The Maine Frontier: Through The Lens of Isaac Walton Simpson

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The Maine Frontier combines the scarcely seen turn-of-the-century photography of Isaac Simpson with both archived and current films, oral histories, and a compelling musical soundtrack. The Maine Frontier is an illustration of family, work, community and culture in northern Maine (Penobscot, Aroostook, Piscataquis, and Washington Counties) at the turn-of-the-century. Employing Isaac Simpson's exemplifying photographs, The Maine Frontier investigates the geographical circumstances of a region and culture virtually disconnected from the rest of the state and country.

Isaac Simpson was a photographer, blacksmith, barber, musician, woodsman, mechanic, and Father of 13. Isaac, his photographic subjects, his wife Effie, their friends, family, and neighbors exemplify the character and condition of the individual living in northern Maine at the turn-of-the-century.
Isaac's occupational skills brought him to logging camps deep in the woods and to farms in the far reaches of the Maine frontier. Wherever he traveled he carried his camera and glass plate negatives, and he captured photographs of everyone and everything along his way.

Out of Isaac Simpson’s many occupations, it’s not likely that he referred to himself as a documentary photographer; but his images exemplify documentary photography, more specifically- environmental portrait photography. His photographs were shot with an artist's eye and with skilled composition, and almost never for the purpose of self-indulgent art. His subjects were photographed in their natural environments, non-construed, and from the perspective of an equal. There was a shared humanity between Isaac and his subjects, which lent genuineness to his photographs. As part of the foundational culture of the region, and by working side-by-side with his subjects, Isaac’s workmates and neighbors had respect for him and saw him as one of their own. This implied respect shines through in all of his photographs. Being an equal and not having a social or political bias to influence his images made Isaac’s photography a factual representation of northern Maine.
Simpson's subjects included the rarely documented families living in the woods who's sole purpose was to hew railroad ties for the new lines of the Bangor & Aroostook RR. He photographed woods camps that were established only to cut shoe-blocks (wooden foot forms used to fit shoes). He photographed the crews constructing and excavating- by hand- the railroad, and the mill in East Millinocket, workers in tarpaper shacks, shanties, homes of the well-to-do, men and women in logging camps and on farms... In trying to earn an extra dollar by selling photographs, he created the archetypal photographic social history of the region.

By unearthing archived film, photography and oral histories, and combining them with a compelling musical score, The Maine Frontier uniquely sheds new light on a pioneering culture in a frontier region at a pivotal time in northern Maine's history.