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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: April 30, 2018

Photo exhibit documents changes on Portland’s waterfront

Written by: Bob Keyes

Before moving to Portland in 1997, photographer David Wade spent more than a dozen years in Asia “and traveling around the world to all these exotic places doing all kinds of stories.” When he arrived on the Portland waterfront, he realized, “I don’t need to go anywhere else. This is as exotic a deal as anything I have ever seen.”

Wade, who these days splits his time between Portland and Phippsburg, is showing 20 years of Portland photographs in “The Working Waterfront” through June 29 at Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth. With his black-and-white perspective, he focuses specifically on Widgery Wharf, whose history dates to the Revolutionary War. It remains an active lobstering wharf and has resisted development pressure that has transformed much of the rest of the waterfront since Wade began his project.

Wade, a WMPG radio host, makes his photos with a documentary purpose to show how it was and what we lose when development is given priority over preservation. Wade worries the charm of Portland is being lost to the booming real estate market and a weakening of zoning regulations that protected the working waterfront for many years.

“I want to stand up for the waterfront,” he said.

Most of the pictures are from the early years of Wade’s project. “I was really concentrating on it then and knew these photos would have some historical importance down the line as a documentation of what was slowly eroding,” he said. “I could see the writing on the wall back then. Zoning is always up for negotiating. There was a movement to preserve the waterfront, but it loses steam as Portland becomes a boom city. Now Portland has this smart reputation for being something or other, I don’t know what anymore. But it certainly won’t be for its working waterfront.”

These are photos of men in motion and boats at bay. Wade shows lobstermen repairing traps, loading them from the dock onto boats and jumping among their high stacks. There are shots in the fog of lobster boats tied to the wharf, looking peaceful and tranquil.

It took Wade a long time to earn the trust of the lobstermen, whom he described as “like barnacles clinging to the pilings. They’re tough and persistent.” So is Wade. He hung around long enough, they eventually began asking him to shoot their kids’ weddings – and invited him out on the water with them. “I spent a lot of mornings at 5 o’clock down there,” Wade said.

One of the lobstermen portrayed in Wade’s photos, Leland Merrill, will speak at 2 p.m. May 11, sharing stories and the history of Widgery Wharf. Merrill bought Widgery Wharf after World War II with a group of other fishermen and passed along his fish house tie-ups to his son.

Wade calls Widgery a piece of living history. It was built around the time of the Revolutionary War and was used mostly in the molasses trade. Over the years, it has been used in Maine’s lumber and grain industries and then became a lobstering wharf, which it has remained. Wade worries it won’t be in the lobster business for long. As he was preparing to hang the photos in this show, Wade read about another proposed hotel development on the waterfront. “It really raises my hackles,” he said. “We’ve got enough hotel rooms. You can put a hotel anywhere. You can only lobster off the dock.”

Wade knew this wharf in its heyday, when it was run by five families. It was also a bit of a time capsule, when the old-fashioned wooden traps were still in use. The webbing for the traps, formerly hand-knit by fishermen in the winter months, was replaced with pre-made plastic.

“The old and new were coexisting, but it was only a matter of time,” Wade said. “The older gentlemen, who were fishing into their late 70s and early 80s and still stacking heavy lobster traps three high, started to retire and die. It was a good time to see the traditional fishing as these lobstermen had learned it from their grandfathers and passed it down to their sons. But the times were changing.”

Wade still photographs the waterfront, but much less frequently. Widgery Wharf continues to go on. New construction shields the wharf from wide public view. “I figure with all the construction planned, when completed, say, in three years, the public view and access to the waterfront will be about half of what it was in 2000,” he said.

The photographer’s images have appeared in the Portland Museum of Art, the Art Gallery at the University of New England, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and in galleries across Maine.

Wade hopes to turn his photo project into a book. He’s toyed with the idea for several years, and this exhibition in Yarmouth has spurred him to think about it more seriously. “This issue deserves a book, and it’s time. It’s more affordable to do a book these days, and there’s more of an audience for it. Portland needs this record.”

David Wade’s “The Working Waterfront”

WHERE: Merrill Memorial Library, 215 Main St., Yarmouth
WHEN: On view through June 29; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
RELATED: Opening reception 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Lobsterman Leland Merrill will talk from 2 to 4 p.m. May 11.


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