PORTLAND, Maine — Dave Higgins grew up on Park Avenue in the 1960s with severe, undiagnosed dyslexia. It left him functionally illiterate, barely able to write his own name as a teenager and struggling through high school.
“My father just thought I was lazy,” Higgins said. “I couldn’t spell or write anything.”
Textbooks, road signs and shop window advertisements were mostly a mystery to him. Higgins got around his limitations by studying other people and what they did, reading their actions instead of printed words. He figured things out visually via context clues.
These self-invented survival skills, based on keen observation, eventually led Higgins to a life centered on visual arts, as a photographer and longtime high school art teacher.
One of Higgins’ first photography-teaching gigs came in the summer of 1973 when he showed city kids how to shoot, develop and print their own black-and-white pictures during a series of workshops based in parks and playgrounds all over Portland.
Nearly 50 years later, Higgins is looking back through his own photos from that summer, sharing them online to great acclaim and wondering what will become of his archive when he is gone.
“My whole artistic premise is to evoke memories and make people feel good,” he said. “If I can do that, then I’m successful.”
Before his teaching life could begin, Higgins first had to get through school.
With help from the Sweetser organization, Higgins eventually got help with his dyslexia and received his high-school diploma at age 21. Higgins then went on to earn undergraduate and graduate college degrees with assistance from his wife, Pat Higgins.
Pat would read his textbooks aloud to him and type his dictated college papers. He then taught art at Kennett High School in North Conway, New Hampshire, for 23 years.
Children listen to, and play, music in a Portland park in the summer of 1973; Children play in a long-vanished fountain near Kennedy Park. Credit: Courtesy of Dave Higgins
The Portland parks photo project started one morning in 1973 when Higgins was looking at the morning paper, practicing reading skills. This was before his teaching career. He and Pat were living in Portland with no work plans for the summer at a time of high unemployment.
An ad in the paper said the city parks department was looking for children’s summer programming proposals. He immediately concocted a scheme to teach kids photography and the parks department approved it.
By that time, Higgins was deep into a photography obsession. He had recently purchased his first 35mm camera. It was a modest, American-made Argus C3, which cost $25 and resembled a metal brick with a lens protruding from the front.
“At that point, our household film and photo paper budget rivaled our food budget,” he said.
That summer, Higgins spent a week at each city park and playground, teaching 10 or 15 students at a time how to make pictures for themselves. He started each week with a whole day of just looking at pictures with the kids, asking them which ones they liked best, and why.
He wanted them to learn to see a good picture before trying to capture it. He remembers the kids picking up what he was teaching them “like sponges.”
“I’m a firm believer that the camera is the least important part of photography,” Higgins said. “It’s more about the scene, knowing what you’re photographing — and why.”
Eventually, he set each one loose with 12 frames of Kodak Tri-X black-and-white film loaded into an Instamatic camera.
Higgins remembers the middle-class kids having fun, using up their frames in an hour or two. But more economically disadvantaged kids would savor theirs, taking all day to make pictures of their parents, dogs and grandmothers.
Clockwise from left: A group of children pose for Dave Higgins’ camera in Portland in 1973; A boy and a lizard look at Dave Higgins’ camera; A boy and a goat pose for a photo in what is now Hadlock Field. Credit: Courtesy of Dave Higgins
“I think a lot of their families had never owned a camera,” he said. “Every picture they made was precious.”
After his students took their pictures, Higgins developed their negatives right in the park with an opaque, black bag acting as a darkroom.
For making prints, Higgins set up small photographic enlargers inside windowless sewage pumping huts and cinder block equipment sheds, often using ice to keep the chemicals cool enough to work properly.
Inside the sweltering, makeshift darkrooms Higgins would show the kids the joy and magic of seeing an image come to life in a tray under a red safelight.
“Then we’d take the pictures out, wash them with a hose or in a water fountain and hang them in trees to dry with clothespins,” he said.
All summer, as he taught kids to shoot pictures, Higgins was also making his own. Looking back through his files now, he reckons he has about 1,000 frames from that summer in the parks.
“They bring back all kinds of memories for me,” Higgins said, “They play like a movie.”
The pictures are bringing back memories for others as well. Recently, Higgins has posted some of his vintage images in the “Portland Maine Encyclopedia of the 1960s, 70s, & 80s” Facebook group. The pictures have garnered hundreds of reactions in just the past few weeks.
“That’s me on the left,” said Dennis J. Healy, recognizing himself in a group photo of kids on a football field. “I loved going to the park.”
One of Higgins’ pictures shows a girl kneeling next to a shaggy dog.
“I remember that awful haircut,” said Beverlie Herbst, the girl in the photo. “I miss Charlie Brown so much. Best dog ever.”
Higgins’ most-commented-upon photo is of children clinging to a spinning merry-go-round. It shows a child hanging onto a toddler with one hand while the other hand grips the blurred piece of gyrating apparatus.
“Road rash, scrapes, bruises, sprains, and hot metal playground equipment were a hallmark of my childhood years,” Jeffrey Judkins said. “It made us tougher.”
“That used to be so much fun,” said Linda Dube of the same spinning wheel. “It was a challenge to stay on it and fun to see who would get hurled off it or who could stand up after being on it.”
Higgins, now 74, still has hundreds of negatives from that summer to look through, scan and catalog. He wonders what will become of his pictures in the future. Higgins would like to see them preserved somewhere after he’s gone, perhaps in a library or historical society archive. He wishes there were a repository for culturally significant photographs in Maine.
“You know, there ought to be a place where photographers can preserve pictures like these,” Higgins said. “It would be a sin to do nothing with them.”