BY A MAINE RIVER, by Thomas Mark Szelog & Lee Ann Szelog, 112 pages, Down East, $24.95, hardcover.
Thomas Mark Szelog has been a nature photographer for decades, but in all those years Szelog had focused primarily on larger animals. A macro lens he owned sat mostly unused – he didn’t have much use for a lens good for shooting smaller subjects.
But as Szelog worked on his latest project with his wife, Lee Ann Szelog, he found himself turning to the macro lens more often. The results – both with the close-focusing and regular lenses – are dramatic and spectacular in the Szelogs’ new book, “By A Maine River: A Year of Looking Closely.”
Tom Szelog did the photography with help from Lee on some of the still-life pictures. He also wrote the introduction with help from his wife, he said. Lee Szelog wrote the afterword, and the two collaborated on the captions.
The river of the book’s title is the Eastern River, the East Branch of which runs through the couple’s 70-acre property in Whitefield, located southeast of Augusta. Tom Szelog spent each week of the year trying to get at least one photograph for the book, and the end results are organized chronologically. The book opens and closes with icy images of the river,
and in between Szelog documents the natural life found in the area.
The 73 color shots, which were shot on film and not taken digitally, are a mix of both big-picture landscapes and small detailed photographs. The need to capture detail was what led Szelog to dig out his macro lens, last used around 30 years ago for a commercial shoot.
“I found myself photographing more detailed things, getting on my hands and knees, lying on my back,” he said. “That is not my specialty. But it was nice to take time, slow down, get on my hands and knees looking for things, and experiencing things that I hadn’t experienced.”
That was actually one of the goals of the project. The Szelogs are hoping the photographs will encourage readers and viewers to slowly look around their own property.
“[We wanted to] open people up to how closely we live to nature and wildlife,” said Lee Szelog, a 1978 graduate of John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor. “No matter how big or small your backyard is, if you just slow down, you can really see some sights.” Curiosity about their own land led the Szelogs to embark on the project. They moved to their log cabin in Whitefield in 2002 from a lighthouse in Port Clyde, which they documented in their award-winning 2007 book, “Our Point of View: Fourteen Years at a Maine Lighthouse.”
Lee Szelog had gained an interest in the outdoors from her father, longtime University of Maine journalism professor Arthur O. Guesman, who died in March 2007. The book is dedicated to him.
“He loved animals, and he loved his own backyard,” said Lee Szelog, who grew up in Levant. “We only had a couple of acres, but he loved every square inch. He would sit in the backyard and just take it all in.”
Tom Szelog, who found early inspiration in nature when he walked along the Merrimack River as a child in New Hampshire, thought about documenting the couple’s Whitefield land. He started Jan. 1, 2004, shooting that day a photograph of the frozen Eastern River.
In his second week, he photographed a tree sparrow perched on the sunny branch of a tree. The next week Szelog captured a goshawk stalking its prey. During week four, he shot bobcat tracks in the snow across Bugaboo Pond and a trio of mourning doves.
And so on. Szelog crossed paths with an eastern coyote in week five. He finally got a shot of an albino eastern gray squirrel – the Szelogs had seen the squirrel around their house and tried to keep their dog away to encourage the squirrel to keep coming – during week eight and found a mass of wood frog eggs near the surface of Bear Pond during week eighteen.
Week twenty-five brought a great blue heron, its neck tilted and eyes focused intently on a fish in Bugaboo Creek. A tiny damselfly appeared in reeds during week thirty. In week thirty-six, Szelog found the shed skin of a green snake among red British soldier lichen, turning it into one of his favorite photos. During week forty-one he shot a magenta-red maple leaf rimmed in ice. Two red squirrels that seem to be having a tete-a-tete appeared to him during week forty-eight.
Szelog returned to the Eastern River for week fifty-three, rounding out the year.
The book is also a documentation of the seasons. Week thirteen’s photo depicts soft snow receding around lichen. In week twenty-four, a snapping turtle is buried in sand and leaf litter with only an eye visible in an attempt to keep cool in 90-degree heat. Week forty-five brought a chipmunk with its cheeks stuffed with seeds in preparation for winter. Turkeys, evidently having narrowly escaped Thanksgiving, walked out of the forest during week forty-nine.
Szelog shot many of the photographs from one of several blinds he set up on the property. The blinds allowed him to get several photographs of animals looking directly at him.
“[The animals are] always watching, always keeping an eye [out],” he said. “They don’t want to get eaten.”
Szelog regretted he wasn’t able to include photographs of river otters or white-tailed deer seen frequently around their cabin. Still, the Szelogs consider the book a kind of documentary of their own land, which they ultimately would like to put into conservation.
“We did ‘By A Maine River’ without knowing whether it would get published, and I think that says a lot,” Tom Szelog said. “We did this project for ourselves. We thought, even if no one [else] views these photographs, we have a great history of our property. … And if you can’t go into your own backyard and create compelling photography, you can’t travel elsewhere and do it.”
“By A Maine River” is available at local bookstores including BookMarc’s in Bangor, Mr. Paperback stores, Left Bank Books in Searsport, and the Down East showroom in Rockport. To order the book, go to www.downeast.com.