In 1987 Douglas Merriam was a twenty-seven-year-old account executive with an ulcerated colon and sky-high stress levels at the largest advertising agency in the world when he saw a brochure for the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport. "It changed my life," declares Merriam, today a globetrotting photographer who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "I can't believe I'm making a living as a photographer."
David Lyman, founder of the Maine Photographic Workshops and Rockport College, calls it the transformational experience, the impact that even a single one-week course at the school has on students. Today more than 2,000 aspiring photographers, filmmakers, and cinematographers descend on Rockport every summer, plus hundreds more throughout the year, to attend more than 250 weeklong workshops and semester-long college courses. Thousands of professional photographers in the United States list the Workshops on their resumes, either as students or teachers. The Workshops' impact in Maine ranges from the millions of dollars it brings to the midcoast region every year to the photography collection at the Portland Museum of Art.
Not bad for a business that began on a rejection and a whim.
David Lyman today is a trim sixty-five with a close-cropped beard offsetting a balding head, the doting father of two young children. He was born in Houston, Texas, and grew up in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. He has a staccato speech pattern, the intensity of a motivational speaker, and the faith of a true believer who has kept the Workshops alive and growing for more than thirty years despite his oft-repeated claim to be more interested in founding businesses than running them. Those who know him well say that Lyman can be impatient and doesn't suffer fools gladly, but they also say he brings a total dedication to the enterprise he built from scratch in 1973.
The Workshops story actually begins in 1972, when Lyman attended a one-week photo workshop in Aspen, Colorado, at the Center for the Eye, taught by Robert Gilka, then director of photography for National Geographic magazine. Lyman, who was living in Vermont at the time, had worked as a photographer and editor for several sports magazines, and he presented his portfolio to Gilka with high expectations. "What I was told was that he would never hire me," Lyman recalls. "That wasn't what I went looking for, of course. But it was what I needed."
It was Lyman's own transformational experience, and he wanted to come back for more the next year. But the Center for the Eye closed that autumn. "When I heard that, I told some friends of mine, jokingly, that I'm going to start my own school in Maine," Lyman recalls. "They said, 'That's a great idea.' I said, 'You really think so?' "
Two months later, in January 1973, Lyman was poking around the basement of an ancient brick building in Rockport village. It contained two cars and the remnants of an old cooper's shop. He rented it for the summer for $1,000 and turned it into darkrooms and office space.
Over the years Lyman has quipped that he chose Rockport because he wanted a place where he could moor his boat. But the truth is, Rockport was cheap. "I looked in Camden, and the real-estate agent sent me over here," Lyman explains. "In those days, Rockport was a ghost town, Camden's poor cousin."
And Rockport also had a certain magic. "The combination of the architecture and the small protected harbor, it's picturesque and photographic," Lyman offers. "There's a thing called feng shui. That's what's here. [Rockport is] also small and it's safe, it's not a big city, and that was very important to the future growth [of the Workshops]. I looked at Stonington, Tenants Harbor, Islesboro, and Vinalhaven. I didn't want to be anywhere else. I wanted to be here."
Lyman admits he lost money the first two years and supported his summer avocation with photography and writing in the winters. But by 1975 the Workshops were doing well enough that Lyman bought the building in the village for $6,500, plus a seven-bedroom house for $38,000 to house students. A few years later, the University of Maine at Augusta approached Lyman about a partnership in an associate degree program through the university's satellite site in Thomaston.
"For fifteen years we had a relationship with them," Lyman says. "They taught the humanities and we taught the arts, and they gave the degree. That worked out okay. But they wouldn't grow the program, and they wouldn't move it [to Rockport], which is what I wanted. The people coming in from out of state were looking for a residential college experience, and [the university was] tied to the Thomaston Center, where there was no housing, no social life, no community. We had it here in Rockport. So I found out we could become a college in our own right."
Rockport College now offers an associate's and a Master of Fine Arts degree for about fifty students a year.
the Workshops today still operate much as they did in the 1970s. Students attend intense one-week courses taught by masters in the field, and they leave both exhausted and inspired by what they've learned.
"I took an introduction to a color photography workshop with Kip Brundage," recalls Merriam of his 1987 experience. "By the end of the week, I had solidified my decision to become a photographer. I went back to New York, quit my job, and moved to Maine." Merriam found a job working for the Workshops for several years, ending up as director of operations.
"It was a combination of being around photographers all the time in that beautiful setting of Rockport and talking to professional photographers who made their livings with a camera," says Merriam. "It was the greatest experience in the world. You immersed yourself in photography."
Today Merriam teaches occasionally at the Santa Fe Workshops, founded by Reid Callanan, himself an alumnus of the Maine program as both a student and longtime administrator. "You run into Maine Photographic Workshops people all over the place in this business," Merriam adds.
"The number of fine art photographers who have come out of there is just amazing," adds the well-known portrait photographer George Tice, of New Jersey, who has taught a weeklong master printing class in Rockport each summer since the 1970s. "Sometimes it seems like half the photographers I meet have gone there. You learn something from everyone. I still learn, because the evening lectures by various photographers are so good."
Tice says he values the contact with students, and "among the workshops that still exist, this is the best," he notes. "It offers the greatest variety of courses."
Although photography made the Workshops' reputation, the school today offers a wide range of courses in the visual arts, ranging from cinematography to digital media at a six-building campus in central Rockport. The school includes eighteen darkrooms with more than sixty enlargers, plus three libraries, two galleries, a sound stage and film production center, a dozen classrooms, and a theater.
"We take in about $5 million a year and leave about $3 million right here in town," Lyman notes. "The students themselves drop another $1 million. And every year there's probably a dozen or more houses sold locally to students who come here for workshops and decide to stay in the area."
Ironically, the man who owns it all never graduated from college himself. Lyman says he spent three years in engineering school and another three years in Boston University's broadcast journalism program. "The engineering school trained my mind how to think logically, how to solve problems, how to attack problems," he explains. "A lot of what I learned there is incorporated in what we do now. The only thing I incorporate about my [Boston University] education is we're the opposite. We work intuitively. We don't work intellectually. We built a new paradigm for education that is based on recess."
Lyman says the one-week format has been key to the Workshops' success. "People can afford a week, they can afford the money and the time," he muses. "They have an intense interest in some aspect of the creative process: photography, film-making, cinematography, whatever. They can spend a week to go meet somebody they really respect, a master in the field, and a bunch of other people just like them."
And in that week, Lyman says, many students go through what he calls the transformational experience. "People come with a set of expectations that may or may not be filled," he explains, recalling his own experience in Aspen. "They get more than they expected, not what they expected. People look at their lives and often realize they're doing the wrong thing. I can name you thousands of people who have gone through that transformation. I don't know any other place where that happens. The people who come here are looking for that to happen. They may not know it, but here they get a kick in the pants, a slap in the face. It shakes them up, and all of a sudden shows them themselves.
"We all live in masks and uniforms," he continues. "We're not who we appear to be. Here you have to be. And that's infectious."
The transformation, Lyman adds with a chuckle, often extends beyond the professional. "I would say that every year out of the 2,000 people who come through the summer program, there's a couple of hundred relationships that start," he explains. "People get divorced from who they were with, take off with this new person, and get married and have kids. I know of at least 100 people who have gotten two weddings out of this place."
Today Lyman says he is trying to work himself out of a job. He wants to see Rockport College receive formal accreditation and then pass it on to new managers as a nonprofit, but to do that he has to solve some of the perennial money woes that have plagued the institution from the beginning. "We don't have enough students because we're not accredited," he explains, "and we're not accredited because we don't have enough financial stability, and we don't have enough financial stability because we don't have enough students. It's a Catch-22 and I've been stuck in it for five or six years now."
Once those problems are solved, "I'm out of here," he insists. "I've got books to write. I've got a boat to sail around the world with my family. I've got film scripts to write, documentaries to shoot. I've got a lot of stuff to do. I have this great exit strategy, if I ever get the opportunity to implement it."
The Workshops have already provided exit strategies for many people, including Merriam. "I travel all over the world doing travel photography," he says. "I teach a couple of times a year. Eighteen years later I'm still living a fantasy. All because of the Workshops."