Mason Philip Smith, seen at a show in February with his photographs from Kunming, China, went to China at least 17 times and had many friends there. He was a well-known portrait, wedding and commercial photographer, an author and a publisher.

Mason Philip Smith, seen at a show in February with his photographs from Kunming, China, went to China at least 17 times and had many friends there. He was a well-known portrait, wedding and commercial photographer, an author and a publisher. (Photo by Jack Milton)

Mason Philip Smith had been composing the photograph he took of a tumbledown house north of Searsport for two years.

Ever the formalist, Smith planned the shot in his head before he even left his Cape Elizabeth home this April. He would shoot it from down low, in the flat light of an overcast day, so the wooden heap would loom large, taking up three quarters of the frame, but be free of sharp shadows. Hundreds had photographed this Route 1 classic, but no one had ever gotten it right, Smith told his friend, fellow photographer Larry Hayden of Portland.

“It took us two hours to get up there,” Hayden said. “He got out of the car, marched rather stiffly over to a very specific spot, set down his tripod and he took his photograph and it was just how he’d planned it. It was perfect. Compositionally, it was just right. The whole thing took 10 minutes. I know because I photographed him photographing the house. Then he said, ‘OK, let’s eat,’ and that’s what we did.”

Despite his beginnings as a photojournalist, including a summer as the Press Herald’s first photo intern, Smith embraced formality as an artist, both in his 30 years as one of Maine’s leading portrait photographers, during which he likely shot thousands of Maine brides, students and professionals, but also in his fine arts photography, which he began in earnest after he retired in 1993.

Smith died Friday at his home in Cape Elizabeth. He was 83.

Flag cars

Flag cars (Photo by Mason Philip Smith)

Friends and family describe him as a fixture in the Portland arts scene. For decades, Smith worked out of a studio in the cavernous second-floor ballroom of Mechanics Hall at 519 Congress St., a room that he would jokingly describe as almost big enough for all his lighting equipment and portrait backdrops. Press Herald Systems Editor Jack Milton fondly remembers walking by the Smith portraits that hung in street-level display cases as a teen.


“I would look at those big, beautiful color portraits of a bride or a graduate and wonder how did he do that, always perfectly lit, perfectly printed,” said Milton, who would grow up to be a Press Herald photo editor and a close friend of Smith. “His portraits hang in galleries and museums and hundreds of houses all over the state of Maine, capturing some of the biggest moments in our lives.”

Smith did other commercial work, too, including architectural and real estate photos and catalog work, ranging from glossy silverware brochures to the first color photographs in the L.L. Bean catalog. His wife, Barbara, remembers L.L. Bean employees hauling products down to his Portland studio to be photographed before the company eventually built its own studio.

But Smith would tell his friends that he did not really become a photographer until he retired from his career as a portraitist. It freed him to roam the state, capturing images like the one he was going to enter into the Maine Photography Show in Boothbay in April, a rusted out truck in front of a house, and feed his obsession with China, which he visited and photographed twice a year since 2000.

Although known for his photography, Smith was an artist in multiple formats, including watercolor and drawing and literature. He wrote five books, including one about the 1898 sinking of the SS Portland on her voyage from Boston, on which his grandfather’s brother died. Smith was an amateur historian and one of the founding members of Portland Landmarks. About a dozen years ago, he traveled to Japan to study Buddhism.

He liked to joke that he shot his first wedding in Asia, when he was in the Air Force serving in Korea. The groom was a local who worked in the barracks.

“Somehow he managed to lay his hands on a camera, but it wasn’t easy,” his wife recalled. “He told me he had to use some sort of chemical to light the flash on fire to have light for the picture. When he got back, he enrolled in photojournalism at Boston University, which is where we met. Mason was the tall good looking one who sat in the back of class who had an opinion about everything.”


Smith cut quite an imposing figure in Asia, but the large, heavy-set man with the camera in hand took pride in his rather gruff demeanor, whether it be on a job or in a classroom or even among his colleagues. Some photographers who worked in studios located next to his in Mechanics Hall say his stern countenance left them afraid to approach him. Even his friends called him a curmudgeon.

Scarborough Marsh

Scarborough Marsh (Photo by Mason Philip Smith)

But those closest to him say he was generous, loyal and even sweet underneath it all. He would invite young photographers to weekly coffee outings to mentor them, sharing his experiences and his opinions freely. He and his wife quietly donated money to support many local causes, like restoring the historic doors at Mechanics Hall. He was known to let struggling parents pay for bridal portraits on installment plans.

Allan Spader met Smith at the Maine Photography Show four years ago, and the veteran took the Portland newcomer under his wing.

“Despite his sometimes gruff manner, Mason was generous with his praise and helped me see what I was trying to do,” Spader recalled on a Facebook tribute to Smith on Saturday. “Like others, I was in awe of the courage and continued curiosity that led to his several trips half way around the world to China (after he was 80) and the fascinating photographs he brought back. He will be missed.”

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