In 1900, Capt. Lincoln A. Colcord of Searsport, Maine, stands at the taffrail of the 216-foot State of Maine off the Cape of Good Hope. The taffrail log (the ship’s speedometer) is spinning fast, and Colcord’s pride is evident as he drives his ship hard across the giant waves. The square rigger had been built at the Haggard yard in Newcastle, Maine, in 1878 and was in transit to Hong Kong to deliver a load of kerosene. Colcord had married Jane French Sweetser, the daughter of another Searsport captain, in 1881 and delivered their children, Joanna and Lincoln, at sea. The photograph was taken by 18-year-old Joanna using glass plate technology. A female photographer was a rare thing at the time, and it was no small feat to take an action shot on the swaying deck of a tall ship with the slow, cumbersome photo equipment of that era. The Colcord photo is widely considered an iconic image, but not by the captain’s wife. She hated it because her husband wasn’t wearing his teeth.
In the mid-19th century, Searsport, Maine, had a population of 2,500 people that supported at least 13 shipyards and supplied 10 percent of the nation’s deep-water captains.
In the 1800s, Searsport’s captains commanded some of the world’s largest sailing vessels, but by the 1930s the sailing era was over. Aware that the town’s maritime past was about to be lost, in 1936, descendants of the town’s sea captains founded the Penobscot Marine Museum (PMM).
From the beginning, photos were part of the museum collection—mostly prints, cabinet cards and family albums—but eventually entire sets of negatives were donated. One of those collections was shot by Joanna Carver Colcord. Joanna was born in 1882 to Jane French Sweetser Colcord and Capt. Lincoln Alden Colcord in the South Pacific aboard the bark Charlotte A. Littlefield while en route from Australia to Japan. Joanna’s brother, Lincoln, was born the next year while the ship rounded Cape Horn in a storm. Both were schooled aboard by their mother while they traveled to the Far East. It is believed Joanna learned to take photographs from her uncle, Frederick Ross Sweetser, an early adopter of glass plate technology, whose photographs are also part of the museum’s collection and whose house is now part of the museum’s campus.
Joanna died in 1960, but in 2001 her niece donated Joanna’s 700 glass plate negatives. Her photos show tall ships at sea and in port, life aboard, and intimate portraits of the local people and their junk-rigged sampans, which serviced the ships in foreign ports.
“She and Ruth were remarkable,” PMM photo archivist Kevin Johnson says about Colcord and one of her contemporaries, Ruth Montgomery, who sailed from Boothbay to South America aboard her father’s ships. “The equipment they were using was rudimentary. They were using a glass plate camera on a moving vessel. And they saw these unbelievable things from these very different worlds.”
Johnson and Matt Wheeler, the digital collections curator, oversee a small, dedicated crew of volunteers who help them scan, caption, catalogue and publish the photo collection online. It is no small chore, especially since they are aggressively expanding the museum’s photo collection by locating forgotten treasures.
One of those treasures is the work of Kosti Ruohomaa, whose photos of the sardine industry in the 1950s caught Johnson’s eye while he was going through the museum’s Maine Sardine Council photo collection. Johnson learned that Ruohomaa had shot for Life and other major magazines. The photographer died in 1961 at age 46, but Johnson contacted Ruohomaa’s New York photo agency, Black Star, and asked for access to the negatives, which were in a storage facility in Fort Lee, New Jersey. “His life’s work was locked away and nobody had access to it,” Johnson says. “They said, ‘come and get them.’ So, I drove a van down there. It will add 20,000 images to the collection.”
But as the archive grows, it brings new challenges. It costs time and money to scan everything, and some collections must be purchased. Johnson relies on donors to buy important images before they are lost. Sometimes it’s also a race against time as negatives begin to deteriorate, or the photographers who took the photos near the end of their lives, potentially taking valuable caption information to their graves.
Johnson is currently working with Martin Bartlett, who worked out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and in the 1950s and 1960s took photos when a lot of seining and longlining research was being done on swordfish and tuna. Johnson found Bartlett in nearby Searsmont, and a couple of days later Bartlett showed up at the museum with boxes of photos. “Marty is amazing,” Johnson says. “In 1960, he shot Super 8 footage of swordfishing and tuna fishing that is incredible. He comes in once a week. He’s 89, but he wants to get all his stuff down.”
The museum now has about 120,000 photos online, but they have at least another 200,000 to be scanned. “We put our first images online in 2010 and have been adding to it ever since,” Johnson says. Ordinarily, the archives are open to the public, but the pandemic has put a stop to that as well, which makes the online access even more important. The digitization of the original negatives, especially the larger negatives, is bringing out details in the photographs that have never been seen before.
Wheeler is fascinated by that phenomenon. “When they took a 5-by-7 negative and made a contact print for a 5-by-7 postcard, nobody was privy to the detail,” he says. “There’s an image of Stonington Harbor that was shot in 1915 or 1916. In the postcard you only see a panorama, but when you scan it in and blow it up, you see kids pointing toy guns at the camera.
“Now that we digitize photos,” Wheeler says, “there’s a whole world in there that people back then couldn’t see.”
This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.