Before the advent of the lumbersexual, before the stereotype of the L.L.Bean boyfriend, Maine's first sawmill opened in South Berwick in 1634. By the end of the 17th century, the state added 50 more. Lumbering was one of the first ways Mainers were put to work, and the mystique of the Maine woodsman has endured just as long.
In an inspired new gallery setting in the lower level of the Old Port's Press Hotel, Maine photographer Michael Wilson captures that present-day Maine woodsman in a series of crisp, clean photographs, in a small, handsome exhibition in conjunction with the Maine College of Art.
Shot across various states of action in a snowy lumber yard, Wilson's photographs artfully contrast the grit and thunder of the logging effort against an omnipresent backdrop of pure white snow. Of the roughly half of the set dedicated to portraiture, Wilson captures a softness, almost a gentleness, within his subjects. that both harkens to timeless notions of masculine nobility and belies the Maine lumberjack stereotype.
"Billy" is captured standing next to his truck with his hands in the pockets of his baggy, boot-cut jeans. Smears of black soot line his orange parka, and a slick mohawk splitting an otherwise bald head compliments a smirk. The boyish-looking "Cody Theriault" sits on a felled pile of logs, his eyes looking up at the sky as fresh flakes flutter throughout the frame. Cody's maroon work shirt, bearing the logo of Wiles Brook Logging, Inc. (an operation out of Allagash, Maine), is open at the buttons, suggesting the worker's internal combustion has outpaced the external temperatures of the job site. "Garin Peck" has seemingly exhaled a fresh gust of air, his thick work gloves hovering at the level of the mane of a black dog gazing up at him. He stands in a patch of trodden snow before a wall of axed pines, the billows of his workman's vest resembling a coat of armor.
It's a trope, possibly, drawing out the comparisons of working class men and women with the noblemen captured in old masters paintings, but Wilson's portraits are shot with such precision that they truly do take on some of that weight. We don't get much in the way of context of the job, but "Woodsmen" indeed finds these men lionized, at home with the labors undertaken, at one with the material at the heel of their blade.
For his landscapes and environmental shots, Wilson's eye is no less adept. "Log Ends" offers a vast wall of cut lumber filling the frame, mesmerizingly pointillist. In "Replanted Forest," Wilson deploys environmental fog to lovely effect, creating a textured canvas of forest green fading over multiple horizons. And numerous action shots find his Woodsmen operating live, complicated machinery that Wilson has captured in vibrant detail, as if still-moving in the frame.
At the slick and popular Press Hotel, "Woodsmen" ably transmutes a deep, storied history into accessible, confident photography. The history of Maine logging is rich and complex, and while Wilson's photos draw this history into the light, with crystal clear arrangements and handsome posturing, he takes care not to compromise the complexity of his subjects. His photos clarify, not lighten, the weight of their labors, and his show is worth your time.
"Woodsmen," photography by Michael Wilson | Through May 26 | At the Press Hotel Gallery, 119 Exchange St., Portland | http://www.thepresshotel.com/things-to-do
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