DEER ISLE — Before Jeffrey Becton married his wife, Hillary, they met with a minister to talk about religion and spirituality. Becton told the minister that he was not religious but had a spiritual side.

“I know,” the minister told him. “I’ve seen your work.”

That might be the best compliment Becton could receive. A photographer who plays with pixels the way a painter pushes paint, the 68-year-old makes images that demand contemplation. Whether making pictures of old New England homes luminous with the patina of generations or the steel hull of a boat scaled with rust, paint and sea life, Becton’s work is ambiguous and suggestive. He layers those images with elements from other photos, imbuing his work with dreamlike mysteries. He doesn’t lead the viewer to answers. He just asks the questions.

“I want the viewer to finish the story,” he said.

This winter, Becton is showing nearly two dozen large-scale photographic montages at Bates College Museum of Art. “The View Out His Window (and in his mind’s eye): Photographs by Jeffery Becton” is on view through late March at the Lewiston museum.

The photographs at Bates are the largest prints he’s made. The smallest is 42 inches wide, and some are as wide as 7 feet, noted curator and museum curator Dan Mills, who was attracted to their dreaminess and their combination of the familiar and unfamiliar.

The images are full of mystery and the unknown, Mills said. Especially in his more recent work, he mixes tone and texture to create abstract photographs that suggest something we think we recognize but that remains elusive. His work creates harmony among colors and connects disparate elements, Mills said.

‘LIKE A BOLT OF LIGHTNING’

Becton starts with the familiar – the interior of a home, a landscape, the sea – then layers elements that he draws from other photographs he has taken to create abstract and representational images. Becton’s digital manipulation is not unique, but he is considered a pioneer in his field because he’s been doing it longer, and perhaps with more artistic bravado, than most of his peers. He was among the earliest buyers of the original Apple Macintosh personal computer and taught himself Photoshop when Adobe released it commercially.

“March Morning 2,” 2012

“March Morning 2,” 2012

He describes his early experience with the Macintosh and its MacPaint program as being “like a bolt of lightning.” He immediately understood the possibilities, as well as the dangers. He was not interested in making art that felt outlandish or unnatural, or to correct blemishes in his photos. He was interested in using modern tools to create images that take viewers to the edge of realism.

Becton studied graphic design in college at Yale, and his training made him comfortable creating images using a variety of sources. He found the process of moving pixels “incredibly satisfying” in an artful way.

He was traveling with his wife in Marie Joseph, Nova Scotia, when he came across a hulking 250-foot buoy tender moored in the harbor. The ship was destined for the scrap heap, and its hull made it obvious why. It was layered with coats of chipped paint that revealed decades of colors, large swaths of rust had formed from bilge-hole discharges, and heaps of mussels, barnacles and green slime coated the length of the ship.

Becton found someone to motor him around the ship so he could take detailed photos. The surface appeared otherworldly to him, and he knew he could use its colors and textures in dramatic ways. The hull shows up in images in the Bates show, as well as in projects he is working on in his Deer Isle studio.

Unlike a painter whose workspace might be characterized by drips and splatters, Becton’s studio is pristine and clean, with computers, printers and chairs for guests to sit and consider his work. He has a large display board along one wall, where on a recent fall day he had a large proof of a print of the ship’s colorful hull.

Or is it? It might also be a high-altitude image of a reddish land mass covered with clouds, or something along those lines. To create the image, he laid the hull down first and then placed clouds that he shot while in an airplane at 41,000 feet. The ambiguity delights Becton, who is more interested in visual ideas than “thinking ideas.”

“This is not food for thought,” he said. “It’s food for the eyes.”

Old houses also intrigue Becton, and Down East Maine is full of them. He’s shot dozens, if not hundreds, over the years.

“The Pilot House,” 2014

“The Pilot House,” 2014 Images courtesy of the artist

But he doesn’t stop with interior or exterior shots. He conditions his photos with landscapes and seascapes that linger just outside a window or door. In some cases, the water splashes into the house. He seduces us with realism, then surprises us with the unreal. “My intention is for you to believe in it, however briefly,” he said. “I’ve always wanted my pictures to take the viewer in, so at some level you believe in this reality,” he said.

It’s not a game. He is simply painting with pixels, creating what are becoming increasingly abstract images that exist for their intrigue and beauty.

Making abstract work is an outcome he never predicted for himself. When he was younger, he had a problem with conceptual work that needed to be explained. He was a protégé of Walker Evans, an American photographer who made his reputation taking photographs during the Depression. Evans’ photos didn’t need to be explained. They spoke for themselves dramatically. Evans later taught at Yale, where Becton fell under his influence.

THE EVOLUTION OF A STYLE

As a photographer, Becton gravitated toward static elements. Street photography didn’t appeal to him. He found that he was more satisfied and artistically engaged when he consciously composed his photos, because he could draw out the most interesting elements and had more control of the outcome.

His unlikely move toward metaphorical and abstract work evolved with time. Now, he’s perfectly comfortable with it and is curious how long his interest in it will last.

This image of photographer Jeffrey Becton at his studio in Deer Isle was created by exposing the camera’s sensor to two separate images, one of the trees outside the studio, as well as the other of him in the window of the studio. Becton often digitally layers his own work.

This image of photographer Jeffrey Becton at his studio in Deer Isle was created by exposing the camera’s sensor to two separate images, one of the trees outside the studio, as well as the other of him in the window of the studio. Becton often digitally layers his own work. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Becton grew up in New Jersey and came to Maine as a summer person in the early years of his life. In 1976, he bought a non-winterized saltwater farm in Deer Isle and commuted to a teaching job at Yale. With time, he improved the home, and two years later he moved here permanently.

Like a lot of Mainers, he cobbled things together early on, raising sheep and doing graphic design work while plugging away at his photography. He made portraits of people, and then began taking pictures of the homes that have become part of the Maine landscape. He rarely mixed the two and found that he was more interested in making picture of homes than of people. He allowed the character of a home – the wallpaper, furniture and furnishings – to represent the people who lived there over generations.

Becton has shown his work widely in solo and group exhibitions mostly in Maine, and his photos are in the collections of museums and corporations across the Northeast.

The Bates show is his most ambitious. Most gallery shows require small work, because of space limitations. Bates has big walls and plenty of room, and Mills’ marching orders were simple: “Go big,” he told Becton.

Becton bought a 44-inch printer, and installed it in a converted boat house overlooking Long Cove that he purchased last year and converted into his studio. It’s about a mile or so from his home, down a dirt road that leads to the water.

If there’s a single thread that runs through the body of Becton’s work, water is probably it. It’s inescapable in Deer Isle, and it’s why he moved here. The edge of the water is where Becton does most of his work. He’s interested in waves, ripples and the calm of a perfectly flat bay. He appreciates how islands break the horizon, and how craggy coves create calm shelters.

He spends a lot of time in boats or looking at the water though windows and doors, allowing it to take him to places real and imagined.