The Wiscasset Public Library opens a six-week-long exhibit of the works of photographer, photojournalist and filmmaker Ray Witlin in its upstairs art room. It begins on Wednesday, Feb. 20 with an illustrated talk by his widow, author Phyllis Chinlund, at 5 p.m. about Witlin’s photojournalism.
Witlin's life and career were defined by a quest to create his personal brand of photojournalism, a quest that ultimately led him on a multi-media exploration of 55 countries. Hence the title of the show “Ray Witlin: A Quest for Photojournalism.”
His works appeared in numerous venues over the years, including Life Magazine, Newsweek, and United Nations publications. Witlin died in 2002 at the age of 82.
In an interview, Chinlund explained “… the photographs in the exhibition are among those Ray himself selected for printing. They illustrate his passion for exploring other cultures and his perennial wish that he could stay longer and look deeper.”
Witlin began his career as a graphic artist in New York City. When he moved into still photography he set out for South America, where he lived in Bogota, Columbia for 15 years. His work for Black Star, a photo agency in New York, and several commercial sponsors, eventually took him to all the countries in Central and South America. His taste for exploring with a camera was established.
During the 1960’s, back in New York City, Witlin branched into documentaries, making a number of prize-winning films, including “Light in the West: Photography of the American Frontier.”
But by 1980, Chinlund said, his strong interest in life outside the U.S led him back to still photography and foreign travel. Picking up assignments from the World Bank, the Ford Foundation, and the United Nations, he explored many countries around the world. His photos and essays appeared in numerous publications for these organizations, as well as a major exhibition at the United Nations of his work on river blindness. Chinlund said the head of photography for the United Nations referred to Ray as “our man in Africa.”
While on assignment, Chinlund said, he always looked for chances to shoot photos “for himself,” usually of people whose beauty or vulnerability struck his emotions.
Chinlund has written a moving memoir about the last years of her husband’s life when he was afflicted with Alzheimer’s and moved from Manhattan to Maine. The book, “Looking Back from the Gate: A Story of Love, Art and Dementia,” as well as some of Witlin's photographs, will be for sale at the library.
Until the end of his life Witlin carried his camera with him everywhere he went. “He’s forever with his head in the underbrush, shooting what appear to be ordinary shrubs. If we go somewhere and he can’t shoot for some reason, he feels he’s wasting his time,” Chinlund wrote in her memoir.
If you cannot make it to the talk, please visit the Art Room upstairs at the Wiscasset Public Library, at 21 High Street, to view Witlin’s photographs on display through the end of March.