Arriving Home

Posted by on Jun 12, 2018 in Projects | 28 Comments
Arriving Home

A love letter to the state of Maine

Before we came to Maine, my wife Rebecca and I had lived in Co. Cork and Co. Kerry, Ireland for 6 years. We had traveled a lot together and photographed in many countries around the world, so we were comfortable being in different cultures. But we could never quite fit in on the Emerald Isle. The people were friendly, we enjoyed the scenery and many aspects of the local culture, but we never felt completely at home.

Most of the people around us still lived in the little town in which they were born. Many of them considered each other family, and a three-hour trip to Dublin was like seeing the world. Because most of Ireland’s population is Irish, foreign residents are understandably mistaken for tourists. We often heard the question “So, when are you leaving?” And the cultural mismatch we felt made socializing – beyond exchanging casual greetings – very difficult.

It became clear to us that we would not be happy staying in Ireland long term. We had considered moving to Tuscany, Italy (where we were married) but thought it would be better suited for retirement, which wasn’t on our horizon anytime soon. We talked about Norway, and, while the landscape was stunning and people seemed very happy there, it also felt very remote. After considering many other places we were close to settling for Paris, France. It was accessible for our frequent travel and had a lively contemporary art scene that we would have enjoyed being part of. But the French culture was hard to adapt to, and the language barrier didn’t exactly make this easier – even though we both had learned to speak a little bit of French in school – so we decided to lay the topic to rest for a while.

Our first trip to Maine was a last-minute decision. After many years in Ireland without snow, we were looking forward to experiencing real winter again. We decided to travel to New England for Christmas and New Year to spend time with family. We didn’t know much about the area, and many places in Vermont and New Hampshire were already booked by the time we made our holiday arrangements, so we just picked a little house in mid-coast Maine that could accommodate a small group of people.

Landing in Boston and driving up the East Coast was a great experience. I had not visited this part of the United States before the trip and I loved the traditional New England building style. It reminded me of Germany. Everything felt tidy and proper, but not as buttoned-up as I remember my birth country.

I loved how the landscape changed driving up the coast and how Maine seemed to become a little wilder the further north we got. After two and a half hours in the car we lost cellphone reception (we were roaming) and drove through beautiful little fishing villages along the Maine coast. Another hour later we arrived at our little house, which was completely remote, directly by the sea, and welcomed us with a warm stove and a basement full of firewood.

One of my favorite memories from this trip was watching our first snowfall in years. We sat by the window for hours like little kids, admiring how the snow flakes sugarcoated the pine trees. I remember feeling so at peace. It felt like arriving home after years of searching.

The following three weeks were one of the most beautiful and memorable of my whole life. Rebecca and I completely fell in love with the area and spent every waking minute outside exploring. We hiked in the freezing cold and couldn’t seem to get enough of the elements. The rugged beauty of the state was astounding to me. We drove up to Acadia National Park to hike and photograph the wild coastline, warming up with chili and cornbread at a local diner afterward. In Maine we found everything we loved about many of the places we had traveled, all in one spot.

I love simplicity. It’s what I always admired most about Italy and other Mediterranean countries. The people in Maine seemed so friendly and uncomplicated, so hard working, humble, unfussy and straightforward. Everyone took so much pride in their work, but there was no pretentiousness. The encounters we had felt warm and welcoming. Most of all, nobody ever asked us when we were leaving, even though it was obvious that we were not from here.

Christmas went by, New Year passed, and we headed back home to Europe. Even as we adjusted back to the normalcy of everyday life in Ireland, we kept talking about our experience in Maine. The feelings and memories stuck with us. Something inside of me felt like it had clicked into place, and whenever Rebecca and I talked about it, I could tell just by looking at her that she felt the same. We knew, without a discussion or weighing out pro and cons, that we had found a place where we fit in – a place for us to settle down and call home.

Many of our friends from the US were excited about our decision to move closer, but almost immediately raised concerns about the harsh and unforgiving winters in Maine. They worried that we were seeing our new home through rose-colored glasses. They were right, but we had fallen in love with Maine during the offseason and we trusted our gut feeling, having experienced before how important it is to follow your heart – even when choosing where to live.

The next months were very busy and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out the logistics of moving overseas. Besides deciding what to bring and what to leave, I didn’t have an American passport and needed to go through an immigration process. Finding a house in the US while living in Europe turned out to be complicated. But we finally signed a lease in August, rented a storage unit for a few personal belongings that didn’t fit into our suitcases, sold the majority of what we owned and booked one-way flights for early November. I was excited and nervous. Moving to the US was a huge step and there were a lot of unknowns.

I have always been attracted to seemingly mundane scenes and finding beauty & poetry in everyday life with my photography. I usually don’t plan ahead for my work, what interests me most about taking pictures is responding to the world around me. I had often thought about how I could combine my love for fine art, travel, and street photography into a personal, long-term photography project. I decided to document the impressions and experiences of my first year in the US with one picture per day for an entire year, and release a book with my work.

I knew I wouldn’t get to pick and choose how my days looked, and that very often they would be dull and uneventful and I wouldn’t be able to make a decent photograph that would be worth anything to anyone but myself. But that wasn’t what the project was about – I wanted it to be a true record of my life: capturing real moments and memories, the good and the bad times. I wanted to photograph how it feels to move continents and get comfortable in a different culture, to document my feelings and personal experiences along the way.

I shoot on film exclusively and I work with a minimalist approach to gear: one camera, one lens, and natural light. I spent a lot of time trying to decide how exactly to approach this challenge technically. After weeks of consideration, I settled for shooting the project with my Leica M, a 50mm lens, and classic Tri-X black & white film.

The reasons were simple: I needed a camera that’s reliable, portable, and fairly quick. I decided for B&W film because I knew I would be shooting day in, day out throughout an entire year – through rainy and sunny days, and through all four seasons. I was hoping for a timeless look that would work across many different situations, tying the resulting body of work together and giving it cohesiveness.

I also just love classic black and white film. I think B&W relates to reading a book like color relates to watching a movie. Both are wonderful in their own way, but when you are reading a book you have to imagine part of the story. That’s the same with B&W film, it’s suggestive. The viewer connects to the story and becomes part of it. With color, your imagination doesn’t need to fill in all of the blanks because everything is already there.

My trusty 50-year-old Leica never let me down. It went through a war in those 12 months, and, besides constantly hanging on my shoulder and being bashed around sometimes when I wasn’t paying attention, it survived being snowed on, frozen to a solid block of ice, and forgotten in the car at the beach on a hot summer day.

I also decided to journal every day to keep a record of my days, with pen and paper following the analog approach I love for my photography. This was one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever photographed, and there were many days where I wanted to quit. What I learned along the way is irreplaceable to me. It felt like 12 years of photographic development compressed into 12 months.

This project was also an artistic exercise. It was about authenticity for me and about accepting my personal limitations, repetition, and imperfection. All of my photographs during the year just “happened”. Nothing was planned in advance. I was able to capture these photos just because I brought my camera with me everywhere, every single day. And sometimes, because I felt brave enough to ask a complete stranger for their portrait, and I didn’t get chased away. Not every image I took was great, but had I not done this project, the ones I would have missed along the way would have broken my heart. I still carry a camera with me every single day.

Since we moved to the US two and a half years ago, we have never looked back. Maine has been everything that we had hoped for and so much more. We’ve made many friends and learned what a vivid art scene the mid-coast area has. Sitting in a little cafe during a blizzard with the locals is still one of my favorite things to do. That’s how I met my good friend and fellow photographer Gary, who comes to his favorite cafe almost every day and paints. Or Ryan the barista, who is one of the most talented actors I’ve met in my life.

From day one I had the impression that the people in Maine have a very European sense for community, but without the competitiveness I had experienced across the pond. When my wife and I went photographing in a blizzard once and slipped into a ditch on the way home, it didn’t take but 5 minutes for a few guys with a pickup truck to show up, pull us out, and vanish as quickly as they appeared. People here look out for each other.

I have traveled to and photographed in more than two dozen states in America now and experienced much of the beauty of this wonderful country. From New York to Los Angeles, from Acadia to Death Valley, from the northwest to the deep south. I had great experiences everywhere I went. Due to my profession, I often seek out situations that many people would find uncomfortable. I’ve approached people from many different backgrounds and never did a single person make me feel misplaced or unwelcome. The opposite.

Many countries in Europe are very conscious about their nation and you’re often left on the outside if you’re not born there. While Americans can be proud and patriotic, they were always inclusive. Everyone I talked to since my arrival was curious about where I am from and shared part of their family history with me after I told them. Because everyone here came from somewhere at some point in history and people can relate, either directly through their own experience or through stories that their parents or grandparents shared with them.

It is sometimes said that people in Maine don’t like people “from away,” but this hasn’t been my experience. Maybe it only pertains to other Americans (or it has to do with New York or Massachusetts license plates? I can’t seem to figure it out yet), but every single person I’ve met here made me feel at home and welcome. I’ve made more friends in the US in the past two years than I did in Europe in the five years leading up to our move. I’ve had more opportunities come my way because Americans want to see you succeed if you work hard and make an effort to be part of the culture. I feel that it’s truly American to help each other and approach everything with a “there’s enough pie for everyone” mentality. I’ve talked to so many people, from lobstermen to business owners to working artists and from all spectrums of the political scale. I have not experienced anything but warmheartedness.

Maybe that’s easier for me to see with an outside perspective. Once you leave your home country and live in a different place, you gain a lot of perspective on your own culture and upbringing. To acclimate to a new country you need to learn to be tolerant and open minded and understand that how you learned normal growing up is not the same as normal for everyone else. Because you are shaped so much by these experiences, you never truly fit in again in your own culture when you return home. It’s an experience that changes you forever.

My American dream is made of the people from this country, the local communities, the warmheartedness I feel here in my home state. My America accepts people that don’t fit in because at some point, most people didn’t fit in. But there were always others welcoming them, embracing them and offering a place to stay, to be safe and to rest. That’s exactly what I have experienced and I feel a deep sense of belonging here in Maine, more than I’ve ever felt, even in the county in which I was born. For that and so much more, dear Maine, I am very thankful.

– Johnny
 
 

A version of this photo essay was featured in Maine The Way – Issue 02: Spring.

A selection of prints from this series is available for purchase at Aspen Gallery. All images were taken with the Leica M2 and the Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2 on Kodak Tri-X 400. All images scanned and processed by Richard Photo Lab in California.

28 Comments

  1. Rebecca
    12. June 2018

    Life with you has been a wonderful adventure, Johnny, and the retelling of our story always brings me joy. Everything happens at the right time when you keep an open heart. Maine will always symbolize arriving for me. I love how you’ve captured this essence in your pictures – the fondness, contentment and inner peace of being finally at home.

  2. Johnny
    12. June 2018

    Thank you so much, Rebecca. That makes me so happy.

    I couldn’t ask for anything more than what we have found in Maine. Thank you for finding it with me. I hope we will grow old there together. :)

  3. Bill McCarroll
    12. June 2018

    Great story and images to go with it. So many of your wonderful signature photographs in here, so glad you embarked on that 365 Project, timing was perfect.

  4. Johnny
    12. June 2018

    Thank you kindly for your feedback, Bill.

    You know how hard this is – and I loved following your 365 Project too – maybe you’ll do a third one down the road. ;)

    I’m really looking forward to seeing you in October!

  5. Om
    12. June 2018

    I am glad you found a place to call your own. You are a gift to all of us and thanks for the wonderful story. It is nice to read what I have heard in bits and pieces.

  6. Johnny
    12. June 2018

    Thank you so much, my friend. You’re so kind. I know you can relate to many things I’ve shared in this post.

    You know how they say: home is where the heart is.

  7. Glenn Charles
    12. June 2018

    Welcome to our wonderful state.

    Having followed your journey for a bit now, I think this state suits you very nicely. Let me know if you all ever want to come up to the far Down East and visit our little corner of the state. As lovers of Ireland and travel, we would love to have you come visit. (Cohills Inn, Lubec Maine).

    Cheers!

  8. Johnny
    12. June 2018

    Thank you very much for your kind words, Glenn!

    Makes me so happy to hear that and I’d love to take you up on the offer. We have much more exploring to do in Maine! :)

  9. Jim
    12. June 2018

    Great story, wonderfully written. Loved the reference to New York and Massachusetts license plates. You could have added California as well.

  10. Johnny
    12. June 2018

    Haha, thank you Jim! So glad to hear you enjoyed the post.

    I have never seen a California plate in Maine, but I have many friends there. I remember overhearing a lively argument between a Mainer and a guest from New York: “That’s exactly what we like best here in Maine – people from away telling us how to live our lives!” ;)

  11. Joey Pasco
    12. June 2018

    I love this, Johnny! I’ve long been inspired by your work, but in this case I’m more inspired by your words. Finding a place that you “click” with is no small feat, and I’m glad you’ve found your home.

    I’ve never been to Maine (closest was a drive through Vermont on the way up to Quebec), but Christina and I have felt the pull of the New England area for a while. I’m definitely not going to miss out on Maine next time we travel north from Baltimore!

  12. Johnny
    12. June 2018

    Thanks very much for your feedback, Joey. Glad to hear that.

    Moving countries and moving continents is a wonderful experience and I can only encourage you to live in a different culture (maybe just for a while) and make the experience for yourself. It really does change you profoundly.

    Please let me know if you guys ever make it to Maine! :)

  13. Marya Figueroa
    12. June 2018

    Your photos! I swoon. So lovely, so lovely! Heart-tugging, actually. Wistful and hopeful, too. Perfect. I loved the black-and-white treatment. Thanks for writing and sharing. I found this through Om Malik’s blog.

  14. Johnny
    13. June 2018

    Marya, thank you for your kind words.

    It makes me very happy to hear that the essay resonated with you. You are right, I am very hopeful for this country. My experience was so positive. I think America is full of good people, we often forget that.

  15. Earlyback
    13. June 2018

    Love the B&W outcome and specially the portraiture shots are amazing. Beautiful writing and stunning images. Keep it up buddy. Best Wishes.

  16. Johnny
    13. June 2018

    Thanks so much for your kind feedback, Earlyback. I’m happy you enjoyed the post!

  17. Carl Setzer
    13. June 2018

    I’d love to hear about the mechanics of shooting film nowadays. It’s getting harder to find places to develop, too. Do you do that online? Or do you have your own darkroom?

  18. Johnny
    14. June 2018

    Carl, thank you for your comment.

    Film had a pretty decent comeback in the recent years. When I started shooting film exclusively I had to ship all of my work to the US from Europe because there were no decent labs left. But this all changed quiet a bit in the past 5-6 years.

    The most popular film stocks are readily available and there are many pro labs you can work with (some better than others). Film cameras can still be purchased relatively inexpensively, even though prices for many cameras and lenses have gone up significantly.

    I send all of my film off to a pro lab for development and scanning. I don’t have my own darkroom, but I frequently print B&W a community darkroom.

  19. Walker
    14. June 2018

    A lovely story, JP and see you in Tuscany when you decide to retire. I’ll be there too. ;-)

  20. Johnny
    15. June 2018

    Sounds good, Walker! Looking forward to meeting you there.

  21. Lisa Gordon
    15. June 2018

    A truly beautiful state, and a truly beautiful post.

  22. Johnny
    16. June 2018

    Lisa, many thanks. That’s very kind of you.

  23. Marc Broussard
    18. June 2018

    Hi Johnny,

    Nice to read from you. In your story I’ve seen again all the places I have worked and lived. One day I’ll come to Maine, but I have a lot of things to do. Fortunatly I’ll never, never, never retire – even in Tuscany.

    Right now my wife Catou and I carry on with our Loire Vallée Magazine. I hope you and Rebecca will be one day like we still are after 43 years of life together we live and work together.

    Thanks for your story and best wishes,

    Marc

  24. Johnny
    18. June 2018

    Thank you kindly for your nice comment, Marc.

    I agree about retirement. I don’t plan to retire either and the idea of not working and creating anymore doesn’t sound very appealing to me. I think that’s how it goes if you love what you do. But I do plan on spending more time in Tuscany at some point.

    It’s wonderful to hear about your life with your wife. I’m super happy for you both – and that’s something I am dreaming of every day. :)

    All the best for both of you! And good luck with Loire Vallée Magazine.

  25. Tsutomu
    10. July 2018

    Hello Johnny,

    Welcome to the state and loved reading this post! Looking forward to more photos as you explore all of what it offers.

    Tsutomu

  26. Johnny
    11. July 2018

    Tsutomu, thank you so much for your kind comment.

    So happy to hear you enjoyed the post!

  27. Nick Bedford
    2. August 2018

    Beautiful photographs made with one of the most beautiful films. Great to hear about your travel experiences, Johnny, especially in finding a sense of home in America. I understand the feeling of not belonging a little too well, though perhaps for my own reasons.

  28. Johnny
    3. August 2018

    Thank you, Nick. I really appreciate the sentiment. So happy to hear that you were able to relate and enjoyed reading about my journey.

    And I agree, Tri-X is one of the most beautiful films ever made. :)

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