FREEPORT, Maine — If you’re thinking about driving to the Penobscot Marine Museum to feast your photo-hungry eyeballs on its collection of pictures by famed, mid-20th-century, Maine magazine shooter Kosti Ruohomaa, don’t.
You’ll be wicked disappointed when you get there. The Searsport-based museum is closed for the season.
Instead, head to a town best known for L.L. Bean and upscale shopping.
There, at Freeport Antiques and Heirlooms, you’ll find the Marine Museum’s “Kosti Comes Home” exhibit. It features some of Ruohomaa’s best Maine-based magazine photographs from the 1940s and ’50s. It’ll stay up all winter, into next year, and admission is free.
“This show was up all summer at the museum,” said Matt Wheeler, the museum’s digital collections guru, as he hung the exhibit on Thursday. “Now, it will have a second, and maybe third, life.”
Ruohomaa lived in Rockland and was a nationally known photojournalist during the 20th century heyday of photo magazines like Look, Life and National Geographic. His pictures appeared in all of them.
Ruohomaa died in 1961 at the age of 47 and, for many years, his negatives languished in a New Jersey warehouse after the demise of his photo agency, Black Star.
From left to right: A large exhibit panel at Freeport Antiques and Heirlooms shows the work of famed, mid-20th-century Maine magazine photographer Kosti Ruohomaa’s work on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022. The free exhibit will be on display all winter; Matt Wheeler (left) and Kevin Johnson of the Penobscot Marine Museum prepare an exhibit at Freeport Antiques and Heirlooms on Thursday morning, Nov. 17, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
That changed in 2017 when the Marine Museum brought the archive back to Maine. Museum photo archivist Kevin Johnson drove to the Garden State and returned with seven cardboard boxes containing Ruohomaa’s negatives, prints, contact sheets and handwritten captions from 1,200 different photo assignments — including many shot in his home state.
Ruohomaa made pictures around the world but Maine was always his favorite subject — its people, landscape and Yankee culture.
“He championed Maine,” Johnson said, at the time. “Many of the stories he did on Maine were ones he pitched himself, and I think he wanted to share what was special about Maine to the rest of the world. I think that’s a significant thing. His pictures have become iconic symbols of what it means to be from Maine.”
Ruohomaa had a knack for shooting austere but authentic pictures of Maine and its people without the gauzy sentimentality that make up so many picture postcards. He especially liked making pictures in Maine during the winter months.
“In the summer [Maine] is a bit too idealistically beautiful,” Ruohomaa once wrote to a friend. “In the winter it has guts and drama and doesn’t wear such a pretty face. Anyway, it has the kind of meat my camera likes.”
The exhibit Johnson and Wheeler hung on Thursday features a series of large interpretive panels showing whole picture stories the photographer made, as they might have appeared in a magazine. One panel shows a trout fishing story from Rangeley, another a series of photos about the sardine packing industry.
One of Ruohomaa’s most famous chronicles a one-room schoolhouse teacher’s exhausting day from school to feeding her husband to vacuuming to falling asleep in a chair.
The large, three-story antique shop hosting the exhibit is glad to have Ruohomaa’s pictures on hand. It’s the second Ruohomaa show the shop has hosted with the museum. The first one focused on pictures of L.L. Bean and painter Andrew Wyeth.
“We have people come to the shop just because they’ve heard of the show,” said assistant manager Wendy Wyman. “Everyone is fascinated by the photos. You hear ‘marine museum’ and you think it’s going to be all boats — but it’s so much more.”
The antique store also sells prints for the Marine Museum.
“You can buy postcards for a dollar or go upstairs and get antique furniture for $325,000,” Wyman said. “And we have everything in between, too.”
The Freeport Ruohomaa show will be up until sometime next year. The Marine Museum in Searsport will reopen May 25, 2023.