In 1951, the Maine Sardine Council hired Finnish American Kosti Ruohomaa to document the sardine industry. The Maine Legislature created the council that year to promote high standards for the sardine industry and made it responsible for grading and inspections as well.
The sardine industry was complex; one photo could not show it. Ruohomaa was a master of the photo essay. He captured the action and the human condition. He knew where to stand, where the sun was, and how to use a scene’s natural geometry. He also posed subjects, took multiple shots, and used artificial lights.
Look at the strain on the faces of the fisherman at the Dix Island weir taking up the net in the featured photos. Look how the suction hose, on the sardine carrier Jacob Pike, forms a frame within the frame. See the form of the worker pulling racks of sardine tins out of the steam cooker and see the blur of the hands of the woman packing endless cans at the Holmes Packing plant in Rockland.
Sixty years later, the last sardine factory in Maine closed and a way of life was over.
It was a stroke of good fortune to find 20 rolls of film taken by one of Maine’s most notable photographers in the Maine Sardine Council Collection, but this find became even more significant as it led me to Ruohomaa biographer Deanna Bonner-Ganter. When I reached out to her about the photo find, she made a trip down to visit the next day to see them herself.
He knew where to stand, where the sun was, and how to use a scene’s natural geometry.
Her passion for Ruohomaa was apparently contagious and I soon found myself smitten by his work. Deanna and I became fast friends and while I helped her some with the last details of her book, we lamented about the rest of Ruhomaa’s work, then held in a warehouse in New Jersey. This led to writing to Black Star, his agency, to ask if Kosti could come home and to our surprise, they said yes.
Kevin Johnson is the photo archivist at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. New among the museum’s permanent exhibits is “Rusticators on the Water.” Explore the museum’s vast photo archives at PenobscotMarineMuseum.org.