Allen Island and Nature Now

Samuel Xue ’25

In the fall of 2023, Professor Gary Green developed the course Nature Now, which he subsequently taught on Allen Island. The course was an experiment as an alternative way to teach beginning photography. The idea was to spend a little time in a somewhat confined place—an island—with a defined subject, nature as we see it now. In preparation, students learned to use their cameras as he worked with them in the classroom and on a class walk through Colby’s arboretum.

We developed the film, clarified and corrected mistakes, and talked about nature, landscape, and how it has figured into the history of photography. Throughout the semester students developed their “archive” of material from two overnight trips to the island (one early day trip was canceled due to rough seas).

From the syllabus: “Since its invention, photography has been central to the activities of travel and exploration. Employed during early twentieth-century expeditions to the American West, this new medium, and its then-believed cultural currency as a truthful witness, made the camera an indispensable tool in defining the frontier, showing the results of war, and generally otherwise describing our world in ways personal and technical.” We looked at the rich visual legacy of Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins and the beginning of the conservation movement through the work of Ansel Adams and, in the 1970s, Robert Adams and others. And we looked at a good handful of contemporary photographers who address the topic of nature now in their work. Reading and viewing assignments were flanked by research into potential sites and methods for students to take on their projects.

Rebecca Sun ’25

A critical aspect of the excursion to Allen Island was the fact that it allowed Gary to work with students in the field. During the student’s days of photographing, they stayed on track in terms of the technical aspects of photography such as exposure, focus, and framing. In addition, because this was dedicated time for their work, they had solid days to photograph in a concentrated way rather than working during the bits and pieces of time found during busy days on campus. For most of the two visits the student’s made to the island, the weather was absolutely perfect. Although the unrelenting sunlight made for high contrast results with film, students learned to correct for that in their developing and printing techniques to create some stunning results with sparkling sunlight and brilliant photographic highlights.

Getting off campus, off the mainland completely, and spending two days and one night on a fairly remote island, was central to the overall experience. The student’s made meals and ate together. They looked at the art books in one house and talked about the wildlife they had seen photographing on their own in the woods. After lunches, a few would take time to relax in the Adirondack chairs looking out to sea before heading off for an afternoon of photographing. “I believe this course ultimately gave them a glimpse into the experience of a practicing artist and all that means”, says Gary Green. When it got dark at night, it got dark. The stars shone over the ocean as the students went to sleep in a community of less than 15 people. Most of them, if not all, saw at least one sunrise and one sunset. Anyone who has been on a Maine island knows the transcendent experience of these phenomena. When the students left the island, they were all drained and tired, but in that satisfied kind of way. They did the best work they could for two days and could now head back home to campus and enjoy the rest of their weekend.