It began with E.B. White. Portland photographer Doug Bruns cites White’s 1942 collection of columns, “One Man’s Meat,” as a favorite book and a motivation for moving to Maine.

His interest in the great American writer led to his discovery that Maine is full of great writers, and that led to the Maine Literary Portrait Project. Bruns spent most of the past year making portraits of about 50 of Maine’s top writers working today. He will show the black-and-white images for the month of October in the Lewis Gallery of the Portland Public Library. The exhibition opens with First Friday Art Walk and runs through Nov. 1.

“There is an amazing depth of talent here, and I was in the mood for a new personal project,” he said.

His work took him from South Berwick (Nicholson Baker) to Fort Kent (Cathie Pelletier) and from Bethel (Richard Blanco) to the coast (everyone else, pretty much).

“It started with the motivation of needing something to do, and logically, as a reader, I thought of all the writers I admire who live in Maine,” he said.

He consulted with the folks at Longfellow Books for ideas then took his list to the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance to fill it out.


He then pitched the idea to the writers themselves: I’ll take your portrait, mount an exhibition and then donate the portrait to your hometown library. If there’s a book – there are no plans for a book at this time – any profits will be given to the MWPA to help local bookstores host readings.

Nearly everyone he pitched said yes.

In most cases, he went into writers’ studios and captured them in their creative environment. He did it old school, with black and white film and a Hasselblad camera that he borrowed from a friend. He used natural light and promised each writer that he would take no more than 10 pictures during the session. He did so out of respect for their time and privacy, and also to force himself not to overdo the images. He wanted to capture a moment, not create one.

“I wanted to show where they work, and I’m interested in their creative process,” he said. “I wanted to pull the curtain back without violating their privacy.”

Maine’s literary tradition extends far beyond E.B. White, who died in 1985 and had a house in Brooklin. He is best known for his New Yorker essays and his children’s books “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little” and “The Trumpet of the Swan.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, and Rockland native Edna St. Vincent Millay was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize.


But what’s happening in Maine now is remarkable, Bruns said. The state is home to several Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award finalists and dozens of other writers who are known nationally and internationally for their work.

“It’s an important time for Maine literature,” Bruns said. “I wanted to encapsulate something that’s important to me as a reader and also important to the state’s cultural legacy.”

Each portrait is 13 inches square, with a 2-inch white mat and black wooden frame. To break up the display, he’s also including six horizontal color photographs of bookshelves, showing a few writers’ personal collections. Next to each photograph, he includes a sample of the writer’s written words, chosen by the writer.

As he moved deeper into the project, Bruns realized what a gift he’d been given. Writers’ private spaces are almost sacred. Not a lot of people get to see Richard Ford’s seaside writing studio in East Boothbay or poet Wesley McNair’s cabin in the woods of western Maine. Fewer still venture to the home of recluse writer Carolyn Chute.

Bruns had to talk Chute into participating, through a series of letters. Chute does not do email. She essentially told him she was at a point in her life where she didn’t want to be photographed.

Bruns, 59, could relate. They are about the same age. He appealed to her again, and she relented on the condition that he not show her face. Fine, he said. He suggested shooting her while hugging a tree, with only her hands and arms showing. She offered a different idea.

“I’ll do it, but I want to dress up like a space alien,” she told him.

And so she did. She wore a robe and mask and announced, “I’m from Pluto.”

Keeping to the literary tradition, when the show closes Nov. 1, Bruns will take the photos off the wall, pack them up and turn them over to the library, which will distribute them to each writer’s hometown library via interlibrary loan.

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