You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Today I pay tribute to one of Maine’s premier photographers, Mason Philip Smith, who died last week at the age of 83.  For many years, Mason was the “go to guy” for wedding and portrait photography here in Maine.  His studio on Congress Street in downtown Portland served many a client – all of whom I’m certain came away with photographs that they still treasure today.

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I didn’t know Mason very well.  We were more acquaintances than true friends.  Most of our interactions took place through private messages on Facebook.  He was a follower of this blog and often commented, via Facebook, on my work.

When it came to life and photography, you couldn’t get any more “old school” than Mason.  Yet, what I found unique about him was that he totally embraced today’s technology.  Many present day photographers use Photoshop and the like to compensate for their lack of camera and artistic skills.  Mason used those modern tools to take what was already a very good photograph and make it better.  You can teach an old dog new tricks.

11884094_955157904527282_2985499759362461860_oAs is apparent here, Mason had a gift for capturing the true essence of people.

When I first met Mason he spoke of a location somewhere in the woods near Belgrade that had an unusual rock formation that he hoped to photograph.  However, at 80+ years of age he was a bit uncomfortable trekking into the woods by himself.  So, I offered to accompany him and we made tentative plans to visit this spot.  Unfortunately, one thing led to another and yet another and the excursion never happened.  I know it’s my loss as I’m sure there was much I could have learned from him.

Mason enjoyed lighthouses as much as the next guy but felt there was an over-saturation of lighthouse images within the Maine photography community.  He would tell me “Dan, you’re wasting your talent on lighthouses.  Everybody shoots lighthouses.  Shoot something else for cripe’s sake”.  Even though I knew he was right, I didn’t listen.  Consequently, I was both shocked and honored when he told me that my shot of Bug Light below was truly “art”.

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He had a strong love for China and its people and he made yearly trips to this far away land.  It is said that a good photograph reveals something about the subject as well as the photographer and it is evident in his portraits below of the Chinese that despite his often rough exterior, deep down inside he cared not only about his subjects, but people in general.

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Rest in peace, Mason Smith.  I regret that I didn’t take the time to get to know you better.

 

Beach to Beach (no beacon).

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As a kid growing up in Maine one of my favorite places to visit was Old Orchard Beach.  It wasn’t the fine sand or the deep blue water that attracted me.  Rather, it was the pier and the nearby arcade that hauled me in like a powerful magnet.

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Pier fries loaded with salt and vinegar followed by a slice of Lisa’s pizza, topped off with a corn on the cob dripping with butter was a meal fit for a king in my eyes back then.  I would work some of it off playing a dozen or so games of Skee-Ball then bouncing on the trampolines for 30 minutes.  Occasionally, some of this fine meal might be lost as a result of too many wild spins of the “Tilt-A-Whirl”, “The Octopus” or “The Bullet” carnival rides.

Once on the pier, there were three essential stops:  The first was at “Dave the Guesser’s” booth where Dave claimed a high accuracy rate for guessing anyone’s age, weight, occupation, favorite sports hero etc.  The odds were pretty good that he couldn’t guess my sports idol, and even if he did, I had the option of being less than truthful and collecting my winnings.  It was an easy way to turn my $0.25 investment into a $0.10 prize, proving once again that there’s a sucker born every minute.

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The second stop was at the psychedelic paint stand where squeeze bottles normally used to dispense mustard and ketchup were filled with various colored paints.  Spread the paint onto a white paperboard in random or intricate fashion and watch it turn into a mind-altering poster after spinning at the speed of light for about a minute.  Unfortunately, chances were pretty good that this kaleidoscopic masterpiece would become lost or damaged before returning to the car for the trip home.  Money wasted.

Finally, one could not leave the pier without first visiting Omar.  Perched on his tall stool and always dressed in black with a matching beret – all while sporting an extra-long cigarette holder – he was a palm reader and handwriting interpreter extraordinaire.   A strange dude to say the least, he could supposedly predict – simply by looking at their hands or signature – whether someone would live a life of riches or be doomed to years of drudgery.  According to Omar, I was destined to become a billionaire or a Hollywood star.  More money wasted.

reid-panoReid State Park.  Click on image to view a full screen version

My cousins from out of state would visit every summer and that meant a trip to Reid State Park in Georgetown.  The water there is brutally cold, so most of our activities involved exploring the rocks, searching for crabs and hoping that we gauged the tide correctly so that we could safely return from the little island that is only accessible at low tide.  I return at least once a year to take in the sights and sounds and reminisce about family time spent there.

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Soon after meeting my wife, she introduced me to Ferry Beach in Scarborough.  This quiet little municipal beach quickly became my favorite – even worth bicycling there from my previous home in Falmouth to avoid the car parking fee.  It’s lost a little bit of its allure now that I can park there for free with my Scarborough resident senior citizen pass but remains a must-stop destination when bicycling around Scarborough.

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Later, Pine Point Beach, also in Scarborough, became my seacoast destination of choice – much to the delight of my golden retriever, Emmie.  In fact, last Christmas Day when the temperature was a balmy 62 degrees here in Maine, my family and I had a picnic on this beach, thus beginning a new holiday tradition.  We’ll have to wait and see if the weather cooperates this year but I’m game regardless of the conditions and so is Emmie.

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Several years ago, a co-worker told me about Parsons Beach in Kennebunk.  Readers may recall a blog article I did on this lovely privately owned beach with public access.  No longer such a secret among southern Maine residents, the few parking spots fill up quickly forcing latecomers to park a fair distance away and walk in.  Once there, this impeccably clean beach is just the ticket for a relaxing day by the water.

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This summer I discovered Fortunes Rocks Beach in Biddeford Pool and that is now my new favorite.  Open to the public, this pristine beach requires a parking permit or the luxury of owning or renting beach-front property in “The Pool”.  However, there is on-street parking about two miles away and that’s where the bicycle comes in handy.  I simply drop off my wife and all the “stuff” at the entrance, find a parking space on the other side of the peninsula and bike back to the lounge chair and cold drink that awaits me.

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There are other beaches such as Goose Rocks in Kennebunk and Ogunquit Beach that I’ve yet to explore.  They’re on my to-do list for next summer.

I’ll Be Back

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I continue to be inspired by the work of UK based photographer, Thomas Heaton.  His short videos documenting his excursions throughout Europe and beyond are both informative and motivating.  The guy seldom comes back from a shoot without several stunning images regardless of the conditions.  Just a quick look at his photography makes me want to hop on a plane to Scotland or Iceland – two of his favorite destinations.

One way of enjoying nature and being able to witness magical scenes is to camp out on location. This allows you to photograph the sunset, night sky and sunrise, all from the comfort of your own tent.The above photo copyright Thomas Heaton.  All others by the author.

Three things that he advocates are:  1) Don’t let bad weather deter you.  Rather, play the hand you’re dealt and strive to make an exceptional photograph in conditions that other photographers typically avoid.  2) Get your camera in a different place. Climb, crawl, get your feet wet.  Do what it takes to find a unique perspective.  3) Return to your favorite places often and try to capture that once in a lifetime moment.  Dramatic light or atmospheric conditions are the keys.

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Following Heaton’s advice, I returned to Portland Headlight in Cape Elizabeth for what must be thousandth time in hopes of capturing that momentous exposure never to be achieved again.   The sky looked promising, the air was still and the temperature was tolerable.

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Arriving just as the gates opened about 45 minutes before sunrise, I soon spotted a group of Asian photographers that had driven up from the Boston area with the same thought in mind: this could be the morning!  They obviously came prepared as evidenced by their positions throughout the park.  Hoping to get their cameras in a different place, these guys had already set up in all of my favorite “secret” spots before I had my gear out of the car.  Seems as though “real” Mainers should have first dibs on the prime shooting locations before people from “away” but I wasn’t about to cry foul.  They may never return here again; I will.

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Undeterred, I decided to roam the grounds and shoot what caught my eye.  Like some sports arenas that don’t have “a bad seat in the house”, Portland Headlight is striking from any angle.  With a little help from Mother Nature, even the not so secret vantage points can lead to memorable photographs.

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One of my favorite secret spots is seldom occupied because it is located about two miles (as the crow flies) from the lighthouse on the grounds of Southern Maine Community College.  From the campus walking path there’s a wooden staircase that descends to Willard Beach and the platform at the top serves as a great viewing location.   The long pre-sunrise exposure helps to create the starburst effect as the lighthouse beacon sweeps to and fro.

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Another secret spot is only accessible at low or medium tide and involves hopping a fence along with a little intricate footwork navigating the rocks down to the shoreline.    Although I’ve rarely seen anyone down on these rocks, I suspect it is being visited more frequently as suggested by the small pile of rocks strategically positioned near the fence to make scaling this not so difficult barrier all the more easier.

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My life goal is to photograph the world and I’ve been fortunate to have visited five continents.  Even luckier is the fact that one of the most beautiful places on earth is less than 30 minutes away.

I’ll be back!

Surf City

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I use many computer applications in preparation for a photo shoot.   I like to know what the temperature, wind and cloud cover conditions will be along with when and where the sun will rise or set.  Oh, and don’t forget the time of high and low tides.   Unfortunately, there is no app that predicts the number of people that will be at my chosen destination.

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Arriving at Cape Neddick (Nubble) Lighthouse nearly an hour before sunrise, I was very surprised to see that the small parking lot was nearly filled with cars bearing Massachusetts plates.  Turns out a photography class from the Bay State was on a field trip to Maine and the event was well attended.

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As I gathered my gear and clothing a woman approached and asked me if I was the instructor.   A bit puzzled, I replied that I wasn’t and that I had simply come here of my own volition.   “Do you come here often?” she then asked. I told her that I visit several times a year which prompted her next question: “so where’s the best place to set up?”   Recalling Ansel Adams’ memorable quote: “a good photograph is knowing where to stand”, I surveyed the situation and noticed that many of the class participants had already planted their tripods in that Kodak “picture-perfect” spot on the edge of the parking lot – their headlamps and flashlights pointing every which-way as if putting on a laser show.  “Maybe you want to get away from the crowd and go down on the rocks”, I responded.  She continued to quiz me: “is it safe down there?”  Fearing tomorrow’s headline reading “Massachusetts woman gets bad advice; swept away by rogue wave at Nubble Lighthouse”, I offered a disclaimer.  “The tide’s coming in so maybe you want to keep a good distance from the water.”

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The instructor eventually arrived and I could tell by the type of questions he was asked that this was a fairly novice group.  I overheard someone inquire: “Should I set my camera to sports mode for a fast shutter speed?” He patiently answered “no” whereas my wise-ass response would have mentioned that the lighthouse has stood still in that very same spot for 137 years – this isn’t an action shot – but that’s just me.

Like many iconic locations, Nubble Light has been photographed from every angle at every time of day and night.  About the only factor that differentiates one photo from another are the sky conditions.   That’s why I shook my head when several participants lamented the fact that the sun was being partially obscured by the clouds.  You can often catch the sun’s rays rising over the horizon but dramatic cloud covers happens much less frequently.  I’ll take the latter any day!

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The previous day’s wind driven rainstorm churned up some powerful wave action so as soon as the sky’s kaleidoscope of color began to fade, I headed for nearby York Beach in hopes that surfers would be out on their boards.  My hunch was correct.

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The new trend appears to be paddle boarding as opposed to conventional surfing.  The “paddle” may be a useful accessory, but it still doesn’t prevent wipe-outs.

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York Beach is a lot quieter after Labor Day but the chilly October weather didn’t stop these hearty locals from enjoying their morning coffee outdoors.

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Welcome to Maine:  The way life should be!

Welcome to the Neighborhood

My new hometown of Scarborough is much more than just a place for spending time on the beach, having some fried seafood  and eating ice cream from one of the many stands located on US Route 1 (I highly recommend the Dairy Corner).  There is much more to this community and this year’s fine fall weather has provided me with the opportunity to get the bike out, grab the camera and photograph my surroundings.   So, let’s go for a ride!

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The Marsh

Scarborough Marsh is Maine’s largest contiguous tidal marsh system and I’ve been visiting it for many years.  Its unpleasant aroma at low tide is its trademark and early mornings in the fall are particularly nasty as the fog banks seem to trap the smell and prevent it from dissipating.  The only saving grace is that the mosquitoes have disappeared for the season.  Sadly, so have the Snowy Egrets, one of my favorite birds – second only to the bald eagle.

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I especially enjoy watching the Amtrak Downeaster cross the marsh in the evening as the setting sun glistens off its silver cars.  Try as I may, I’ve yet to capture that scene in a manner that does it justice.

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Maine Audubon

The Maine Audubon Society maintains the Scarborough Marsh Center located on Pine Point Road.  Here, you can rent canoes and kayaks for guided and self-guided tours of the marsh along the Nonesuch River.  I’ve always wanted to take advantage of their moonlight paddling excursions and now that I live nearby I have no excuse.   Certainly a must-do on next year’s activity list.

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The Eastern Trail

The Eastern Trail originates at Bug Light Park in South Portland and cuts through Scarborough on its way to Old Orchard Beach, Saco and beyond.  I find the section just west of Pine Point Road to be the most picturesque.  The trail is road, hybrid and mountain bike friendly and one may occasionally spot one of the new “fat tire” models.   Shouts of “on your left” are about the only sounds that disrupt the tranquility of the Scarborough section of this very popular walking, running and riding path.

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Just off the Eastern Trail is Mill Brook Pond – a popular swimming and fishing hole.

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Fisherman’s Co-Op

The Pine Point Fisherman’s Co-Op area is a bustling place just before sunrise.  Pick-up trucks arrive in rapid succession, each carrying one or more commercial fishermen ready to set out for another day on the water.  With some donning the traditional yellow rubber coveralls, they haul their equipment and supplies onto their vessels.   The smell of diesel permeates the air as they fire up the engines and chug-chug-chug out to sea.  I sense that it’s a hard life, but an honest one.

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Fuller Farm Preserve

Fuller Farm is a 220 acre preserve now maintained by the Scarborough Land Conservation Trust.  It features walking trails that cross hay fields filled with nesting birds and wildflowers and then head into the woods.  The trails are well-marked and fairly easy to navigate.  In fact, this summer my wife and I encountered a group of senior citizens – many of whom had canes and walkers – on a field trip well into the woods and a fair distance from the parking area.  Watching these spirited folks plodding along in the heat served as a good reminder that life is what you make it.

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Dogs are welcome at Fuller Farm.  Seldom have I visited when friendly pooches weren’t enjoying this glorious site.

Sewell Woods Preserve  

Not far from my home is the Sewell Woods Preserve on Ash Swamp Road.  This is a 35 acre parcel donated by Albert G. Sewell to the Scarborough Land Trust in 1995. In its heyday, the woods on the property provided the raw materials for Al and his father’s woodwork products business.

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The trail is less than a mile long and forms a Figure 8.  My golden retriever, Emmie, just loves it there and runs around like a banshee whenever she visits.

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The Beaches

OK, so Scarborough’s main attraction is its beaches and all four of them haul in crowds of tourists on hot summer days.  That’s why I like to visit them before the sun rises or after it sets – there’s usually no one else there!  Beaches take on a magical glow as the first and final light of the day subtly gleams off the sand and water.  The sound of rippling waves and squawking seagulls is music to my ears.

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I’m very happy to be living in Scarborough.  I just wish the Dairy Corner didn’t close after Columbus Day and was open year round.

Timber Point

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It’s been an entire season since I last blogged.  Much like television shows that take a break during the summer months, I too needed a respite from the camera.  Now that the fall season is in full swing I look forward to sharing new Bicycle with a View episodes with my readers.

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This past summer was absolutely gorgeous in Maine and I did a fair amount of bicycling – sans camera.  Having relocated from Falmouth to Scarborough, I took the time to explore new regions of southern Maine and made a list of blog-worthy locations – one of which is Timber Point in Biddeford Pool.

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Timber Point is a near 100 acre preserve on a peninsula that borders the Little River Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean.  It has a 1.4 mile walking trail that leads to Timber Island which is accessible only at low tide.  The entire parcel was acquired from the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in 2011 and the trail was completed in the spring of 2012.

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My first visit was punctuated by the fact that an ornery bull moose had taken up residence on Timber Island.   Volunteers were stationed at the island’s access point for several days to guard visitors away from this unfriendly inhabitant.  Eventually tired of terrorizing the island’s wildlife, I’m told the moose finally swam away, thus spooking a few people on nearby Goose Rocks Beach as he made landfall.

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I planned my next outing for sunrise to take advantage of the warm light and solitude.  I had the place to myself for about 30 minutes before a fisherman arrived followed by the preserve’s caretakers.  Herons were putting on an air show – they fly more like a cargo plane than a Blue Angel fighter jet – but the light was too dim to capture them in motion.  Nevertheless, their performance was very entertaining.

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Later, I had a nice conversation with the caretakers who were enjoying spying the local waterfowl  through their telescopic  viewers.   They are the ones that informed me of the moose’s departure and gave me some information regarding future plans for the property and its buildings.

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I highly recommend an excursion to Timber Point.  It is easily reached from Route 9 in Biddeford.  Take the Granite Point Road and park at the very end.  The trail begins at the gate where Granite Point Road turns into Timber Point Road.

Farewell to Falmouth

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Bicycle with a View was conceptualized on an early morning bike ride to Falmouth Town Landing in 2012.   Arriving just before sunrise I was mesmerized by the view while descending the steep hill that leads to the boat launch and thought “damn, why didn’t I bring my camera?”   Since then, I’ve made it a point to do an annual sunrise ride and photo shoot there and so it is with some sadness that I now report that today’s excursion to Town Landing was my last.  No, I’m not discontinuing my blog but I am moving 25 miles south to Scarborough.  I’d have to leave about 2:00 am from my new home to get to Falmouth in time for sunrise.  Not gonna do it!

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Today’s ride began early enough at 4:00 am and as I’ve reported in the past, there’s both an entrancing and uncomfortable feeling about being the only cyclist – or person – out on the streets at that time.  Over the winter I upgraded my bike lighting system to one that offers more visibility and makes me more noticeable.  However, that was little comfort this morning since in the back of my mind was the knowledge that five bicyclists in Michigan were struck and killed by a drunk driver in broad daylight just two days ago.  My heart goes out to their families and to those injured and in serious condition.

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About two miles into the ride I began to hear a rubbing-grinding sound from my bicycle.  Had I been in my car I would have simply turned up the volume on the radio to drown out the noise and hoped that the “check engine” light didn’t come on.  This situation, it seemed, appeared to require immediate attention.  Ever the problem solver, I went through the typical troubleshooting checklist:  does the noise go away when I stop pedaling? (yes);  does the noise get louder when I pedal faster? (yes).  Sounds like a drive train problem.  Do I have my cell phone should I need to call my wife? (I think so).  Thankfully, half a mile later the noise went away as mysteriously as it appeared.  Must have been something caught in the chain.

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My trips to Town Landing have almost always resulted in some bizarre encounter with someone, but this one was uneventful.  There was a guy that drove up just a little past 4:30 and set out on his paddle board for a tour of the harbor.  That seemed rather early for recreational paddling but he may have seen my bicycle and had similar thoughts about my early morning habits.   A couple of people launched their boats and a woman walked her dog along the beach.   Nothing newsworthy happening here.  That said, I do recall an instance when Town Landing made the Police Log section of the newspaper because a woman called the authorities to report that “two boats were rubbing together and making a terrible noise” while moored in the harbor.  Oh the misery of small town seacoast life.

I have very fond memories of the 24 years that I have lived in Falmouth.  I have met some wonderful people, made some good friends and celebrated many milestones in my life there.    But, life moves on and I am looking forward to relocating to another very scenic part of Maine where I can explore its natural beauty and continue to share my photos and stories with you.

Stay tuned.