As a general rule of thumb in Portland, the closer you are to the water, the more successful you are. By that standard, Peter Macomber is the city's most successful commercial photographer. His all-digital, 18,000-square-foot studio on Union Wharf literally hangs over Portland Harbor, and the view from his office is of fishing boats lined up at the dock.
Peter Macomber is sometimes credited with single-handedly creating the commercial photography market in Portland. Before Macomber opened his studio in 1974, most commercial photography in the city consisted of portrait and wedding work.First Macomber pioneered advertising photography, then, in 1981, he discovered catalog photography while doing some work for Brookstone.
Twenty-four years later, Portland is a hotbed of product and catalog photography and Macomber has Maine's most coveted account. He and his sixteen full-time employees shoot the off-figure apparel and hard goods for the L.L. Bean catalogs. And to keep the business close at hand, Macomber even has Vertis, the firm that handles L.L. Bean's prepress work, as a tenant in his building.
"Having one main client," says Peter Macomber, "you work hard to keep them as happy as possible."
For the first ten years or so, Macomber had the catalog work in Portland pretty much to himself, but over the past ten to fifteen years close to a dozen studios, several operated by former Macomber employees, have gone into the product and catalog photography business. Macomber, however, insists he isn't worried about the competition.
"I am not competing with anybody locally," he says. "It has always been an unwritten rule of mine not to take work away from other photographers."
Indeed, this collegial business ethic is fairly typical of Portland, where the booming photography scene still comes as a surprise to many.
"Portland is one of the best-kept secrets in the country," says photographer Paul Howell, who first came to Portland as an engineer to work for Fairchild Semiconductor and returned from Silicon Valley in 1990 to re-invent himself as photographer.
After learning the business by assisting Peter Macomber for two years, Howell went out on his own in 1992, and the following year set up Portland's first all-digital studio. Among Howell's first clients was the Foreside Company, a local home furnishings business with a wholesale catalog. Today, Howell and his fourteen full-time employees work out of a massive 20,000-square-foot studio housed in a former Old Port antiques showroom, shooting catalog photographs for clients such as J. Jill, Talbot's, and Chadwick's of Boston.
"The advantage from a business point of view is probably cost. You simply couldn't have 20,000 square feet in Manhattan, or you'd pay through the nose," says Howell. "Most people don't seem to realize that Portland is much closer to Boston than New York. They think it's on the moon. They also think all the talent is in New York, but there's lots of talent in Portland."
Like most of the photographers in Portland, Howell shoots locally but does business nationally.
"A significant majority of our revenues are from out of state," Howell says. "We're not beating each other up over L.L. Bean scraps and other local catalogers. And we're beginning to hear from clients, 'Oh, yes, I've heard of Portland.' It's an up-and-coming place. The number of studios here doing good work has started to attract attention."
Critical mass and a spirit of cooperation have contributed to Portland's growing reputation as a photo center.
Mark Rockwood, a Macomber assistant for ten years, went out on his own in 1991 and now operates what he describes as "a huge one-man studio," his primary client being the Plow & Hearth catalog. In 2000, Rockwood purchased an old warehouse in the city's East End where eight other photographers are now tenants.
"I wanted a big space I couldn't afford independently, and I wanted to have lots of people around to shoot catalogs with me," Rockwood explains. "Real estate is Maine's biggest advantage. And it's easier to stay in a crazy business if you live in a reasonably sane place."
Stretch Tuemmler and Russell French have adjoining studios in the former Nissen Bakery building at the foot of Portland's Munjoy Hill. Stretch Studio's biggest client is the Sturbridge Yankee Workshop home furnishings catalog, and Russ French is a food photographer specializing in packaging, but the two photographers share a marketing person and purchase expensive digital equipment together whenever possible.
"We're a digital town," says Tuemmler. "We're not the norm for the country. People doing catalogs are going to do digital. If a photographer were to come to Portland who didn't do digital, he or she wouldn't make it."
Among the other product photographers in Portland are Barry Lewis, who arrived from Dallas in 1999, and Dennis Welsh, who worked for Peter Macomber for three years before going out on his own in 1990. Lewis photographs for Saks Fifth Avenue. Welsh shoots the Maine Cottage Furniture catalog.
"A few years ago," says Dennis Welsh, "a friend of mine who is a copy writer said, 'You can't swing a cat in Portland without hitting a photographer.' "
Of course, not all the professional photographers in Portland are product photographers. Welsh, in fact, is primarily an outdoor adventure photographer and there are several National Geographic contributors in the Portland area, including Bill Curtsinger, David McLain, Amy Toensing, and Jose Azel.
Jose Azel moved to Lovell, Maine, eighteen years ago because he wanted to raise his family in a rural setting. In1993, Azel and photographer Bob Caputo started Aurora & Quanta Productions and, in 1998, Azel moved the offices of Aurora Photos, a digital stock agency with eighty photographers and 100,000 images on-line, to an old brick warehouse on the edge of Portland's Old Port.
"The reason Aurora came to Portland," says Azel, "is because the people who want to work with companies like Aurora live in this area. This is the place to find talented people."
Though the talented people Azel is talking about are primarily photo technicians and support staff, Aurora does feature a number of Maine photographers, among them Azel, McLain, Bridget Besaw Gorman, Rose Marasco, and Shoshannah White.
Jay York first came to Portland in the late 1970s to study at Maine College of Art (then Portland School of Art) and thirty years later is on the board of the art school. After seven years working in a processing lab, York opened his own studio in 1988. He says the competition in the Portland photography market doesn't bother him, primarily because new arrivals tend to bring their work with them and everyone seems to find a niche.
"For me, the influx of photographers hasn't had much of an impact," says York, "because I'm very specialized. I photograph almost exclusively for artists and craftspeople."
Scott Peterman is one of Portland's foremost photographic artists. A 1998 Yale MFA grad, Peterman has a growing national reputation as an artist who shoots large-format color photographs. But what is not as well known is that Peterman also shoots corporate identity campaigns for IBM.
"It was easy to move to Maine because I already had a gallery in New York and an agent in New York," says Peterman. "If you have connections in New York already it's much easier to live up here. I rarely get jobs in New York City and I live ten minutes from the airport."
Scott Peterman still shoots film, so in 2001, he and photographer Tanja Alexia Hollander started the Bakery Photographic Collective, a 600-square-foot facility located in a former commercial bakery building. The Bakery collective is an analog lab with a color processor and four darkrooms supported by twenty members who pay $100 a month each. The collective's popular pre-Christmas print sale raises money to purchase new equipment each year.
One of the disadvantages of doing business in Portland, according to photographers who still shoot film, is that Portland only has one professional color-processing lab. Portland Color evolved through the merger and sale of two photo labs (the first of which opened in 1983 at Peter Macomber's urging), but Portland Color's business has changed dramatically in recent years as a result of the wholesale switch to digital technology in Portland as elsewhere. According to Portland Color owner Andy Graham, his primary business now is printing point-of-purchase signage for retail chains such as EMS and G.H. Bass.
There are more photographers in Portland than ever before but, Graham says, "They're all doing digital capture. We never see them."
Many of the photographers that Andy Graham does see are architectural photographers who still tend to prefer film. Among the photographers who make heavy use of Portland Color is Scott Dorrance, who moved to Portland from New York in 1993. Dorrance is a nationally known photographer who specializes in shooting interiors for clients such as Bloomingdale's and the Formica Corporation.
"I don't really work in Maine," Scott Dorrance explains. "I do a lot of work for Formica. Their agency is in Minneapolis and their headquarters are in Cincinnati, so I either shoot [mostly] in Minneapolis or Cincinnati."
Working out of Portland can be a problem, Dorrance says, especially when it comes to finding assistants and purchasing film and equipment. And if he returns from location with 200 rolls of film to process, he can effectively monopolize Portland Color for a day. But Scott Dorrance insists that the trade-off between quality of life and proximity to clients and suppliers is worth it.
"Anywhere you go — Portland or New York — the business is the same," says Dorrance. "There are way too many vendors for the work that's out there. I can think of half a dozen people who could do a good job for my clients. You just need to look around for people who want you to do their work. When you find them, it's just as easy to do it from Portland."
A version of this article originally appeared in Photo District News.