Kosti Ruohomaa Collection

45,000 Image Archive by Maine’s Iconic Photographer Kosti Ruohomaa

Kosti Project Update

It was five years ago that we formally started digitizing the master collection of Kosti Ruohomaa’s photographs. That process is winding down, as our contract photographer snaps her way through the final boxes of film negatives (best practice for digitizing photos is to photograph them with a high-resolution digital camera). As of today, our digital archive of his work includes almost 42,000 images.

This pile includes a lot of rubble, which is inevitable when dealing with an entire body of work; anyone who uses a camera makes a lot of mediocre to lousy pictures for every one that’s a jewel. The ratio is a lot better for a seasoned shooter, and we’ve taken pains to publish only the best of Ruohomaa’s images.

Making this selection has set the stage for the other critical task in preserving photos: description. Our catalogers will be hard at work for many months after the last image has been captured. Everything that’s known or ought to be said to give the photos context is recorded in our collections database: when, where, who, what, how, and why. Ideally, this context will give viewers now and for many decades to come a clear understanding of how this photographer worked and what was important to him. It will also explain the physical characteristics of the photos and how we translated them into digital format. Most importantly, description will make it easier for people to discover this trove and to sift through it.

A Brief Glimpse of Ruohomaa’s Life and Work.

Kosti Ruohomaa can best be described as a photo essayist. He was not primarily a news reporter. He was in his element meeting and learning about people in the midst of their work or leisure: fishermen, farmers, artists, families, loggers, factory workers, festival goers, hunters, teachers, preachers, students of all ages, schoolkids and kids at play.  He was also captivated by setting itself, landscapes shaped and filtered by the elements. Most importantly, the man was steeped in Maine culture through his upbringing here, and in the poetry of his pictures, he characterized the Maine spirit more truly and originally than any other photographer of his generation.

In March of this year, we lost a major benefactor of this collection when our friend Linda Bean passed away at the age of 82. She and her sister Diana gave large gifts to fund the project. It was also fueled by significant awards from the Andrew Wyeth Foundation and Mildred McEvoy Foundation.

Later this year, we’ll mark the end of the Kosti project with a more in-depth exploration of the artist and the work he did for Black Star, the Manhattan agency that fostered Ruohomaa’s talent and channeled his efforts. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to feature highlights from the Kosti collection every few months.

Kosti’s Story

As the only child of Finnish immigrant farmers during the early decades of the twentieth century, Kosti Ruohomaa was bred to a life of hard work in the outdoors with crops and livestock. Throughout his adolescence, the family owned and operated a blueberry farm on Dodge Mountain in Rockland, Maine. Not surprisingly, he grew up surrounded by a community of people with strong hands and resilient hides, where common sense and dry wit were prized. Despite his father’s wish that he commit himself to the family enterprise, Ruohomaa pursued a burgeoning interest in the humanities as a teenager. This led him to art school, an early position as an effects illustrator with Disney, and then to contract work as a photojournalist with the ascending Black Star Agency in Manhattan.

The ad hoc mentorship to Black Star veterans ripened his innate gift as an artist. He quickly became an asset to the Agency, and his photographs started to appear everywhere in glossy magazines. This led to greater professional freedom for Ruohomaa, who followed his affinity back around to the poetry of the plain and the rugged: wild landscapes, farmers, fishermen, loggers, rural schoolchildren, farm animals, factory workers. His idiom revealed the mystery, elegance, and humor of the ordinary subjects he preferred. His travels increasingly led him back to his roots, and he never seemed to grow tired of interpreting these with his camera. He continued to take photographs until his death in 1961.

Our Project

Black Star donated Ruohomaa’s archived work to Penobscot Marine Museum in 2017. The collection includes over 45,000 images on various film formats, along with numerous photographer’s notes. Using professional equipment and drawing on the combined expertise of a small, dedicated team, PMM is creating high resolution digital images of the photographs and describing them in a collections database. This will allow us to share Ruohomaa’s vision with the world. Few of his photographs have been seen by the public since his death. Most of the images never appeared in print. To those who know nothing of his work, and to those already familiar with his unmistakable style, we’re privileged to offer a captivating and important visual resource. Please check back with this site periodically to keep tabs on our progress.


PMM is grateful to Black Star Publishing for donating Ruohomaa’s archive here, thereby returning Kosti to Maine. Linda and Diana Bean have our gratitude and friendship for their generous financial contribution to the project. We warmly thank the Mildred H. McEvoy Foundation and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art for their generous grant support.