WISCASSET — By all accounts, Isaac Walton Simpson was a family man. He loved his wife, and together he and Effie raised 13 kids in a small house on the plains of northern Maine.
Life was hard in the early 20th century. Effie cooked, sewed and cleaned, while Isaac traveled to support the family. He loaded his wagon with supplies he needed to peddle his services as a jack-of-all-trades – blacksmith, mechanic, carpenter, barber – and set out from the family home in Amity for the logging camps across the Maine frontier. He carried a fiddle to play at night.
He also brought a camera.
Before the railroads and highways brought visitors to remote reaches of the Maine woods, Simpson took thousands of photographs of the people he met along the way. He was among the earliest documentary photographers in northern Maine, though he didn’t see himself as an artist. He saw himself as a provider, and he took the photos in hopes of selling them to make money for the family.
Preserved for decades by his own family, Simpson’s photographs portray the social history of northern Maine and the men who cut trees, hewed railroad ties, built mills and harvested potatoes. He photographed workers in tar-paper shacks and wealthy families on their estates and farms.
He takes viewers inside a world rarely seen, where we sense the difficult nature of early-20th-century frontier life in the shadows of the black, brown and white images. We see rows of men seated at long tables strewn with pots of beans. We see girls in summer dresses posing on the lawn in front of their home and burly lumberjacks relaxing while cradling a litter of bobcats.
The photos feel old, wild and remote.
Musician, photographer and filmmaker Sumner McKane, 38, tells Simpson’s story in a live-performance documentary, “The Maine Frontier: Through the Lens of Isaac Walton Simpson.” It includes hundreds of Simpson’s images, interviews with his descendants and archival films. As the movie plays, McKane and Joshua Robbins accompany the film on guitar and bass with music that Mc- Kane composed.
Born in Damariscotta, Mc-Kane now lives in Wiscasset with his wife and two children. He spent years playing in bands in Maine and touring across the country, and shares at least one trait with Simpson. McKane also is a jack-of-all-trades, adept at working in multiple media and handy with tools. At least one day a week, he does electrical work with his dad.
McKane’s latest creative endeavor is making movies, though he’s not comfortable calling himself a filmmaker. “I’m not behind the camera,” he said. “I am bringing together images and telling a story with words, music and images.”
This is his second film. His first, “In the Blood,” captured a similar time and place in Maine history. That movie, released in 2011, tells the story of Maine’s lumberjack culture at the turn of the 20th century. McKane, who studied history in college, compiled archival movies and still photographs, and wrote a score that he and Robbins performed live to accompany the movie.
McKane and Robbins have performed both projects in schools, theaters and community halls across Maine, and Maine Public Broadcasting has shown both movies on TV.
“The Maine Frontier” offers an individual perspective of the early 20th century Maine woods.
‘SHARED A HUMANITY’
A century later, Simpson’s photographs stand an example of classic documentary and environmental portrait photography, McKane said.
“He shared a humanity with his subjects, because he was just like they were,” McKane said of Simpson. “They were his friends and his neighbors, people he knew and worked with. They respected him and he respected them. Because of that, I think his photographs tell a story that we don’t often get to see.”
Simpson was born in Amity in 1874. He died at age 82 in 1957. Effie Simpson lived to be 97 and died in 1984.
“He was just a Renaissance man,” McKane said. “He could do a little of everything. In order to survive the Maine frontier, you had to be versatile. He would go up to a logging camp and shoe horses and fix whatever was broken, and along the way he would photograph families in front of their houses and try to sell the photos to them. He was a barber, carpenter, a musician. When he was in the camps, he would take orders for knit goods to take back to his wife. She would knit clothes, and Simpson would take them back to the camps to sell them when she was done. You did whatever you had to do to get by.”
McKane interviewed Simpson’s daughter, Athlyn Titcomb of Houlton, and daughter-in-law, Marguerite Simpson of Cary, as well as Simpson’s grandchildren. Marguerite Simpson died last year at age 103.
Isaac Simpson’s grandson, Jim Thompson, was 8 when his grandfather died. His lasting memory is an image of his grandfather reclined on a sofa near the woodstove, smoking a pipe and listening to the radio.
Much of what he knows about his grandfather he learned from the photos.
Thompson developed almost 2,000 of Simpson’s glass-plate negatives, which were stored in Simpson’s Amity home for many years. They became scattered among the family, and some were lost to target practice. Thompson was able to save most as he reassembled the collection.
He also has one of his grandfather’s large-format cameras, “one of three or four that he used over the years. I have taken a few pictures with that camera and it still works fine,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Thompson processed 50 or so negatives at a time, always curious about the faces that would emerge.
One face that barely showed up was Simpson’s. He almost never turned the camera on himself.
One self-portrait that McKane preserves in the film shows Simpson reflected in a mirror. He stands behind his chest-high box camera, hands at his hips, suspenders trimming his working-man’s frame.
He wears a bushy mustache, and a small cap almost touches the bridge of his nose.
The portrait suggests that Simpson brought flair to the Maine woods. He may not have seen himself an artist, but this pose undermines that idea.
Trade the camera for an easel, and we might imagine that we’re looking at a picture of Winslow Homer.