SEARSPORT — The name Kosti Ruohomaa may not be familiar to everyone, but the Rockland photographer’s work is well known across the globe. And after Penobscot Marine Museum acquired his life’s work through the Black Star of New York this past fall, one of Maine most famous photographers is about to have a career revival.
Kosti Ruohomaa, the son of Finnish Americans, moved from Massachusetts to Rockland in 1926. In 1937, he was hired as an animator for the Walt Disney Studios and moved to Los Angeles. At that time, he began to hone his skills as a photojournalist. He was represented by photographic agency called Black Star, based in New York and photographed for Life Magazine, Time Magazine, National Geographic, Look and Ladies’ Home Journal. In his career, he probably photographed six different covers for Life Magazine.
Ruohomaa was known internationally for his stark photographs, so it's not surprising that he struck up a friendship with another artist at that time with the same aesthetic — Andrew Wyeth.
Wyeth called Ruohomaa Maine's best photographer and the two worked often together in the 1950s. But, Ruohomaa, who suffered from alcoholism, died young from a stroke at the age of 47 in 1961.
As the years went on, Ruohomaa’s body of work receded into the archives, boxed up and uncategorized at Black Star.
“As the times changed, none of his stuff ever got digitized,” said Kevin Johnson, Penobscot Marine Museum’s archivist. “He was known for was perhaps only 10 percent of his work. The rest of it had never been seen.”
Johnson, who is known locally for his dogged dedication to saving archival photographs, was contacted by Ruohomaa’s biographer, a woman named Deanna Bonner-Ganter. She spent the last 20 years working on Ruohomaa’s biography, published two years ago, titled Kosti Ruohomaa: The Photographer Poet (Down East Books).
“I helped her at the end of the process with her book with formatting some pictures and really got interested in Kosti,” said Johnson. “She told me that all of his work was just sitting there, forgotten in these offices in New York and his family wanted his work to come home to Maine, so I wrote Black Star a letter requesting if Penobscot Marine Museum could acquire his collection. I had a letter from his family that went with it and they agreed. What did we have to lose? As it turned out, they agreed. So, I drove down and loaded seven boxes of his work int he back of my car and came back home.”
Bonner-Ganter began volunteering at PMM this past fall to help Johnson categorize the collection, which consists of thousands of medium and large format negatives, 35 mm negatives and slides, as well as contact sheets and vintage prints.
“She has the reference to most of these photos and what the assignment was,” he said. “More than a third of his assignments were in Maine and most of those were in Knox County.”
The collection has been carefully catalogued, rehoused and digitized, and will be ultimately be made available to browse for free in the museum’s online database.
“Opening each envelope is like seeing a prize inside,” said Johnson. “But, it also reveals his methodology, how he approached each story, what he chose to shoot, how he isolated the photos that ended up getting used and cropped.”
To learn more visit: Kosti Comes Home at the Camden Public Library with a talk by Kevin Johnson on April 3 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.
Kay Stephens can be reached at email@example.com