Specially for The Ellsworth American
MOUNTAIN DESERT – Linn Sage, a photographer who has been documenting protests for decades, takes a brief break from politics to focus her camera on the tides, landscapes, water reflections and human activity on Mount Desert Island. Her exhibit, N x NE: Summer Migrations, is on view at the Northeast Harbor Library through August 30.
At 84, Sage, who lives in New York and has lived most of her life in Mount Desert, continues to document the times we live in. Her street photography spans 60 years.
“My intention was to capture these events with an artist’s eye rather than a journalist’s,” says Sage.
With her Leica camera in hand, the photographer has captured many important events and eras in American history. Her work spans the free speech movement of the 1960s, including Abbie Hoffman’s Yippie Riot; the protests against the Vietnam War; the Gore versus Bush presidential election; the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks and, more recently, the Trump Tower protests; and the impeachment proceedings in the US Senate.
Today, Sage shoots in both color and black and white and is familiar with digital photography. The photographer’s images in N x NE: Summer Migrations are black and white. Over the decades, her images have been featured in national newspapers and magazines including The New York Times; People and New York, and The Ellsworth American, Mount Desert Islander and the former Bar Harbor Times. Her work has been exhibited in Maine, New York City and abroad.
“I wasn’t at the Capitol invasion on January 6th,” Sage said, giving the impression that she would have liked to bring her perspective to the visual history of the riots and uprising.
Here on Mount Desert Island, Sage is better known for her iconic and often humorous photos of interesting people and beautiful places than for political turmoil and controversy.
Summer Migrations is a retrospective collection of 26 black and white archival images, most of which depict MDI summer scenes and people.
In one picture, a youth kicks the giant boulder on the southern bladder with karate kicks. In another image, a child offers a pine frond at Lower Hadlock Pond outside Northeast Harbor. The photographer ventures further into Nova Scotia and captures a group of camera-armed tourists climbing over the ledges of Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia. In the picture, the tourists are intent on photographing a sunset, unaware that their own silhouettes have created a different kind of tableaux for a different viewer.
“It was difficult putting that together — deciding what to include and what to leave out,” says Sage. The prints she selected were almost exclusively taken with her 35mm Leica from the 1970s to 1990s. Although she now uses a lab to create her prints, it is done under her close supervision.
“I originally planned to include some of my more recent digital color images in this exhibit,” says Sage. “But it just didn’t work. As I put these together, I realized a story was emerging about an annual migration – the pilgrimage that I and so many others make each year from our winter quarters to return here to this beautiful island.”
Her personal summer hike takes her to a charming, light-filled barn conversion in Sargent’s Cove, a narrow cove on Somes Sound. A stone’s throw away is her more modern studio where she spends much of her time editing and organizing photos for a lifetime.
Sage, who is from Baltimore, started her career as a photographer on another coast. Her first job after graduating from Barnard College with an art history degree in 1960 was the art editor of the literary magazine Contact in San Francisco.
“While I was there, I decided to learn about photography by taking some classes at the San Francisco Art Institute,” says Sage.
As a student a decade earlier, Sage had participated in the Experiment for International Living program and spent time in Japan. She says her admiration for Japanese art and architecture had a lasting impact on her photography.
By the time Sage returned to the East Coast to take a job at Newsweek in New York City, she was camera savvy and confident enough to begin her long career as a photographer documenting the tumultuous era of the ’60s. She’s still at it.
But over the summer, when she returns to MDI, Sage has been happy to focus on the less volatile opportunities and outlook she finds here.
Wherever she photographs, Sage says she’s most interested in people and/or action, and most of the images in this library exhibit confirm this, often unexpectedly—for example, a dizzying, off-balance shot of the Baker Island Light. Or an elderly pair of Oli’s trolley passengers at a Fourth of July parade in 1996. The pair appear to be staring at you as they slowly pass along the parade route, a poignant reminder of a kinder, gentler form of patriotism.
When her subjects don’t provide enough movement for her purposes, Sage lets go of her shadows. A child’s shadow flows like spilled ink across the flat rocks of Baker Island. We only see another child’s shoes, but their shadow reveals that she is holding a sea treasure. In the double contact print, the starfish and the delicate dark cracks in a rock formation transform the static granite into a kind of dance. This photo, like several other images on the show, is accompanied by a verse or quote – sometimes humorous like, “You say unpredictable, I say erotic, let’s call it rock” by MDI poet Carl Little. Sometimes they highlight their migration theme, as in this quote on a portrait of writer and fellow migrant Frances FitzGerald. It also includes a perfect description of the photographer herself.
“There are enough changes in the cities of my life that I need an island where nothing changes for a month or two every year,” it says. “No view, no curb, not a pair of shoes in the closet. Also, I believe that if I return to the island every year, I’ll become someone like my grandmother and her friends when I’m in my eighties: that’s fit, sharp and a connoisseur of the clouds.”
N x NE: Summer Migrations is on view at the Northeast Harbor Library through August 30. The library is located at 1 Joy Road. Call 276-3333 for more information. To learn more about Linn Sage, visit her website at linnsage.com.