Madeleine de Sinety pulls her arms tight to her body, edges her wheelchair up to the cafe table, and takes a small bite of quiche.
She savors the morsel, then turns and looks me in the eye.
“I’m interested in people who live simple lives (on) small pieces of land,” says de Sinety, a tiny waif of a woman.
Born in Algeria in 1939, raised in France and now living up in Rangeley in western Maine, she speaks softly with a heavy French accent. I barely understand her, and find myself leaning toward her to try to connect.
But with de Sinety, so much of her communication begins with her eyes. They reveal a warm, lovely woman who has lived a robust life of observation.
She has made photographs all over the world, capturing working-class people and those much poorer who work on the land with their hands using pre-industrial methods.
Through Dec. 18, the Portland Museum of Art is featuring de Sinety’s work in its ongoing “Circa” series, which explores contemporary art in Maine and beyond.
Remarkably, this exhibition is her first solo show in the United States.
On Thursday, another Rangeley-based photographer, William Wegman, will talk about de Sinety as well as his own work, in a museum lecture that benefits the museum’s Photography Fund, dedicated to expanding the museum’s photography collection and programs.
Wegman has known de Sinety for many years. They met in Rangeley, and their families have become close.
“She’s amazing,” he said. “She has this colossal and chaotic energy about her.”
Wegman is best known for his photographic compositions involving his Weimaraner dogs. He met de Sinety on one of his own photo shoots. She asked permission to photograph him as he was working, and he consented.
“When she was there, you didn’t really notice her. She would run up and dart in and out, and I didn’t really pay much attention to her,” Wegman said.
“She had this kind of exuberance, but it didn’t become part of what I what I was doing. Which is unusual. When people want to photograph me, they tend to make it known. But in no way did I feel I was performing for Madeleine.”
Her quiet presence explains her success as a photographer. The photos in the Portland exhibition are from a tiny village in France where de Sinety has spent long periods of time, from a village in Uganda and from rural Maine.
Beyond illustrating unusual ways of life, this collective body of work offers sociological and historical observations about how people make their living off the land.
In Chesterville, south of Farmington, de Sinety spent many long days trying to convince a Maine woodsman named Matt Lord to allow her to photograph him while he worked the land with a team of horses.
“When I asked him, he said, ‘Nope.’ I came back the next day — ‘Nope.’ Finally, he said, ‘OK, you can today, but I do not want to see you anywhere.’ “
In the woods, it wasn’t easy for de Sinety to make herself invisible. She struggled to keep up with him from a distance. She would crunch branches underfoot and stumble along.
But once she found her footing, she made a series of photographs that expose the hard life of an authentic Maine lumberman still working the woods in a manner uncommon in this day and age.
She marveled at his control of his horses and of his herculean effort. As is so often the case with de Sinety and her subjects, she and Lord became friends, and he invited her back.
Susan Danly, curator of photographs at the Portland museum, said the link among the work from France, Uganda and Maine is de Sinety’s keen eye. She appreciates people who live in rural areas and are not afraid of hard labor. The work rings true because of its authenticity, Danly said.
De Sinety was born to French parents and grew up on a chateau and a plantation. She lived and worked in Paris as a young woman, later marrying an American writer. She came to the U.S. in 1980, and has lived in Rangeley for 30 years.
When not making photographs, de Sinety supported herself as a wedding photographer. She elevated wedding photography in a form of high art. A major wedding magazine once named her the best wedding photographer in the United States.
Wegman won’t compare his own work to that of his friend.
“I do not have what she has,” he said. “I do not wander around the earth looking for something that is interesting. I am constructing a photograph rather than finding something innately true or amazing, which is what Madeleine does. We are at opposite ends. We are not in each other’s territory.
“She has a rare eye. She is like a great athlete that comes around every once in a while.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: