Lawrence Hardy taught himself photography as he recovered a nearly decade-long struggle with opioid addiction.
Houlton photographer Lawrence Hardy was a Lights Out Gallery featured artist in January. Credit: Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Just three weeks after ending nearly a decade of heroin use, Lawrence Hardy picked up his smartphone and started chasing the light instead of his next fix.

Now the self-taught Houlton photographer, who has been featured in galleries around the globe, will soon publish “Zen Xan,” his most serious and intimate work to date. Taken over the course of a year in Aroostook County, this series of black-and-white photographs — obscure visual representations of his long battle with opioid addiction, panic attacks, depression and anxiety — ultimately represents hope, he said.

Last year, Maine had more than 10,000 reported drug overdoses and 716 overdose deaths, according to the state attorney general’s office. Hardy said he hopes his photographs will help others.  

This project is a message to those who have suffered, endured and felt alone, he said.

“You are not alone,” Hardy said. “I remember it provided relief to know I wasn’t the only one dealing with it; that I wasn’t the only junkie hooked on fentanyl.”

Lawrence Hardy’s photograph, “-56 Degrees,” was taken on one of The County’s sub-zero mornings in February this year. It was so cold his camera kept sticking and he had to capture it from inside his cab. Credit: Courtesy of Lawrence Hardy

Hardy’s days are often measured by sunrises and sunsets. When he’s not working as a railroad operator or spending time with his family, he’s patiently waiting for the exact moment the light paints the horizon, the side of a building or a fencepost.

His work is his meditation, he said. He looks for the moments many people miss: Skidding tire tracks in the road or the way a dried stalk pops up in the middle of a house with snow dusting the image.

“I intend to show the beauty in the mundane, in the things everybody passes on an everyday basis and a lot of people don’t even turn their heads to look at,” he said. “It’s just something I see. I feel blessed that I see the world that way.”

Most recently, Hardy was one of 68 artists featured in individual   films by Lights Out Gallery in Norway, Maine.

“We wanted to do an interview with him. His story inspired us,” said Presque Isle native Daniel Sipe, gallery co-founder, adding that he is sure the gallery will work with Hardy again.

Hardy and his sister were raised on Route 212 in Merrill by a single father.

“I had such a strong bond with my father because my mother wasn’t around. She walked out on us when I was 3. Then my dad unexpectedly died when I was 19.”

The grief from his father’s death and hanging out with the wrong crowd led to his addiction, he said, adding that he had already been dealing with depression. He started using opioids to numb the pain, he said.

Hardy stopped using heroin and fentanyl the year his son Asher Lawrence Hardy, now 3, was born. At the time, he was unemployed and had too much time on his hands. So he started taking pictures and posting on Instagram. Today, he has more than 5,000 Instagram followers.

“I felt like I was catching on quickly but most importantly I was enjoying myself,” he said. “I went from my iPhone to an awful digital camera and then a Nikon F3.”

He learned more about photography’s nuances from YouTube, friends on Instagram and trial and error, he said.

While learning, Hardy said he was often disappointed to see work come back from the film lab, Northeast Photographic in Bath.

“They would scan it and send it back to me. I was very depressed to see what I did wrong. Overexposed, underexposed,” he said.

But when he purchased his Fugifilm XT3 mirrorless camera, things really started to change, Hardy said.

This image was taken near County Yankee in Houlton. It is part of a series called “Change” by Houlton photographer Lawrence Hardy who has captured this same spot in Summer and Winter. Credit: Courtesy of Lawrence Hardy

His rise to notoriety was swift. He’s been featured at Open Doors Gallery in London and Matcha Gallery in Vietnam and in magazines including Broad, Rental, Noice, Banal, Two Italian Rascals, Phases, Urban Nautica and The Zone Zine.

His project “No Traffic Jams” was featured in Canada’s Broad magazine. Hardy was featured in New York magazine, and he had a solo show at Humble Arts Foundation in New York. Last year, he was awarded the People’s Choice Award for his print, “Evacuate,” in Lights Out Gallery’s MaineReunited competition.

For now, Hardy is working as hard as he can to improve his art and continue his recovery. “Zen Xan” will be published this summer, and there is talk of solo installations at several galleries, he said.

“I always seem to be in a place where it’s never good enough, never what I thought it should turn out to be,” he said. “I love what I’m doing, and I’m always striving for that next level shot. The shot that genuinely makes me feel something I haven’t felt before.”

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...