In July of 1942, Elisofon acquired an old farmhouse built in 1843 by Joel Philbrook in Crockett Cove on Vinalhaven. It became his summer retreat, a place where he came to recharge his batteries, until his untimely death in 1973. Having grown up poor in an immigrant family in the lower east side of New York City, he longed to escape city life. Vinalhaven was a place with boundless natural beauty, far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city and the hectic publishing world. He was befriended by islanders like postmaster Vivian Drew and his neighbor Pearly Dyer, whom he hired to help repair the farmhouse. It was on the island that he learned to garden and sail. He became part of the fabric of the community, attended Lions Club meetings, gave slideshows from his travels, and made lifelong friendships. It was on Vinalhaven that he had quality time with his family—cooking, painting, and just being together.
He also made photographs while he was on Vinalhaven—he published two stories with islands photos, The Atlantic Coast in 1947, and Maine Lobsters in 1961—but most of the photos he shot on Vinalhaven were just for himself. His archive of more than 100,000 photographs, negatives, and slides of Africa is held at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and his work also is held in several other archives. However, a group of nearly 2,000 negatives and slides representing his personal work on Vinalhaven taken between 1940-1970 was recently donated to the Penobscot Marine Museum by his daughter Elin. It was her desire that this work remain in Maine.
This mini treasure trove depicting stunning landscapes and island life offers an insight into the photographer’s vision and process as he took photos, unencumbered by deadlines or assignment criteria. It is clear he approached his Vinalhaven subjects with the same respect that he would have given a Shilluck tribesman or Bushongo dancer. The Maine fog, tides, and landscape were as exotic to him as what he saw on the Nile.
The Penobscot Marine Museum is currently seeking support to digitize and catalog the collection and make it available in its online database.
Kevin Johnson is photo archivist at the Penobscot Marine Museum, located in Searsport.