m hoping to expand people’s expectations of what Acadia is by showing them hidden views and unique landscapes as well as the objects and life that can be found here if you take the time to slow down and look around.
Q: Why pick Bar Harbor or Mount Desert Island as a subject? What makes it stand out against the rest of Maine? Or the world?
Putnam: The landscape here is very unique for the east side of our country. It may not stand out from all of Maine, but it certainly stands out on this side of the country. We also have the fishing industry, which adds a unique culture to the area, and we have tourism. This is important to me. Tourism enables me to make a living as a nature photographer by both having a gallery and leading photography tours and workshops.
Q: What first drew you to photography?
Putnam: Snakes. Well, I guess it started earlier than that. As a kid, I wanted to grow up to be a film director. I went to film school where I learned how to tell a story visually.
After school I purchased a really nice digital video camera. I had shot motion-picture film all through school, so video was actually pretty new to me. I took the camera to Mendon Ponds Park, a county park and national Natural Landmark near my hometown of Rochester, New York, to search for subjects to practice using the camera. I found a spot in that park where it seemed I could always find snakes to photograph. I had fun crawling around on my belly taking photos of them. To me, still images ended up being a more appealing way of showing them than video.
Around the same time I visited an exhibit of images by photographer Frans Lanting at the George Eastman Museum. It was the first time I had ever seen photos that showed that nature photography could also be artistic. Those two experiences combined got me interested in nature photography as a career, though it was a long road after that.
Q: If you have a philosophy of photography, what would it be?
Putnam: I’m looking for anything that catches my eye, anything I think is interesting that inspires me to want to show it to other people. The things that catch my eye aren’t always photogenic, but they will always lead me to another subject. You’ll hear photographers talk about expressing their feelings or emotions through their photography. That’s not me. For me it’s more about “look at this cool thing!” I have very few images that I react emotionally toward.
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