The Working Waterfront

One photograph, two stories

A master photographer captures master boatbuilder

By Kevin Johnson
Posted 2023-03-14
Last Modified 2023-03-14

Maine boat building icon Ralph Stanley looks directly into the camera in his boat shop in Southwest Harbor. He sports a soft natural smile and his eyes still have a spark despite his 77 years.

His working days were not done at this time though his boatbuilding days were mostly over. He would spend another 15 years sharing his wisdom on the board of the Penobscot Marine Museum and his memory with the Southwest Harbor library.

Over the course of his career, he built or restored more than 70 boats. From lobster boats, Friendship sloops, sailboats, and dories, the boats he built all had one thing in common. They were made of wood.

She made them feel relaxed and willing to share a bit of themselves. They trusted her.

Before he died in 2021 at the age of 92, his skills and career were recognized with numerous awards including being recognized by the National Endowments of the Arts as a National Heritage Fellow. Not bad for the humble son of a Bar Harbor lobsterman and a nurse.

The second story told in the photo of Stanley included here is that of the person behind the camera. Peggy McKenna was a career photographer who moved to Montville from New York City in 1971. She worked as a photojournalist for the Republican Journal and the Waldo Independent as well as doing freelance work for Down East magazine, among other publications.

She also passionately pursued her own photographic interest which was the photo portrait. A strong portrait like the one included here demonstrates not only her skill with a camera but also her ability to connect with her subject.

She made them feel relaxed and willing to share a bit of themselves. They trusted her. While she made thousands of portraits of all types of people, some of the most memorable are those she made of the artists and craftspeople of Maine. She preferred to photograph them in their studios or workshops, adding a layer of intimacy to their portraits. A master craftsperson herself, she respected her subjects and treated them accordingly, and it shows.

The Penobscot Marine Museum now has the Peggy McKenna collection of more than 100,000 slides, negatives ,and prints and is in the process of cataloging and digitizing them.

Kevin Johnson is the photo archivist at The Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. See to view its extensive photo collections.