Saint John Telegraph/Journal
Published Saturday September 20th, 2008


New York photographer Peter Cunningham, well known for his iconic early black-and-white pictures of a pre-rock star Bruce Springsteen, has sojourned in Grand Manan all his life. He is drawn by the fog, the beauty and the independent streak possessed by many who live there, and he has learned many life lessons from the island and the people who call it home.

Story by Kate Wallace Photography by Peter Cunningham

Adam Tate

To spend a day talking with New York photographer Peter Cunningham on Grand Manan, the place he calls "the home of my heart," is to be swept up in an adventure by car, boat and on foot, a whirlwind of conversation, visiting, and stops along the way to chat with people, locals mostly, who all know him. But there is also quiet time, to look out across the water, stare at the sky, and contemplate beach stones and bits of driftwood.

"This place has resonance with me," he says.


The day starts at the bakery, "a freak of nature," he says, tearing into a ham sandwich on a sesame-seed sprinkled bun that is sublimely soft and chewy. "It should be in Paris." Beyond delicious breads and pastries, it is one of the few places where locals and summer people mix easily. Cunningham should feel at home here. He occupies a rare middle ground on an island where lines between the two camps are clearly drawn. Although he has never lived full-time on Grand Manan, Cunningham has been coming to the rocky refuge in the Bay of Fundy all his life.

Even longer, actually.

"I was conceived here," he says on a bright day late last month, sitting on the deck of his historic Ingalls Head home, comfortable in black jeans, a green button-up shirt and green and gold sneakers - John Deere shoes, someone calls them. Over the rumble of huge machinery and buzz of small tools in a nearby yard, where fishing boats from all over the Bay of Fundy come for repairs in the dry dock, he explains his family's roots on the rugged island.

It started with his father, Robert Cunningham, a cloud physicist who came to the area as a high school student in the late 1930s for a summer study program on nearby Kent Island. It wasn't long before the MIT-educated meteorologist's focus shifted to the abundant fog that shrouded the bay, a course of study that continued for more than 60 years, until his death in May.

In 1945, Bob married Cunningham's mother, an Austrian who caught one of the last trains out of Vienna before the Nazi invasion. The newlyweds honeymooned in Acadia National Park in Maine, the closest they could get to Grand Manan without crossing the border (his mother did not yet have U.S. citizenship). In 1961, they bought the second oldest home in Ingalls Head, a white shingled two-storey wood house with bright red trim built in the 1830s that Peter returns to as often as he can.

Inside, nothing about the simple decor says Manhattan, except perhaps the photographer's Mac notebook computer resting atop an old wooden desk in the living room. The walls are dotted with prints of Cunningham's photos, the floors covered in old linoleum and throw rugs. There's no doubting it's a seaside home. Decorations include model boats and a carving of a puffin.


Bob, the young scientist who kept returning to Kent Island and Grand Manan, was adopted by the Tate family on Ingalls Head, a fishing clan descended from schooner ship captains who used to do runs to the Caribbean to swap salt cod for rum and molasses. The families are still close.

Peter, a Zen Buddhist who has travelled the world photographing the religion's migration west, delights in the incongruity of having been friends with Lester Tate, a Baptist fisherman. Their spiritual centres weren't so different, he says. "Lester had his feet completely planted on solid ground. He was completely present."

In August, Cunningham spent the last night of his second visit of the summer on the water, helping Adam, Lester's 20-something grandson, save 140 bags of dulse he had picked for sale. By the end of the night Cunningham was soaked and exhausted and happy. Just a month earlier, the family had scattered Bob Cunningham's ashes on Kent Island. The cycles of life and death and the passage of time have been very much on Peter's mind since his father's death.


"The problem with the death part is that by the time people become old enough to die, they have become unique and special in a hundred different ways," he says. "We lose a big part of ourselves when they pass."

Cunningham's admiration and affection for his father is obvious, especially during a detour to the Grand Manan Museum, where an exhibition about Bob 'Fogseeker' Cunningham includes a profile from the Boston Globe Sunday edition in 2001. He carries on his father's affinity for fog. Along with its sentimental meaning, the photographer in him "just really likes how it looks visually," he says. "The background disappears and the colours jump out at you." Photographers go to great effort in the studio to make a white background. "Oh my god, such effort. And nature provides it," he says. "I think there should be fog tourism."



He's seen a lot of changes affect the island, most notably a major economic shift. "In my life, I've seen it go from a hunter-gatherer to agrarian society," he says. "It used to be a battle between man and nature. You had a boat and it was up to you to deal with what was out there to make a living. Now, it is not so individualistic." Rather than hauling a living from the sea, many people who work on the water now earn their living from an aquaculture company.

It is just as interesting to note what hasn't changed on the island. "I think Grand Mananers have always had a certain independence of character," he says. "There's an independent spirit here. It's not quite as homogenous as the rest of the world." Cunningham says Grand Manan is small enough "that you can almost understand the world and how it works" from life on the island. "In terms of life and death and family; in terms of the economy; in terms of history and the way it is remembered in terms of social trends and the way things happen in delayed ways."

He points to the waves of drug trends that he has seen hit New York eventually make their way to the island, including an influx of crack cocaine that led to vigilante riots in 2006 when locals, fed up with a suspected local dealer and a lack of police action, took matters into their own hands. Shots were fired and the offending man's house was burned to the ground. The riots took place the same night that Cunningham's first major exhibition on the island opened at The Grand Manan Historical Society Gallery, just down the road from the ruckus. The show was part of his ongoing Still Films series, which blends related images and music to explore a number of themes, from Rock on the Water, a 25-minute film of Grand Manan images accompanied by the song All Them Boats by Paul Lauzon, to NEVER KNOW (What You've Got 'Til It's Gone), Ground Zero photographs by New York firemen, with music by Barnabas Miller. The critically acclaimed series grew out of his appreciation of the relationships between images.


"I like to use my images more as poets use words," he says. "They don't really address the brain but the heart."

Along with capturing the natural environment - rockweed, a snowy feather adrift on the water, interesting patterns in the sea and sky - Cunningham's Grand Manan photos document the human, social aspects of island life. "One of the nice things people here say about looking at my pictures is that they didn't notice the beauty in their daily lives, which none of us do." He calls the camera a tool that offers "a door onto being alive." "My job is to give the gift of seeing the world to people and I hope that it is not in a way that's a cliché," he says. "I get happy when I'm surprised."


He likes being in the moment with a camera in his hand, he says, although he doesn't see his job as capturing moments. "They capture me. The moments capture me."

What does he consider a good photograph?

"It has something to do with when the external world and the internal world are in harmony."

Nanjing, China / Peter Cunningham


But he is often without his camera. "I make a practice of not carrying it compulsively, because I like to experience life in other ways." Sitting by the ferry landing, waiting for the last boat of the day come in, he talks about his latest project, a book version of photographs from the summer. He is thinking of calling the collection Dead Reckoning. The smart title has a double meaning, about coming to terms with death at the same time as referencing an old form of navigation that requires just a watch and a compass, a skill Grand Manan's fishermen once had to master, made all the more tricky by the island's thick fog, jutting edges and high tides.

Earlier, on the cloudless afternoon, Cunningham launched Fog Seeker, a white wooden dory trimmed with yellow that he inherited from his father, in the clear, cold water beside the lobster shed Lester Tate built in 1922. Generations of the fishing family have worked in the rugged little structure, splitting and salting cod, rigging lines and mending lobster traps.

The lighthouse on Ross Island - also called the Grand Harbour lighthouse - looks so out of place in the bright August sunlight. Dark, crumbling yet stubborn it, has fallen into disrepair, the back side caved in. It's only a matter of time before the elements bring it down.


Cunningham tracked down the owner of Ross Island, a fellow New Yorker, to see if the man would fix up the lighthouse. He didn't have any luck persuading him so Cunningham put a couple of beams underneath to try to stem the destruction, a finger in a flooding dam.

A week earlier in New York and his other life, Cunningham had a full roster of engagements, one day shooting a corporate event at the United Nations, the next night seated beside the director of Juilliard as the guest of the director of the Lincoln Center at the debut of a new orchestral work. "My life is busy in the city but when I come here it's a different kind of busy," he says. "I'm just so happy to see my friends."

Ava and Violet


He is warmly greeted everywhere he goes. At the bakery, he gets a hug from the young woman behind the counter; elsewhere, he is welcomed into the Tate home for tea and homemade biscuits and jam, invited to a weekend wedding, confabulates at the local diner, banters with the friendly women at a nurses' station at the nursing home, and greets a group of teenaged skateboarders.

It doesn't take long to see his attachment to the island is deep and genuine. This is no city person with a folk fetish


"To me, this just seems like normal life," he says, sitting in a field beside an old well on Ross Island, as warm winds rustle the wild grasses. "I find the world of supermarkets and Wal-Mart is what I feel estranged from, and I find a life where you do something physical with your hands - pick berries, dig for clams - or you spend the evening just having a conversation about the minute details of everyday life, I find that to be normal life, not quaint."



And despite the introduction of high-speed internet and other encroachments of contemporary life, it is still a place where the teenagers' idea of a good time includes going to the beach for a bonfire or to dig for clams - or you spend the evening just having a conversation There is a mythological quality to Grand Manan he has felt all his life. "I remember reaching up for Myhron's (Tate) hand and his hip-boots were the same height as my hand," he says. "The fishermen were like gods to me." And there's an exoticism to the place, too. "It's like going to Europe. It's another culture." There's nowhere else like it, Cunningham contends, even on the eastern seaboard.

So it is hard not to feel a little maudlin about what has been lost ..... "I have a great respect for people who live close to nature," he says.

dig for clams - or you spend the evening just having a conversation about the minute details of everyday life, I find that to be normal life, not quaint." and what continues to dwindle. "The whole coast will end up getting stripped of its culture," he says, looking back at Grand Manan from Ross Island. "It's going. Like that lighthouse," he says, gesturing at the disintegrating hulk. The days of hand-lining for fish and a family owning its own boat are disappearing. "One of the things I'm interested in is how we as individuals respond to change, because it is the only thing that is certain," he says. "One thing about being on Grand Manan is that I can see change happen." Things in the city stay the same, he says. "The city is constant and the people flow through, they flow through like it's a river." Including him.

In 1968, during his junior year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he and some friends were headed to Washington to march on the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War. They stopped in New York on the way, where he met the singer Janice Ian. Cunningham fell for the musician, dropping out of school to join her on the road. They toured the country; he ran the lights.

"That was the beginning of my education and the world opened up for me," he says. "I entered an unpredictable path and I am still on an unpredictable path and I like that." He bought his first camera in the early '70s. His first teacher, Adger Cowens, taught him that he wasn't making picture of objects. "I began with abstractions, to understand it was light that I was playing with, that I was literally putting light onto the film."

A German sitting in Auschwitz

Cunningham got his first break in 1973 in New York through a buddy with who he played basketball and chess. His friend got a job at Columbia Records as the label was launching an inhouse magazine to let its staff know about newly signed artists. They needed a photographer. Cunningham accepted the gig to shoot a then-unknown New Jersey musician for the publication. He was paid $25 for his candid and now iconic black-and-white pictures of Bruce Springsteen. The job led to more work, about five shoots a month. His rent was $125. Life was good.

He went on to shoot a number of musicians, including Madonna, Mariah Carey and Thelonius Monk. One day Springsteen and Grand Manan even converged. "I was out on the water hand-lining and a call came in to Ingalls Head that Bruce Springsteen wanted to speak to me. It went out over the fisherman's radio, 'Bruce Springsteen wants Peter Cunningham to call him.' "

Despite his rich and famous subjects, Cunningham isn't wealthy. But he considers himself successful. "Success is not missing a meal. For 35 years, I've been doing what I want and not missed a meal," he says. "I've been lucky in my city life that profitable opportunities have just unfolded for me."

- Bruce Springsteen 1973 / Madonna 1982

He says a term he learned as an anthropology student at Wesleyan University applies to his photography. "Participant observer - that's what I do. I'm photographing the dance as I'm dancing. I'm trying not to be separate from what I'm photographing."

When he first began taking photographs, something clicked, he says. "Something inside of me was getting out." The response was emotional, "a direct heart connection, kind of falling in love with everything in the world." He is glad he didn't go to photography school. Instead, he had invaluable real-world training, including a stint in 1975 as an assistant for the late Henri Cartier-Bresson, widely considered the father of modern photojournalism. "He taught me to photograph with my feet," Cunningham says. "Life is always moving. You can't stand still to make a still picture." The French photographer taught him many lessons, some related to photography, others about the world at large. "I learned that sometimes we have a hero and we can think they live and work in a different world. One of the biggest things I learned was the ground he walks on and the ground I walk on is the same." Cunningham says Cartier-Bresson, who didn't look at other photographer's pictures so as to ensure his clarity of vision, tried to approach each moment with fresh eyes.

That's why Cunningham was so moved by a woman in her 90s he met at the Grand Manan nursing home that morning. A stroke had left her wheelchair-bound and unable to speak, but she could still smile and hold Cunningham's hand and laugh at his jokes. His favourite people, he says, are the very young and the very old. "I greatly treasure the time I spend with people over 80 and people under eight, because there's no audience. There's nothing at stake." Cunningham says he suspected the elderly lady's stage of dementia meant she had no memory. He saw beauty in this. "Every moment is new, and she only has the present," he says. "That's why she's my teacher."

Kate Wallace covers the arts for the Telegraph-Journal and is a frequent contributor to Salon.