The Working Waterfront

Island landscapes, island stories

Photographer, writer collaborate to depict Vinalhaven

Review by Philip Conkling
Posted 2023-08-16
Last Modified 2023-08-16

Vinalhaven—Portrait of a Maine Island
Photos by Joel Greenberg, Narratives by Phil Crossman

Vinalhaven—Portrait of an Island is a wonderful, wonderful book. The beautifully composed, nuanced images of Joel Greenberg together with Phil Crossman’s stories are the threads that weave these lovely images together into a fully realized rare experience. This book will live on, long after we are all gone.

I should quickly add that it is hard to be objective about a book concerning an island I know well, by an acclaimed photographic artist I published years ago in Island Journal, accompanied by acutely observed narratives of many island friends and neighbors from Vinalhaven’s most well-known, wry and witty writer.

Greenberg is a professionally trained landscape photographer in the mold of Ansel Adams, who in fact was a mentor to Greenberg during his early years as a struggling artist. Greenberg arrived on Vinalhaven in 1977, an urban pioneer, and found an entire universe of mesmerizing rock formations on the island’s highly crenelated shorelines. His early black and white photographs of the island’s rock formations are beautifully featured throughout the book.

Greenberg is a professionally trained landscape photographer in the mold of Ansel Adams…

The island’s landscape was also, to Greenberg’s eye, erotically charged, inspiring him to pair sensuous human bodies of both the male and female persuasion within the folds and fractures of Vinalhaven’s hard granites and abandoned quarries. Greenberg was so charged with the beauty of the landscape that he refused to tell Brooklyn friends where he disappeared each summer for fear of others disturbing his Eden.

Early in his annual island adventure, Greenberg met Robert Indiana, an artist and like him a refugee from New York City. Indiana told Greenberg to start taking pictures of the people of Vinalhaven, which began his journey into the soul of the island. In 1982, Indiana introduced Greenberg to Phil Crossman who became Greenberg’s initial passport into the community, vouching for the unknown city slicker under the black hood of an unwieldy 8 x 10 view camera.

book jacket

One understands that without such a passport to explore Vinalhaven’s interior, Greenberg could not have captured the soulful portraits of the likes of Cowboy Jack Watt, cracking crabs; Richard Williams, more widely known on-island as “Gweeka;” the prim Finnish matron Jennie Webster; or the thousand-yard stare of boatbuilder Gus Skoog, among dozens of others.

Crossman’s finely wrought narratives add multiple layers to many of Greenberg’s portraits. As every islander knows, there are also darker sides to island life, and here Crossman treads lightly. With the portrait of one island rebel, he writes, “From her first toke, she was page-one material, blazing a path of outrage, as she became a mighty warrior in the timeless battle of youth against convention.”

Crossman’s narratives are the perfect companion to Greenberg’s misty mystical images. You may be stunned, as I was, by the pairing of Greenberg’s shimmering sunset on the waters of the Basin with Crossman’s rendering a little girl’s story of her fully realized life among mermaids who are waiting for her, “in the shallows… where the light has been left on for me.”

These are a but a few of the treasures that every Maine islander and visitor will appreciate.

An island anthropologist and mutual friend of Crossman’s and mine, George Putz, once observed that island journalism is an oxymoron: “If you don’t know the whole story, you will get it wrong, but if you know the whole story, you cannot tell it.”

Crossman’s writing here is a high wire act, which he conducts with the photographer along the taut wire of this oxymoron.

Vinalhaven is available at New Era Gallery on Vinalhaven, and Sherman’s Books

Philip Conkling is the founder of Island Institute and its former president. He now operates the consulting firm Philip Conkling & Associates.