It was on his way down from the summit that Brunswick photographer Howard Search got his view. In true Mainer fashion—in true Maine photographer’s fashion—he had ascended
Pemaquid Lighthouse in Bristol, hoping to get a shot or two from the top.
That was the first mistake: planning the scene.
“My pictures are not pre-planned,” he said, “They happen. I may be looking for something but something else finds me.”
Something found him as he descended the staircase. It nearly slipped by him, but he stopped, backed up three steps, and looked out the window.
“It was a miserably bleak day,” he recalled. “But then there was this one little bit of color out the window.”
According to Search, this elusive moment of inspiration “happens with uncanny frequency.”
“There’s some other force at play here,” he said, “A subject has to pull me in. I’m not sure if I can quantify that for you. It’s that ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ feeling. There’s something that brings in an emotion, tells a story, it’s as if what I’m looking at is communicating with me.”
In this case, the product of that exchange between artist and subject takes form as an arrangement of negotiating pulls between light and shadow. The contrast between the dark interior and bright windowpane is stark, and even as the geometry of the window frames the scene outside, the bright white of ocean and the multicolored foliage still manage to pervade the dark with striking clarity. There’s a drama here that Search could not have found from the lighthouse’s summit.
But that is his style: ceaseless travel interrupted by fits of inspired art-making.
Search grew up just outside of New York City and began photographing as a teenager. His penchant for coastal landscape and want of artistic training lead him to Maine. In the early ’80s he worked under David Lyman at the Maine Media Workshop in Rockport. Search credits this education as jumpstarting his professional work.
“I was exposed to a whole different level of photography,” he said. “It was like my visualization and appreciation for photography and the process took a quantum leap.”
Search began his work in film. He was hesitant to switch to digital, but as camera models advanced he became increasingly comfortable with the technology.
“Once the technology caught up with the creative process, I was hooked,” he said.
Search now works exclusively in digital media, but his technique is as diligent as ever.
“I don’t go out there and rapid fire ‘shoot and burn,’” he explained. “I still usually set up my camera on a tripod, choose the aperture, choose the f-stop. The process itself has not changed, it’s just the tools I’m working with.”
Search is patient and thoughtful, but he is always prepared so that he can act on impulse.
“Wherever I go, I make sure camera and tripod are in the car,” he said. “I stay loose that way.”
Search has traveled extensively, finding his shots in canyons and old, abandoned buildings along the way, but some places compel him to take out the camera more often than others. After living in Vermont for 30 years, Search was pulled back to the Maine coast, to Brunswick, in 2011.
“I kept gravitating back to Maine,” he said. “Maine is the place. The islands and the water…That’s why you’ve got so many artists here.”
Maine’s historic identity as an artists’ colony is essential inspiration for Search.
“I love to be around other artists, whether they are sculptors, painters, musicians, whatever. It’s all the same game. I think we all feed off of the same kind of energy,” he said.
Search considers his own working process to be similar to the steps a painter would take in mapping out a canvas. Every step in the process is important to him: composition, perspective, light and color.
“I think I look at my subject matter with those same parameters,” he said. “I get a lot from talking to other painters. And I’ve been told I have a painterly quality.”
Search expressed how, like all artists, the solitary nature of his work leaves him thirsty for feedback.
“Years ago I could retreat into the dark room, close the door, listen to music and think. I need to concentrate and I need that alone time,” he said. “But when it comes to the exhibits when I have people milling around, that’s when I’m perfectly happy.”
Search thrives on exhibiting his work. He shows regularly at the Second Friday Art Walk in Brunswick, and he has also exhibited at the Cumberland Club and the Salt Exchange restaurants in Portland, and the Chocolate Church Arts Center in Bath. He is currently in negotiations to hold an exhibit at Brunswick’s Tao Yun restaurant.
“I love it when other people love my work. It’s like applause to a musician,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in theater, so I like being on stage. This is just another form of that.”
Search is able to keep the Brunswick community applauding in part because of the constant call to photograph that the Midcoast Maine landscape inspires. Whether he is descending a narrow staircase or speeding down a paved road, he happily compiles when the impulse strikes, when a subject pulls him in.
“One day I was coming down Harspwell Road, flying past Harpswell Sound. I’ve been out there maybe fifty times. But that day I hit the breaks, set up a tripod and took a picture. Because that day, that tide, that sky, that light…It was something I’d never seen before,” he said.
“That’s the nice thing about landscape, you get a new subject every time you look at it. It changes minute to minute.”