In the years following World War II when glossy news magazines — Life, Look, TIME — were in ascendancy, Kosti Ruohomaa was the most widely seen Maine artist in America and, it can be argued, internationally.  

A new biography, “Kosti Ruohomaa: The Photographer Poet,” by Deanna Bonner-Ganter charts his rise from boyhood home on Dodge Mountain, just outside Rockland, to his years with the Disney studios in Los Angeles, to New York and contract assignments with the Black Star photo agency, to his final years back on Dodge Mountain and numerous “photo-essays” centered on rural life in Maine, and finally to his premature death in 1961, doubtless hastened by acute alcoholism.

Bonner-Ganter’s book contains a wealth of painstakingly researched material including interviews with former colleagues, friends, and extended family members, among them relatives who remained in his parents’ native Finland.   Although his father hoped his son would one day take over the family farm on Dodge Mountain, Kosti was encouraged by his mother to pursue a career in art when he showed promise during his final years at Rockland High School. He studied advertising illustration at the Boston School of Practical Art, and after graduation he was hired by a large Boston-based commercial firm, the Forbes Lithographic Manufacturing Company.  In 1937, on what may have been a whim, he entered a national competition for an apprenticeship with the Walt Disney Company. Among a handful of other young artists, Kosti was invited to join the Disney animation studios based in Los Angeles. His winning two-part cartoon depicted Goofy invading Disney’s “outhouse” where the legendary cartoonist was seated at a drafting table.  Assigned to assist with background art for various short and feature-length cartoons, Kosti was also a prize-winning member of the Disney employees’ camera club.

More than just a hobby (since his youth in Rockland), photography increasingly occupied Ruohomaa’s spare time.  Perhaps in response to the exaggerated, stylized world of animation and the youthful energy of his young colleagues — to say nothing of the dazzling southern California light — Kosti reveled in photographic possibilities at a time and place where newness and invention were not just encouraged but essential to the culture. Both “straight” and “set-up” photos of fellow cartoonists evoke humor, drama, and an eye for the absurd. Surrealism had landed on American shores during the latter 1930s, along with an exponential increase in popular consumption and appreciation for photography — still and moving — documenting and confirming the devastating toll of the Great Depression on individuals but also escape and release through stylized Hollywood glamor and excess. Kosti’s photos from this period suggest he understood the varied uses of photography to not only record his surroundings but imbue them with mood and access to personal memory. At the same time, his sophisticated images of landscape, water towers and film noir portraits reveal an artistic awareness of contemporary photography and the work of such figures as Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier Bresson, among others. In any case, California seems to have trained his eye, refined his aesthetic sensibility, and set his future career, not as a studio draftsman, but as an independent photographer.

Rejected by the Navy for active duty, Ruohomaa returned to the East Coast during the latter years of World War II to work on training films for the Army Signal Corps. In 1944 he began his lifelong association with the Black Star Publishing Company and published his first Life magazine photos. For the remaining years of his life Ruohomaa worked, for the most part, as a contract and freelance photographer primarily for Time, Life (including various foreign language editions), Fortune, Artforum, House and Home, Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and an eclectic list of assignments from a Bowdoin College graduation (1944) to the crash of a Northwest Airlines flight off Vashon Island near Seattle, Washington. His photographs were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s groundbreaking exhibition in 1951, curated by Edward Steichen, “The Family of Man,” as well as in an exhibition organized by Metropolitan Museum of Art Director James J. Rorimer for the 1965 New York World’s Fair.  During the Cold War his work traveled to Finland through the U.S. Information Agency and later in a retrospective exhibition organized by Deanna Bonner-Ganter to the Porin (Finland) Taidemuseo in 1998. A large body of Ruohomaa’s work was donated to the Farnsworth Museum in 1978 by James Moore, a longtime friend of the artist. His work is also included in the permanent collections of George Eastman House, Rochester, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Portland Museum of Art (Maine), among other institutions.

Even as Bonner-Ganter’s biography begins the process, Kosti Ruohomaa’s place in the history of art and photo journalism remains to be firmly established. A “loner” and a fiercely independent soul, he was often criticized during his lifetime and after for “setting up” or staging photos for the sake of preconceived narratives and clichéd stere types (though in fairness, Depression-era deprivation lasted longer in rural Maine than in most other parts of the country). Kosti’s work has never been critically and closely examined in the context of post-War American photography. His “poetic” use of black and white, sometimes softly focused and darkly enigmatic, looks back to early 20th-century Photo Pictorialism and the work of such pioneers as Clarence White, Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz. His virtually unknown early color photographs resonate with W. Eugene Smith and pre-date other early color “art” photographers including William Eggleston. Certain self-portraits and images of rural and urban life in America reflect the malaise and mystery suffusing the paintings of such near contemporaries as Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth (who was a close friend). Ruohomaa anticipated the self-conscious, “manipulated” images found in “Pictures Generation” artists including Cindy Sherman and other “pre- and post-production” conceptual photographers like John Baldessari, William Wegman, Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall. 

Standing at the midpoint of the 20th century, from a Janus-like stance looking backward and forward simultaneously, Ruohomaa is among the least known and under-examined major artists of a pivotal moment in the history of American photography. Bonner-Ganter’s book is a welcome, important introduction to the photographer’s work and life, a valuable and well-considered first step in revealing Kosti’s too little known legacy.

An exhibition of Ruohomaa’s work, organized by Bonner-Ganter, is currently on view at the Maine State Museum in Augusta, through July 16.