Tim Whelan

PROFILE-October 2010
By Will Bleakley
Photographs by Cig Harvey

When Tim Whelan stands behind the register of his Rockport store, he is framed by two photographic prints—of Che Guevara and the Blues Brothers—that hover over his shoulder like manifestations of conscience and temptation. After spending some time in Whelan’s store, you begin to see the world through the photographer’s lens. With Norman Mauskopf prints adorning the walls, famous photographers such as Paul Caponigro hanging out on the front steps, and Whelan’s eagerness to change your view of the world through photography, the artistic spirit emanating from this tiny space is infectious.


Whelan is fifty-six years old and as ebullient as his rainbow-checkered shirt and red pants suggest. “I’ll miss this place,” he says, referring to his store. “And I think other people will too. But it’s…I don’t know.” The seemingly permanent smile on his face disappears for a moment, then he shrugs off whatever thought was forming as a young woman enters the store.

Her name is Sophie. She’s a former student of the Maine Media Workshops and has been coming to Whelan’s store since she was a teenager. Sophie, like so many students from the Workshops, entered his store for a class project, but left with a mentor, guru, and friend. She once waited in line for hours to have a book signed and personally inscribed for Whelan by one of his heroes, John Szarkowski (former director of photography at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art). This is the kind of relationship that Whelan has with his customers, especially students from the Workshops, and why the store’s absence will be felt well beyond the town limits of Rockport, where it has operated since 1993.

He’s happy to see Sophie, but her presence has clearly unnerved him. She proudly tells him about a photo she got published in Aperture. Having seen her photography mature over years, Whelan responds with fatherly enthusiasm. This only makes it harder for him to break the news. He wants to tell her that he’s closing the store, but doesn’t know how. “Are you going to get that Aperture in?” she asks, hoping one of her prints will grace the store that houses so many of her own influences. “You’re not going to like what I’m about to tell you,” he says while opening the cash register and gathering change. “I’m closing the store.” Her heart, as well as Whelan’s, clearly sinks in that moment.

Tim Whelan’s store is the first thing you see when crossing the bridge into Rockport. Yet despite its storied reputation and prominent location, it hardly stands out. The red-striped awning feels like it belongs to a barber shop, and the black-and-white sign, barely visible from the road, has been rendered almost indecipherable by years of hard weather and wear. It’s a plain, simple sign, though it serves the store well: Timothy Whelan Photography: Fine Photographic Prints & Books. It will remain here for only a few more weeks.

Although the store is no bigger than a mid-sized U-Haul truck, several patrons have laid claim to the space in various ways. A student huddles on the floor, so deeply immersed in a book of canine photography by Elliott Erwitt titled Son of Bitch that he pays no heed to the grass-stained Nikes of a passerby that graze the tip of his baseball hat. Two elderly men lean against the counter in a manner reminiscent of the Fonz at Al’s Diner, while a black cocker spaniel nestles herself below prints of Ted Orland in the space between the poster rack and the floor. No one seems inclined to move, but they will have to when the store closes permanently on October 3rd.

Today, it feels like the entire history of Whelan’s store is being crowded into this one visit. Freshmen students, eager for Whelan’s guidance, filter in and out. Alumni come in to talk about their newly attained success, and giants in the photography world chat on the bench outside.

The store, for much of its lifespan, including today, has served as a hangout for photographers Paul Caponigro, Craig Stevens, and Jim Hughes. “I just shake my head when these guys hang out here at the same time,” Whelan says. “It’s like jazz musicians—you have to know their work to really appreciate how special this type of thing is.” While those three laugh on the front bench, a middle-aged student walks in with a camera around his neck. “I’m taking a night and low-light photography class, and I’m looking for a book to inspire me,” he says matter-of-factly. Tim knows just the book, and gets it for him. In these subtle moments, the extraordinary duality of the business is revealed as a haven for the established and a breeding ground for the next generation.

Whelan’s love of photography began at age twelve when he took a vacation with his mother to Yosemite National Park. While there, they happened upon a gallery owned by Ansel Adams. “I looked at the photos, and one called Clearing Winter Storm captivated me.” Whelan, rarely at a loss for words when describing the appeal of a print, still can’t formulate what drew him to this particular photo. “It was only $25, Adams was still relatively unknown, but the clarity of it… I don’t really know, but for some reason
I loved it.”

Whereas most other twelve-year-olds would have picked a photo better suited for a bubbly lettered “Welcome to
Yosemite” postcard, Whelan saw art. He saw the terrifying and beautiful American  landscape,  and for the first time he viewed the world in layers.

Before going off to college and majoring in photography, Whelan took a pilgrimage to
meet the person who ignited his passion. He got on his bike and rode more than 2,600 miles from his hometown of Canton, Ohio, to Ansel Adams’s home in Carmel, California. “Every Friday afternoon, he’d open his house, cook a meal, and anybody could stop and see him,” Whelan says, still awed by the great photographer’s generosity.

“Photography became profound for me,” says Whelan. The connection with Adams’s work led him to a deep knowledge and respect for the history of the medium. “Daguerre really showed people what they look like. Frith and Talbot showed people worlds that they’d never seen before. And people like Minor White and Paul Caponigro showed us a different way to see the world in front of us.”

Yet Whelan wasn’t born to view the infinite, layered world through a camera lens. “My dad wanted me to learn his business making cans,” Whelan says. He tried, but found no interest in the family business, and instead went to Rockport to take part in the excitement surrounding the beginning of the Maine Media Workshops. Whelan became attached to the institution, and worked there for years, doing any job he could from driving the vans to being an assistant teacher.

Then, he met a girl.

After meeting Lisa, his future wife, every move of Whelan’s became an extension of his love for her. “We were a Workshops romance. She worked in the library at school, and I always say that I never had an interest in photo books before that. I was crazy about her.” Since then, he has never left his books or Lisa’s side. “She went to work for a photographer in Santa Fe, so I followed.”

After a two-year stint in New Mexico, the couple returned to Rockport. “I was just trying to make a living in Maine,” Whelan says. Figuring he could do better selling rather than taking photos he found retail space for rent in town, with a view of the harbor, and opened up a photography bookstore. “The dream was to share photography with people, and books are a great medium to do that,” he says.

Despite being in a small, seasonal town of only a few thousand people that is located well away from any major urban center, the store flourished and produced unexpected results for its owner. “It turned out better than I could have imagined. No matter what you do, if you’re able to do it for that long, you develop friendships and get to see these people, like Sophie, come back. It was never a way to get rich, but it was a way to do what I loved and make a comfortable living. It was a way to live in Maine.”

The store quickly became a meetinghouse for Maine’s photographic community. “I think that one of the reasons the store worked for eighteen years is that if you’re a photographer, you’re kind of different and work in a vacuum,” Whelan says. “We rarely run into each other. However, for years this was the place where these photographers felt at home. It’s filled with stuff most people on earth don’t care for and aren’t interested in. But we had a passion for it.”

The store would not have been possible without the presence of the Workshops just down the street. The Workshops consist primarily of one- or two-week courses in photography and videography for students of all ages and skill levels. Photographers travel from around the country, many of them with stellar reputations, to teach at the Maine Media Workshops. Nearly all bring their classes through Whelan’s store.

These two organisms have fed off each other, creating a symbiotic photographic ecosystem. Charles Altschul, president of the Workshops, knows this better than anyone. “He’s been an enormous asset to this school,” Altschul tells me from the institution’s photo gallery. “He knows more about photography books than anyone in Maine. He shows students books and gives historical lectures. It would be such a huge loss to the school for him to go.”

Cig Harvey, a photographer who has received international recognition for her work (in addition to being Maine magazine’s cover photographer), got her start at the Workshops in 1999. She developed a strong relationship with Whelan during that time and credits him with aiding her success. “He helped shape my career and gave me advice about the industry,” she says. Harvey now occasionally teaches at the Workshops, and always brings her class to Whelan in the hope that he’ll provide them with similar inspiration. “He’s a wonderfully generous soul,” she says. “He’s always giving advice to anyone from beginner to master, and he’s great for students who can’t afford books because they could just hang out and learn from him. You feel welcome right away in his store.”

The store still makes a profit, but it’s the lack of traffic that’s forcing Whelan’s hand. What he enjoys most is the hustle and bustle, the ever-revolving cast of old and new faces. “I’d rather not close the store,” he says. But now that business has slowed, he’s ready to move on.

Still, there remains a good chance for a reincarnation of Whelan’s store. Whelan and Altschul have, in principle, agreed on creating a permanent presence in the new gallery at the Workshops. “I want to find a way to bring him here,” Altschul says. “We could have a selection of his books, and he’d be able to keep up his business part-time, without having to upkeep the shop.” Whelan is open to the idea and would like to see his books have a home with the Workshops for students to enjoy, though nothing has been formally worked out.

Looking around the store, it’s oddly busy on this Tuesday in August. In just over an hour, Whelan has sold at least $400 worth of books. “If it was always like this I’d never leave,” he says laughing. Three separate communities of photographers, students, and Rockport residents are crowding eighteen years’ worth of memories into each visit. Everyone wants to pretend it’s business as usual, but the sense of denial from Whelan’s patrons is palpable.

Whelan is ready to acknowledge, and even celebrate, the end. “I feel so damn lucky. When I first moved to this spot, the rent was a lot more than it was up on the hill. My wife said to me, ‘Well, what’s the worst that can happen? You have a great ocean view for a year,’ which I thought was what it might be. However, I made a good living. I had a great time.”

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