An Interview with Terrell Lester
Q. When did you first pick up a camera? When did you realize that photography would be your livelihood?
A: I did not own a camera until I was 33 years old, but always looked at things that caught my eye as still frames. As a land surveyor in the wilds of Florida, I saw much beauty as I worked with a theadolite mounted on a tripod. I fell in love with the way the world looked through the lens. It seemed a natural progression to move to a camera. It became the company joke - if I was out inspecting a job site, I was also out there with my camera. I taught myself to print photographs at home using a 4 by 6 foot bathroom as a darkroom, and started showing my work to friends and co-workers. When they asked if they could buy my prints, the transition seemed complete from a surveyor to a professional photographer. It took another 15 years for me to become an "overnight success."
Q. Have you always concentrated on landscapes as a photographer?
A: I always wanted to capture the things that resonated with me and share them with others; the emotion, the warm glow I feel when witnessing nature's power. At one time or another, I have photographed almost everything that I have found curious. Animals, ice details, friends and family, the human figure, my own shadow - but it has always been the land, more specifically the light that falls on the land, that has touched me most deeply and has been at the core of my work.
Q. Whom do you count among your influences?
A: Like most landscape photographers I have to say Ansel Adams had the greatest effect on me. Not necessarily his style, but his approach. When I first started, it was difficult to understand why I couldn't convey the emotions I felt on film. I agonized over it. I tried time and time again with little success. I knew I had to learn where the magic came from, and turned to the master for the answers. Adams knew, as all good artists know, that technique, skill, and vision create that magic. I read and re-read all of his books until I got it. Then I practiced and honed it further. Then, and only then, did the magic come for me.
Besides Adams, some of the other masters that have influenced my work include Edward Weston, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lang, Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Eliot Porter, Andr'e Kert'esz, Paul Strand, Yousef Karsh, William Henry Jackson, Eugene Atget, David Muench, and Gallen Rowell. The Hudson River Valley painters also had a profound influence on my work. I have always felt that if they were here today they would be doing what I'm doing with a camera rather than with paint and canvas. And likewise, I would have been a part of their school.
Q: When did you begin taking pictures in Maine?
A: I made my first visit in 1985. I had quit my surveying job in Florida and moved to Rochester, New York to start my career as a photographer. I was selling my work at outdoor Arts & Crafts festivals and had traveled to New England to exhibit. The tour was a financial disaster and times were tough (to put it mildly) but I wanted to see Maine. I had imagined it to be a great wilderness and thought it might be the perfect place for my camera. It was not quite what I had imagined.
There was an intimate quality to the landscape. The light was quiet and soft, and the first pictures I took disappointed me. I did not know how to work in these new conditions. I returned in 1987, still touring and still growing as a photographer. A friend suggested I go to Stonington on Deer Isle because it was so authentic and so pristine. After driving around for an hour, I made an immediate and intuitive decision to move here. I knew this was my place and I have never regretted the decision.
Q: When did it occur to you that there was a story to tell with the pictures you've taken?
A: I'm not sure it did occur to me, at least as far as a book goes. That part was lucky. The way it happened was not one but two publishers stumbled across my work - one in Deer Isle and the other in Portland. Both of these men worked for the same company, and eventually got to talking about my working on a book for them. There may be odder coincidences in life but I can't think of any.
As far as my work goes, well, I must admit that I was used to thinking about my photographs individually, not collectively. But the book project changed all that. I came to see my work as a developing narrative. After you've spent as much time as I have working here -- in every season, in every kind of condition -- you begin to recognize threads in your work. You come to appreciate the beauty of winter, spring and fall, and realize for many those seasons remain undiscovered or enigmatic, memorable mostly for extremes. But everyone who has experienced those seasons can attest to their lasting impact. In the end, it made sense to publish a book through the prism of Maine's seasons because they dictate much of the physical and emotional landscape of the place.
Q: What is it about Maine as a subject that attracts you as a photographer?
A: That might seem like an easy question for me to answer, but in reality, the reasons are quite complex. I could say it's the light - so different here - or a land so rugged yet so soothing at the same time. But for me, it is the mystique of this place that keeps me here. There is an intangible quality to the people and the land. The very harshness of the environment evokes the inspiration I need to capture the beauty that surrounds me here. I have driven thousands of miles exploring everything from the most remote to the most touristed areas. I have been deep into the isolated woods and looked at huge vistas, as well as small details. Even so, I know I have only seen a fraction of what this place has to show me. Just when I think I have it figured out it changes, and my vision changes with it. It is a constant challenge.
Q: Tell us a little about the process that goes along with photographing the seasons of Maine?
A: Most of the photographs of Maine I had seen looked the same to me. The lobster shacks, the fishing villages, the moose and loons. I wanted to go beyond that. When I first moved to Deer Isle, I had a ritual I followed each day. I would get up two hours before sunrise and start driving around. I would try to figure out where the sun would rise, and what effect it would have on a place like Stonington. I would pick a spot that looked interesting and wait for the first rays of light to hit it, and see what happened. I began to see just how different those subjects looked from month to month and from season to season. After spending most of the first years on Deer Isle I started exploring the interior regions of Maine and found a whole new world. Mountains that looked like they belonged in the Western landscape. Deep remote forests and gorges with roaring rapids. The veneer began dissolving for me as I gained an intimacy with the land.
Q: Is there a season in which you especially prefer taking pictures? One you like least? Why?
A: Autumn is my favorite season. I remember as a child growing up in Nebraska the warm feelings that fall brought. The cool crisp air, the smell of burning leaves, Thanksgiving, the harvest, the hunt, the family gatherings. Fall is my favorite time to photograph because my emotions run the highest. In Maine, the colors are spectacular and the light is dramatic. I love to photograph on cold wet days when the colors are so saturated you can taste them.
The spring is a tease here. Just when you think the bleakness of mud month is past and the trees will start to bud, another late winter snow blankets the ground.
Summers are beautiful with lots of blue skies and calm waters. The camera hates blue skies and calm waters, and usually stays in its bag till late summer after people go away and things slow down.
I dread the long winters, but some of my best work comes out of them. I sometimes spend weeks waiting for a good snow storm to come up the coast, and when it does, it brings conditions that create some of the most dramatic and emotional scenes I've ever seen.
Q: Are there any extraordinary stories that go along with photography in such extreme conditions?
A: Almost every one of my images tells a story. Hopefully, they'll come to life when people view them. Many people I talk to believe that capturing these images is a relaxing process - a job I am lucky to have. In reality, few people would feel that way if they knew what I've had to sometimes endure to capture those images. I can remember sitting in my truck with frostbitten hands over the heater vent in sheer agony as they began to thaw and burn. I can remember wiping frozen tears from my eyelashes to take a photograph in minus 50-degree wind chills. I wonder how many would-be photographers would illegally hide in a gravel pit overnight in zero degree temperatures so they could capture the good light at sunrise after a snowstorm?
I accept the discomfort and pain that comes with the process of creating photographs that have something special. Landscape photography is not an easy process. In fact, it can be a lonely, cold, hot, and dangerous process. However, it is something I enjoy more than almost anything else. I love the challenge and thrill of capturing something special on film and sharing it. When someone tells me how beautiful an image is, and how "lucky" I was to be there, I just smile to myself and think, "if you only knew."
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from Maine: The Seasons?
A: Mostly I hope readers will take away a sense of the beauty that surrounds us all. Maine is a unique and beautiful place, but that beauty is only evident when you take the time to look for it. There is beauty everywhere - you only have to seek it out.
I didn't just point my camera wildly and release the shutter to capture these images. I studied the light, the land, the water, the animals. I opened my heart and mind to what was there. I used my emotions as a sounding board for the way I felt about what I saw. The camera is a scientific instrument. It records only what it sees. It has no emotion. It is my job to put that emotion there. It is what I love to do, and what I hope I do best. People need to look beyond the ordinary. To see the beauty that lies just beneath the surface no matter where you are.
Q: Do you think the book presents a complete picture of the state? Does it have to?
A: No. It was never my intention to try to completely represent the many different geographic locations of Maine in this book. It is more of a vignette of Maine. This book represents what Maine is to me. It is about the places I have seen to this point, but there are many more for me to explore - of that I'm sure. I think Maine is something different to everyone, but collectively, it is something truly special.
Q: What next?
A: My photographs are about exploring the things I love with my camera. I will continue to do that here in Maine because I know I have only scratched the surface, but another part of me is drawn back to where I first fell in love with the natural world - Florida. I want to return there and try to capture the wild places that still remain, as I remember them from my youth. Some of the beauty of that subtropical ecosystem I explored thirty years ago is still there. I want to see the Florida I saw as a young man, wielding a machete through the Florida swamps and uplands. I want people who think of Florida as theme parks and shopping malls to see the natural and pristine environment that still remains. I want to capture it all on film before it is changed forever.