Peter Ralston is world renowned photographer whose work I have admired for the 30 years I've known him. Peter and I have a wonderful conversation about his idyllic upbringing in rural Pennsylvania as the fortunate neighbor of the great 20th Century painter Andrew Wyeth and his equally creative and influential wife, Betsy. We talk about how they demanded he come with them to the coast of Maine as a young man--already a dedicated, fledgling photographer--and how that one act changed the entire trajectory of his life. Peter talks openly and honestly about his challenges after a life-threatening and life-altering brain aneurysm and it's long-term complications, and what it took for him to finally make it back to "making pictures." Peter's story is inspiring and heartfelt. He is a true creative.
Peter grew up in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, worked for a decade as a freelance photojournalist, and then began photographing the coast of Maine in 1978, drawn especially to the working communities that defined the coasts enduring character. His work has been reproduced in many books and magazines featured repeatedly on network television and has been exhibited in galleries, collections and museums throughout the United States and abroad. In 2003, Peter was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at Colby College for his photography, as well as his role as co-founder (with Philip Conkling) of the Island Institute. Although as a young man, Ralston studied very briefly under Ansel Adams, he acknowledges the greater artistic influence of a lifetime of association with Andrew Wyeth, a close friend and incisive mentor. Peter and his wife, Terri, opened the Ralston Gallery in Rockport, Maine, in 2011, selling his photographs as well as the work of his lifelong friends, Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. He is currently working on a major book about the coast of Maine. www.ralstongallery.com
CRACKING THE SKY-Conversations with Creatives-PETER RALSTON 6.11.21
Cid [00:00:05] Hey, everybody, welcome to my podcast, Cracking the Sky Conversations with Creatives. I'm your host Cidny Bullens. I'm here in East Nashville, Tennessee, where around every corner is a front porch, a songwriter and a barking dog. On my podcast, I'm talking with a whole spectrum of creative people from around the world. I dig deep into what inspires these artists and creators to do what they do and what it takes for them to make the leap into the creative unknown. I'm featuring some incredibly gifted people, musicians, songwriters, artists, authors, record producers, actors, filmmakers and more. I go inside the mainstream and outside the lines, so settle in wherever you are as we explore the process of making something out of nothing through the experience of some of the most creative people of our time. I mean, hey, everybody, welcome to Cracking the Sky conversations with Creative's. I'm Cidny Bullens today I'm going to be talking with a really good friend of mine from Maine. Peter Ralston is an incredible photographer whose work I have admired for 30 years since I've known him. Peter grew up in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, worked for a decade as a freelance photojournalist, and then began photographing the coast of Maine in 1978, drawn especially to the working communities that defined the coasts enduring character. His work has been reproduced in many books and magazines featured repeatedly on network television and has been exhibited in galleries, collections and museums throughout the United States and abroad. In 2003, Peter was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at Colby College for his photography, as well as his role as co-founder of the Island Institute. Although as a young man, Ralston studied very briefly under Ansel Adams, he acknowledges the greater artistic influence of a lifetime of association with Andrew Wyeth, a close friend and incisive mentor. Peter and his wife, Terri, opened the Ralston Gallery in Rockport, Maine, in 2011, selling his photographs as well as the work of his lifelong friends, Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. He is currently working on a major book about the coast of Maine.
Cid [00:02:49] Peter Ralston! You are talking to me from one of my favorite places on Earth, the MidCoast of Maine. You are there in Maine. I miss Maine, my daughter's in Maine. My people are in Maine.
Peter Ralston [00:03:03] Maine has you in its heart, and in our hearts. There are a lot of people that I love you, as you know.
Cid [00:03:09] Well, I've been fortunate that that island, the island of North Haven, where I still have a little... I call it a shack because, you know, all the summer people have big houses except me. I have the shack. But that island of North Haven, Maine, which is 12 miles from where you are out into the ocean, has taken care of me for the last thirty years. I mean, through thick and thin, they have been my literal rock.
Peter Ralston [00:03:39] Island communities are funny. I think, as you know, I've been something of a student of of islands.
Cid [00:03:49] through the Island Institute.
Peter Ralston [00:03:50] Yes. Which I co-founded with Phillip Conklin in '83. But you know, so, so what is it about islands? And to me... I come from a very, very small little town. Used to be little, rural, used to be rural in southeastern Pennsylvania, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. And I mean it makes Rockport where I am now, looks like Vegas by comparison. Chadds Ford really did used to be small, but there's something ineffable...There's something so special about small communities like the North Haven population. What is 350? Something like that. And some of the year round islands off the coast are, you know, they are 50 year round population--fifty Monhegan, Mattinicus, Isle Au Haut, etc. But these small communities, I believe with all my heart, have so much to teach us, teach the rest of America about having each other's backs. And as you know, you know perfectly well from North Haven, not everybody's in love with everybody else. No, au contraire. And yet there is something about these small communities that are so tight where everybody participates because you have to. You have to and you have each other's backs because you have to.
Cid [00:05:18] That's right.
Peter Ralston [00:05:19] It's just it's an ethic. So Conklin once called it lifeboat ethics. Mm. And it is I mean, and I think more of us in this country, especially today, my God, felt that way and acted that way, we'd all be so much the better for it.
Cid [00:05:40] No, it's it's absolutely true. And that gets me to your photography, because you are...
Peter Ralston [00:05:48] Oh, that!
Cid [00:05:56] But it all melds in exactly to the islands-- into the coast of Maine and to the the unique-- I think it's unique. I mean, it's not unique. There are islands all over the place. I mean, I've been to the islands off the coast of Washington State, you know, which remind me very much actually of the islands of Maine. But your photography so captures, which is why it's so well known and and has reached around the world, because it so captures that particular lifestyle, I guess. I mean but it's more than that. It's the it's the grit. It's the spine and the heart altogether of island communities. And I want to know... you talked about Chadds Ford. You grew up in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. I love the story. And I want to hear it from you of you moved there when you were seven, very small town community. And a year and a half later, your neighbors moved in. So what drew you to the neighbors?
Peter Ralston [00:07:14] Sure. Well, that was the Forrest Gump sitting on that bench waiting for the bus. The woman sitting down next to me was talking to her. And I said, mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. And my very Forrest Gumpian life, you know, that whole side of it really started with the the really brave, amazing thing mom and dad did was buy a place, an old big old stone, Quaker built place. Part of an old mill property on the Brandywine River, you know, and they've both been brought up and citizens were very proper all this. But they bought this place in Chadds Ford. It was ramshackle. Real country people were living in there and it was fabulous. The next year, 1958, the rest of the property, the mill property there on the river was bought by Andy and Betsy Wyeth, who were never, ever to me, Andrew and Mrs. Andrew. I mean, they were just these curious couple with next door. I had a crush on Betsy, a wicked crush of Betsy, eight years old.
Cid [00:08:31] So Andrew Wyeth is the great 20th century painter, one of them?
Peter Ralston [00:08:36] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. They were both truly remarkable people. And my two brothers and I had run of the property the way the old mill there on the river, late 18th century mill. The way it was set up-- there were a couple of dams in the river and there were three islands that were part of Andy and Betsy's property. So I literally grew up playing on their islands. Twenty years later, in '78, they insisted it wasn't an invitation, it was an edict. You are coming to Maine this summer and spending the summer with us. But I get ahead of myself as I so often do. So yeah, growing up was wonderful. I mean, we were country kids. It was just the most remarkable upbringing. But here with these --Andy and Betsy right next door. Their boys, Jamie and Nicky, were significantly older. Jamie's four years older than I am. And so I never really saw much the boys at all. They had very different backgrounds --a whole different world than us next door. But Andy, Betsy, we're we're like second, parents, in a way, I could just run over there, had run of the property. And it was there as a young boy that I started... That Maine started to infuse itself, seep into me insofar as, we didn't go as a family to Maine in the summer, we went to the New Jersey coast. My God, I can't imagine doing that now, with all due respect to everybody who's listening from New Jersey coast. I had a lot of fun there, sometimes too much fun. Anyway, they would come back from Maine in the fall and I'd be-- I'd go over to see them. I'd be in and out. And here, would come out of the old jeep and later trucks would bring them down, these paintings from Maine of places and people. And they would tell me stories, you know, about the places and the people and Andy's paintings. And the stories were often colorful-- pirate fishermen and skullduggery and loneliness and sex and often the stories we're told with with language that my parents would use. It was also intriguing and this went on year after year. Maine was just this-- a place as exotic, as removed as old China, the heart of Africa, friggin' Mars. I didn't know about Maine, but it was this magical place. And keep in mind, here's Andy, you know, son, one of five children, the youngest son of N.C. Wyeth, who was completely over the top, with imagination and swashbuckling this and swashbuckling that. So Maine was just this amazing place. And again, fast forward 20 years after I first met them and having dinner in their house one night there in Chadd's Ford and Betsy points her finger at me. And as I say, it was not imitation. It was an edict. You, and my wife then, you guys are coming to Maine this summer. We're going to give you the guest house on the farm. And it's, you know, it's time you see Maine. And what they were doing that I didn't really get at the time, is they were giving me one of the absolute singular, hands down over the top greatest gifts of my life, they gave me Maine.
Cid [00:12:33] Yeah.
Peter Ralston [00:12:36] They knew...we really loved each other. They knew me inside. They knew better than I knew back then. They knew what they were doing. They knew what Maine would become to me.
Cid [00:12:50] Were you doing photography at the time?
Peter Ralston [00:12:53] Oh, yeah.
Cid [00:12:53] You were a photojournalist in New York or you were doing something like that, right?
Peter Ralston [00:12:58] Yeah. So I left Chadds Ford. I abandoned academe really early, really early. Thrown out of school one school and wasn't doing very well. I had to go back, you know, high school. And and it was you know, this was '68. And I'd seen a bit of the world and I had lots of attitude. I was not ready to be kept down on the farm at that point. So I literally quit high school, broke my parents heart, but I was determined to be a photographer. And I was determined that nothing was getting in the way of this attitude of mine at the time. Yes. So out in the world I went, you know, it wasn't easy for a long time, but I kept at it and, you know, it all finally took.
Cid [00:13:51] So what was it, though, about photography? What was it about capturing a moment that that drew you?
Peter Ralston [00:13:59] So I grew up. You and I are pretty close in age, I think.
Cid [00:14:03] We're the same age.
Peter Ralston [00:14:04] OK, yeah, well, you know, I mean, back when there weren't little glowing screens that we carry in our pockets, you know, there weren't screens everywhere. I remember when we actually got a television and the first one was black and white. Of course, the big hulking thing. But it was the age of magazines. And we were, I was blessed. My brothers and I were blessed. Our mother drove deep into us a passion and love of reading. And I just in addtion to just loving reading--there were magazines. The great magazines of the day, of course. When Life magazine.
Cid [00:14:48] Look.
Peter Ralston [00:14:49] Look. National Geographic. But, you know, to me, the really interesting magazines were those with lots of illustrations, photographic illustrations. I had a very creative mother. She painted and whatnot. But then, of course, next door here is this, you know, is this nuclear power plant of brilliance, creativity and imagination and passion. You know, that was definitely a factor in it. Then there was the two optical things. My grandfather was a United States Navy in the Second World War, submarines and his naval binoculars, which I still have. I used to use those and peer though then constantly, as though I'm making movies and pictures and I flip them around the other way. So everything was far away. That was kind of cool. And the last of it was, I guess for some years, I mean, for years... I can't remember how old I was when they finally figured out I needed glasses. That I had been somehow pulling it off, you know, sitting close to the chalkboard at school and stuff. I somehow managed to get by. Very, very nearsighted. You know, anything much more than arm's length away starts to blur out and at 10 feet I can't read. Yeah, I mean, it's pretty blurry. I remember I'll never forget the day walking out of the eye doctors there. My first pair of glasses was like the whole freaking world was different. It was just an early mindblower. As one who has always cultivated mind blowing experiences. It was the big one. It was an innocent, immensely powerful thing. It was like the doors of perception... Everything was different than I had known for all the years prior to that. So between the optics, then, this nuclear plant, creativity and talent next door, a very nurturing, creative home environment, and looking at all the visual stuff in magazines, I thought, you know, this is the life for me. Ah, and stubborn as I was in the late 60s. And everybody is like, do your thing. I was I was doing my thing. I'm out of here and now bought my Pentax Automatic and a lens and then two lenses. It was just eeking by for a while and I had some really crummy, basic, you know, driving a forklift at a paper mill. A technical writer for a while worked, drove a truck and Agway farm store. But it was always with a camera nearby. And I pursued local magazines, you know, trying to get something published. And I can't remember for the life of me what my first published photograph was, but I kept bumping up, bumping up and yeah, it just kind of took off. The big moment, one way point along the way, a nice one-- I ran into somebody I knew who knew a guy named Mel Scott, who is the number two picture guy at Life magazine. And this guy who I met who is no longer living, said "Use my name. You call Scott and tell him I think you've got something going here. And that I think he should see your work." So here I am. I forget how old I was. Jesus, I really don't know. But I actually called up Mel, got an appointment with him at Life magazine went up there. I can remember how nervous I was, but I brought sheets of Kodachrome slides, 20 slides to a page. And I bought all this stuff, you know, sensitives you dew on morning grass and spider webs. And, you know, this is country stuff. And he looked through it all, didn't take him long. And he basically reamed me out. He said, don't you ever, you know, show anybody this much work again? You're as good as your weakest. There's a lot of weak stuff in here. Wow. Know, he really drilled me a second one and he was tough.
Cid [00:19:46] Did you a favor though.
Peter Ralston [00:19:47] It was a wicked favor. And then the icing on the cake of that big favor was. He said, you can't least Lee Stossler. I still remember her name. She was the art director at the Today Show. He said, I want you to show this stuff to her, which I did. And she liked it a lot. And all of a sudden, my stuff is running on the Today show. I just as bumpers, no name credit, no nothing. I think they paid something like a pittance. But like my work was being seen by millions of people every morning-- just to introduce-- they called them bumpers, to introduce the commercial break. And then when they come back from a commercial break, they show some pretty, you know, dewy eyed picture. So they were little things like that along the way. That was that was a big one for me. You know, and you just can't, you know, as a songwriter, you didn't, you know, write your first song and all of a sudden the world's beating a path to your door.
Cid [00:20:53] No, it steps. It's somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody and whatever.
Peter Ralston [00:20:56] So there's the somebody knowing somebody. But you, all throughout, you honing your craft. Honing mine. You know, you just work on it, you work on it. And it's your life's blood in a way. And you're not making squat at that point, but you're just you're working on it because it's what you've got to do. And if you're one of the lucky ones... And I've God Almighty have I been lucky over the years! You know, so lucky-- dating back to wonderful parents. But then this miracle of Andy and Betsy moving in next door-- that influenced me. It was huge for me.
Cid [00:21:35] And that's such an incredible story because... It's like me crashing a party and meeting Elton John, even though I was in my twenties by that point... I didn't have the growing up thing that you did. But it's just one of those. It's not a coincidence. It's a life kind of altering happenstance.
Peter Ralston [00:21:55] I mean it's Forrest Gump. Yeah. It's the box of chocolates from.
Cid [00:21:59] How does that happen, you know. Yeah. Yeah. And and it leads us into ......
Peter Ralston [00:22:05] ...into more cool stuff and it leads us deeper inside ourselves. And and with each of these things that gets layered in on top of this patchwork quilt of our lives, you know. You get a little more maybe gumption, you get a little you get a taste for this stuff.
Cid [00:22:22] Yeah. You know, well, you get more confidence, too. I mean, you see your picture as a bumper. You're not getting paid shit for, but it's there being seen by millions of people. And you go, hey, they they chose to show my picture. I must have something. I'm going to keep doing it, you know.
Peter Ralston [00:22:39] And that's what I did. Yeah. That's what you've done. Yeah.
Cid [00:22:43] I want to know about Ansel Adams because he's one of my favorite nature photographers. And having been in Yosemite and having all my, you know, having been in most of the national parks that he photographed... I know it's kind of I mean, I'm going to call it a blip because you don't talk much about it. But I just want to know how you met him or how you got to meet him or what the work you did with him was or what he taught you or what.
Peter Ralston [00:23:11] Yeah, I mean, it would be disrespectful to say it was a very minor thing, but... It was a powerful thing. In a very different kind of way. So, you know, I knew Ansel Adams was I'd been given books of his work and so forth, you know, coffee table, you know, majestic photographs. My God, the guy was Wagnerian in, you know, composing. And he's one of the gods. My grandmother gave me for my 21st birthday present, a workshop of Ansel's in Yosemite National Park, where he had a house in the gallery and taught workshops. So out I go. So that would have been like '71. Out I go and I've got hair down the middle my back and I'm like a thirty five millimeter camera guy and I'm shooting color and everybody else was very serious and large format cameras, black and white zone system, all very precise stuff. And I honestly don't remember what I learned. But you know, I was in the presence of a great, truly great, creative soul and a master of craft. And that... You know, I heard him play piano. So as a musician, by the way, you know, as a young man... This was very powerful. And I knew the story, but I heard him tell it. As a young man... And so there was a fork in the path ahead of this enormous creative spirit. And one fork, you know, led to... Ansel was seriously to consider becoming a professional concert pianist. He was a very, very fine pianist and a great ear, and played beautifully. I heard him play that summer. The other fork was following his photographic heart, and, of course, that's the heart, the fork he took, the path he chose. So with that understanding... You'll appreciate it. It's something I think about all the time, not so much when I'm actually photographing, but when I'm printing. Printing. I love printing. I love making the images. And then I love getting them onto this beautiful paper that I use. Ansel famously said, if the negative is the score, the print is the performance. So, you know, I can't draw a stick figure. I swear to God, you know, I, I am like six big toes, you know. I can't draw a thing, but I'm a good printer and I love printing. Because to me it is like painting. Which I could never imagine doing. But I'm I'm good at it.
Cid [00:26:34] I want to stop you there for a second because I love this I love this conversation and getting to printing as actually an art form in itself. But, so you do you ever use digital or are you still film? So what's what's that with you today in the day and the age of digital?
Peter Ralston [00:26:59] Yeah, so here's, you know, their overly long stories behind all of this stuff. So you're going to have a hell of a time editing just down my friend. Anyway, I had a very serious medical event in 1997. You know about that?
Cid [00:27:20] Yes, I do. Of course, I do.
Peter Ralston [00:27:21] I had a cerebral hemorrhage and I had brain surgery. I had a stroke. You know, and it was... I came very, very close... There is no reason I'm alive today. The summation of that whole medical episode was in the spring of '97. There was a tumor on my star, former starboard adrenal gland. The tumor went off. It provoked... It blew out an aneurysm in my brain that led to the brain surgery during which... It all went wrong and they almost lost me. And then they had to put me back together, and I had a stroke in the middle of that. And the result of all this to... Fast forward, is basically... after all of that, starting November 21,1997, I didn't pick up a camera for six years. Not really much at all. At all. And when I did get back on the horse, everybody was wondering...my God why isn't he shooting? Because of the stroke, my left eye didn't work for a while, my left hand didn't work. But then friends made an incredible gift. Dear friends. Bottom line is, friends got me to describe the top of the line equipment that a National Geographic photographer would have if they were going around the world on assignment. What, Peter, they asked one night, over quite a bit of wine, in their home. What would be the equipment that you would have. We're going to be traveling a lot, what should we... What should we have? We want the best equipment we can buy. Very wealthy people. I rattled off what they should have. Digital, because digital had just gotten about as good as Kodachrome film used to be at the high end. And when I described this equipment and it ran up quite a bill, it was pretty expensive. They topped off my line and said, "In the morning, we're calling B & H Photo in New York and we're going to buy you all of that equipment and get your ass back on the horse from which you were thrown". So it was the gift of a great camera system, but more than that, it was the gift of love and faith and encouragement. You know, there's no price tag on that. That is priceless stuff. And and that was it. I was reborn photographically, started working digitally. I had about three... They weren't even learning curves, I mean they were like vertical walls to figure out all at once--printing and using the equipment and whatnot. But I took to it. Honest to God, you know, it was so good to be home. And going back to the Ansel Adams line about if the negative is the score, the print is the performance. What struck me, early on, is that Ansel and the other great darkroom masters, you know, some incredible men and women make exquisite prints... I realized after I've been working digitally for a while that those people, brilliant as they were, were only working with like a quartet, quintet, sextet like that, whereas digitally it was like working with a whole friggin' orchestra. You could literally say to the second flute, you know, you know, I want you to come in on that note harder and quicker and trail off softly. And I could do that and still can, all of this can, working in digital in the digital darkroom. So I embrace digital work, I love it. I've never been able to make prints like this. I'm really proud of them.
Cid [00:31:47] Wow. That's that's awesome. And what a great, fabulous description. I have my Cannon something somewhere in some box, somewhere that I used to take pictures with, but and slides up the wazoo.
Peter Ralston [00:32:03] See, you're you're taking pictures ...
Cid [00:32:06] I'm taking pictures, I'm not making pictures.
Peter Ralston [00:32:07] I'm making pictures.
Cid [00:32:08] That's right.
Peter Ralston [00:32:10] Whenever anybody talks to me... and I'm talking to a kid at four o'clock this afternoon. But what I, what I will say to her in a couple hours and what I said so many times to those who come to me, is I want you to start acting and thinking about making pictures, not just taking. You know, if everybody's sitting around your party and you said that, well, that's taking pictures, you know. The hockey games, when the boys were little, that was taking pictures and whatnot. But if you go, you know, just crank out songs, you put your freaking heart and soul into it and, you know, you're making music. You're not just kind of whistling in the dark.
Cid [00:32:51] No, that's right.
Peter Ralston [00:32:52] And that's that's how I go about it. You get it. And anybody who's creative listening to this.
Cid [00:32:56] So when you're making a picture, you have the eye of a photographer. So tell me. Well, let me read this is a great opportunity for me to read your statement... "Because my photographs are my statement..." This is by Peter Rollston. "I don't..." This is in your voice. "I don't pretend to aspire to be terribly intellectual about what I do. I just poke around the nooks and crannies of this coast, the Maine coast, always with my camera. That's about it. I'm not overly concerned about what I'm doing being considered, quote, fine art, end quote. As far as I'm concerned, I'm just storytelling, albeit straight from the heart." Which I love. "These are the places I've been and the people I've met. And sometimes there's metaphor not far beneath the surface."
Peter Ralston [00:33:54] So kind of hand in glove with what you just read... I hate art statements so much. So much. My God, I mean, they are so often and I don't mean to be, you know, too too negative-- yes, I do--about this. But so often they are so pompous and so full of themselves and so overlayered, you know. God, I mean, layer upon layer of just too much and the images... My photographs are my statement, fuck it. That's it. Boom. Period. End of report. But because I'm chatty as you know and everybody else, I couldn't let it go at that. And you read the rest of it. Well, here's the little bit that I wrote on top of that about... I feel very strongly... I've got a lot of, we both you and I, both know friends who fish, lobster fishermen, different types of fishing. So I wrote my book Sitings. I've come to think of my photography is not unlike the art and science of fishing, like my fishing friends, I spent countless long hours, often alone, often with nothing to show for a lot of work, but a sense of having been there, having tried. Going over the same ground over and over again, often disappointed, sometimes surprised, occasionally coming back with a great catch to show for the ceaseless investment of what Melville referred to in Moby Dick as time, strength, cash and patience. Like the best fisherman, I've had to know the territory and respect the rules, we ready to take a few calculated risks when it felt right. Look people in the eye and keep the gear as simple as possible. Get out early, come in late, watch the sky and above all, respect the people and place where I work. I always keep in mind what J.M. Barrie wrote in Peter Pan quote, Nothing is really work unless you'd rather be doing something else, end quote. Amen.
Cid [00:36:06] I love that analogy, that metaphor of the fisherman and... You know, that it kind of strikes at the heart of what you do and actually of the creative process if you're really.
Peter Ralston [00:36:22] There.
Cid [00:36:22] If you're really there! And and when I watched your documentary, Peter's Eye, which I loved. I know it was done 10 years ago or something like that, but it was great. And you said in there, and I'm paraphrasing, the danger of taking pictures of the coast of Maine is that it's so beautiful. I love this. And it's easy to take what you call a pretty picture. And that's and that you are and that you are trying to go deeper. In other words, it's easy to take a pretty picture when you're in a beautiful place. What is it... So you go deeper from the pretty picture, because we can all... I can go out there and take--and I have-- thousands of pictures. But talk about... OK, you're looking at everything is beautiful. What do you find? What what is it that draws you? I mean, I, I know your pictures, so I can answer that for myself from my own point of view. I mean, for people who don't know Peter Ralston's pictures, first of all, look it up and well, you'll tell us your website and everything as we close. But your pictures convey this depth... And we're talking about going deeper so I guess I'm answering my own question. The depth of the experience of living in Maine, of being in Maine, of being on the water, of owning... Of fishing of... Working of ... and I you know, all your pictures are like flashing through my my head at this moment. Do you take... Let's say you're looking at a beach with a bunch of rocks on it. The Maine coast with the pine tree on the edge in the water over on the left. And there's the rocky coast. Do you take like a hundred pictures that you think might work and then pick one, or do you go you look and look and look and look and then you say, that's the picture.
Peter Ralston [00:38:43] So when I'm out there. Fishing for photograph's. What I want more than anything else is, is just to be open, because it sounds really corny, sounds really trite, and I know it does even before I say it, but it's like the end of these images that I make... They find me. I put myself in some really interesting places. I've got a great boat. I know the waters. I know the islands. I know the people I know. And I've been here now forty four years and I've been over... Like the thing about the fishermen, you know, going over the same bottom, over and over, over and over. These guys can't see the bottom, but they know it because they they've dragged over it. They fished for decades. And so when I go out, you know, I make sure I've got a camera with me and I just kind of kick into open. So I'm not looking for a specific this or that. It's just these things appear and they're the same things that a lot of people see. I'm out there enough, often on the edge of some really shitty or interesting weather, times of day, and just over and over and over. And then all of a sudden I would be like, wow, look at that. And then I might move around and move my camera, sometimes, by fractions of an inch, just to make sure. It's really that final composition. You know, it's writing the score, writing the score. I can...
Cid [00:40:43] I love that.
Peter Ralston [00:40:45] And you can vary it, you know, by just a little here, a little there. Change it up. And then God willing and openness, you know, hopefully being there and we have a half a clue what I'm doing, something... It's a good score. The trick is going back to what you were saying about, you know, the the the danger of pretty immature. I mean, I swear to God you could blindfold me. I could be roaring drunk in an inversion suit, you know, blindfolded. And I could still make pretty pictures of the coast of Maine. You just kind of put your camera just about anywhere, anywhere. And it's going to be like, OK, that's a pretty picture or a cute, you know, this or that. I can't think of anything worse, God forbid. But if you. You know, hone it down, you hone it down. And I was so freakin blessed to have the two greatest. Friends and second parents, mentors Andy and Betsy, who were ruthless, ruthless about, you know, don't load up your images with a lot of crap, that's what Andy's father did and say, you know... He would stick, you know, all these wonderful, you know, exciting things in the photographs. And he was so good at what he did. He was such a great illustrator. But it was the brilliance, the brilliance of Betsy who just hammered on Andy. Your father says that man walking through a field should have a gun in his hand and a dog bounding alongside him. And Betsy would just say, balls. No, you know you know, it's the essence of that man. It's just his back walking alone in that field. That's the story. Don't load it up with a lot of crap. And I grew up listening to that and seeing it and hearing it over and over and seeing them do that. And it rubbed off. So I try to I mean, that's just part of what they gave me. They modeled it.
Cid [00:42:59] Which is, which is absolutely fantastic, and I want to say a couple of things. One is-- Somehow I got that same message to leave out. To leave out, to leave out? Well, maybe I'm saying it a different way, but to capture the essence of something rather than to pile on. Yeah, because but but also when I when I talk about songwriting to people or if I'm teaching, which I don't do often. But I talk about... That my song or a song has to has to create a response. And it doesn't matter whether it comes from the beat, the lyrics, the music, the melody, whatever, it has to create an emotional response, and that to me is capturing the essence. In other words, I can write a whole bunch of pretty words, just like you can take a whole bunch of pretty pictures or have a whole bunch of pretty trees or rocks or the sky in a picture. But it doesn't. And you can say, oh, that's a great picture, but it doesn't elicit an emotional response. When I look at your pictures, I go, there's something that happens to me when I see one of your pictures, I fall into that picture. I want to know more about that image. You know, holy crap. You know, whether it's one of your quintessential ones, like the sheep on the boat, which is I loved it when you put Bernie Sanders and you know, but... That I mean, that's that's your quintessential picture. There are thousands more that are beautiful.
Peter Ralston[00:44:50] But could, could there possibly be a creative soul among us... Here you are. You and I are looking at each other, and by God, we both got the creative juice in us and those who may be listening, you know, is there are one of us that doesn't get it? Know we're really... The ultimate payoff is not a contract, not cash in the bank. I mean, all that stuff is great, but it's just the icing on the cake. You know, if somebody can stand in front of a photograph of mine and be moved to tears or whatever the hell the emotion is, or hear a song of yours or read a passage in a book on and on and on and on. That's what it's all about. All the rest of it is trappings and it's nice. But it's when... I'm going to get emotional. You know I cannot listen... I'm choking up right now. At the inauguration when Lady Gaga was singing and she turned around and pointed at the flag. It was a moment of grace, it was like a Zen bell, it was power, it was real power, and it was driven by love. And good grigri and mojo, you know, whereas two weeks before that, it was all defiled. Just amazing, head spinning stuff. But when art, whatever form can move you, in whatever direction it has succeeded,
Cid [00:46:42] That's it! And that's that's why I'm talking to you, because this is... this is why I'm doing this podcast, conversations with Creatives. I only want people who move me. with what they do, you know, it's called Crack the Sky. And we talked before we started recording that you don't have a specific crack the sky moment, which to me means going beyond where you thought you might have gone before. But maybe one of your crack the sky moments was your friends giving you that camera and having that feeling of, yeah, this is what I do.
Peter Ralston [00:47:22] That was a big one. That was a big one because. Well, because it was it was faith in me. It was love, it was encouragement. You know, it was somebody saying, you know, what you're doing counts. You know, bring it on. You were thrown from the horse, get back on. And you know who doesn't respond to faith and encouragement and...
Cid [00:47:54] We're so fortunate because as with all creative people, there are times, you know, you had your existential moment. And of course, it was longer than a moment, but your existential time. I had mine with the death of my daughter. And we reacted in different ways. But it was all because we were buoyed up people. And moving forward beyond what we thought we could do, I mean, you didn't not pick up a camera for six years! Well, some of it was physical, and again, I don't want to put words in your mouth. But there must have been some feeling there of I don't know if I can do this again.
Peter Ralston [00:48:40] Yeah, so that's actually a great question. I'd forgotten about this. So in 1997, I had a book published "Sitings", and it was selling like hotcakes. It was great, you know, and I had photographs and several exhibitions that year and I was kind of on a roll with, with "Sitings". But underlying it all, I had this, I had this underlying gut... Now what? Was the question I asked myself. Now what? There's this thing? And I think various disciplines, artistic, creative disciplines, where "they", They-others, seem to want to see... You produce a body of work, you know, that book took 20 years of shooting. I never really set out to do a book and all of a sudden there the book was. And I had this sinking feeling of like now what I'm supposed to have a new body of work. Take it, attack and come up with something and what's it going to be? And I was really frantic, you know, now what? And then, bam, a blood vessel burst in my brain and that was it. I didn't pick up the camera for six years. And there was recovering from all that. There was a divorce in there. There were some real, hard core, serious, big challenges in there. And then when that equipment was given to me... I really can't remember exactly when I had the aha. Maybe this is what you're referring to as crack the sky. But it was definitely a big moment in the arc of what I do. I realize what a stupid thing--I mean, that's such a silly convention that you've got to come up with know "new work'. To hell with that. So what if I did? It's right there in front of me all the time. Do what you love. Just get better at it. Go deeper. Go deeper. Go better. Go further. You know, open yourself up like you've never opened yourself up before. That all factored in right on top of the gift of that equipment. So that's what I've been doing ever since. And I've been actually I've been calling it and I still do, the work that I've made from, you know, the first exposure with that first digital camera. It's all new work. You know, it's not, oh, this is Peter with his gold plate, your period or shake the tripod or you know...
Cid [00:51:37] And that's it. That is a crack the sky moment. And, you know, in my mind, obviously, and and and I relate to that because I distinguish everything from Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth, the album I wrote after Jesse died. Yeah, all of my work from there is my recent work, and that's 20 years ago now.
Peter Ralston [00:51:59] Same deal. Yeah. Amen.
Cid [00:52:01] And that's my recent... Everything is before and after because of that experience, that existential experience changed me. And we have different experiences within that but, from each other... But the result is kind of the same is the work... It comes from a deeper place. It comes from a more pure place. I am not... Listen, I'm not prolific. I'm talking about me now. I'm not prolific, but what I do right, you know, I like to joke that I make an album every 10 years whether I need to or not. Yeah, but what I do what does come out of me is the best that I can produce. Yeah. Yeah. There's no fluff. There's not going to be. Oh, well, this'll do you know, there's not going to be any of that. It's going to be
Peter Ralston [00:52:56] Oh you're dead if you do that.
Cid [00:52:57] I can't do that. I'm not able to do that. There's not a part of me that can go there.
Peter Ralston [00:53:06] Oh, I was going to mention this before-- From where I'm sitting, I look around. This cave in which I work, this room. And I have things near and dear to me posted, stuck up all over, one of which is up on the wall. It's a I saying, a quote from Andy, saying that one's art goes as far and as deep as one's love. And you know, that's just like a whisker away from being some sappy Hallmark card thing. But, you know, the man lived it. It drove the man, you know, ninety one years of his life, you know, 80 some years after he first picked up a pencil and started drawing.
Cid [00:54:03] You were fortunate to grow up and have him as as a mentor and influence are an example...
Peter Ralston [00:54:11] Oh, God, yes. Oh, I was blessed. No two ways about that.
Cid [00:54:15] Life is interesting.
Peter Ralston [00:54:18] Like a box of chocolates.
Cid [00:54:21] I love your Forrest Gump analogy. I love talking to you. And I'm going to hold on to your analogy of your photographs as orchestration, as your prints... You know, all that you talked about, you know, relating to that, because I love that. And every time I look at your pictures now or your photographs, I should say. I'm going to think about it. I just love that. I love that analogy of the music and and the in the photographs,
Peter Ralston[00:54:54] Being a musician, I thought you might like that one, I think was pretty good. I think of and actually quote, that particular line of Ansel's all the time.
Cid [00:55:07] Say it again.
Peter Ralston [00:55:10] is the negative or now the digital file. If the negative is the score, the print is their performance. Which is cool because, you know, you can change constantly. I look at images of mine, you know, that I, quote, processed, or did all the darkroom work on them, digital darkroom work on them. And I change them all the time. Like, why did I leave that, that oarlock, you know, as bright as it is? I need to tamp that down a little bit. Why is that piece of ice a little overlit? Or why did I leave something in? Whereas if I were to actually remove it, which I don't do often, it would be a better composition. Would Andy have painted, deliberately included that in something that he was creating on a blank sheet of paper or temper panel? And if it doesn't add to it, take it out. You know, I'm less of a purist, I suppose it's ...
Cid [00:56:20] It's like mixing a record, which I love. And this is a whole nother conversation. And you're you probably I don't know how much you know about being in the studio and having forty eight tracks to deal with or more. And you're... I like to when I mix, I like to say I want to be able to walk through the mix, which goes back to spaciousness. You know, and not overcrowding anything. Which we talked about. Or not putting too much in so that it's like crazy, it's like I want to be able to walk through a mix. I want to be able to hear that the tap of the symbol over to the left. And I want to be able to hear the little the the acoustic guitar strumming ...
Peter Ralston [00:57:05] Exactly. I almost envy you guys, that I found myself thinking not long ago, almost, what a conceit it is, making photographs. We're dealing with a fraction of a second. And to... I don't like the term capture, but, you know, you sort of record. You write with light. That's what photography means. You're writing with light. Just a fraction of a second. And how the hell, if you're writing it to, you know, a small piece of film, twice the size of a postage stamp say, or a sensor in the back of a digital camera that's small, same size. How do you get you know, all those senses into a little two dimensional space in a fraction of a second? Smell. Sound. The feeling of sun on skin. How do you how do you do it? It ain't easy. Orchestrating is, as you do, you know, isn't easy. But that's what we do. And I don't expect anybody feel sorry for us. This is the joy. This is the challenge. Bring it on. Every once in a while. You get it right.
Cid [00:58:23] Peter Ralston, what is your website?
Peter Ralston [00:58:26] Well, my initials aren't PR for nothing. I really meant it when I said my photographs are my statements so I can sit and go on and on anecdotally, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, endlessly, as you full well know. But the website has a lot of my statements in there and that's really what it's all about. And it's simply www.ralstongallery.com--all one word dot com. Check it out. And because I can't help myself and despite the fact that images should speak for themselves and so that the image should speak for itself, I don't have a goddamn thing to say about it. Well, I can't help myself because I've been asked. That literally thousands of times... The photograph you mention of the sheep in the dory that we were towing along... I have been asked so many times, so what are the sheep doing in the boat, that I wrote out the story. And that got me going and actually writing out... Not what lens I used or F-stop. None of that is consequential at all, but like the mojo, or what I was thinking or what the images have come to mean to me, the metaphor sometimes. So there's some good stories on there, too.
Cid [00:59:47] Peter Ralston, thank you so much. Thank you so much for being here.
Peter Ralston [00:59:51] Wicked pleasure!
Cid [00:59:52] Thank you. Please go on his website and look at some of the most incredible photographs you'll see, ever. I love you madly.
Peter Ralston[01:00:02] Back atcha.