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Photography Review

Thoreau didn’t photograph Maine, but Scot Miller did

“Birch, East Branch of the Penobscot.”

Scot Miller

“Birch, East Branch of the Penobscot.”

CAMBRIDGE — Henry David Thoreau’s eminent place in American literature and environmentalism (civil disobedience, too) is well known. He figures in American photography, too. The enormous popularity of Eliot Porter’s “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World” (1962) made that book a landmark in photographic history. It combined Porter’s nature photographs with quotations from Thoreau, such as the one that provides the title.

The relationship between Thoreau and the camera continues, with “Thoreau’s Maine Woods: A Journey in Photographs With Scot Miller.” The show, which runs at the Harvard Museum of Natural History through Sept. 1, consists of 33 color photographs and a video inspired by Thoreau’s three trips to Maine and his posthumously published 1864 book, “The Maine Woods.” Most of the images are framed (the unframed ones seem slightly out of place), and many of them are sumptuously beautiful.

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The show also includes several examples of taxidermy (a squirrel, a black bear cub, a raven, a Northern finch, and a white-tailed deer) and one of Thoreau’s snowshoes. Even more winning than the presence of the snowshoe is the inclusion of samples from the 200 plant specimens he brought back from Maine and which Harvard has in its Henry David Thoreau Herbarium.

There are photographs of Mount Katahdin (which Thoreau spelled “Ktaadn”), Chesuncook Lake, the Penobscot River, the Allagash. Miller includes a photograph each of ferns and birch bark, though he seems most at home in landscape. He captures Maine in all seasons, and so pretty are his foliage shots they make one eager for next fall.

Some of the photographic captions consist of just a title. Others include explanatory text from Miller. Still others offer quotations from Thoreau. Miller is clearly passionate about Maine and Thoreau and the environment. But he’s not wedded to any vision of a purely pristine — and thus unreal — natural world. “Maine’s North Woods have not existed in a vacuum since Thoreau’s day,” Miller writes, “and I wanted some of the photographs to reflect that.” There’s the sight of modern-day canoes, as well as a glimpse of the town of Greenville, on Moosehead Lake, and a particularly handsome photograph of gears from an old steam locomotive. Considering Thoreau’s far from enthusiastic view of the railroad (though he did use it to get to Maine), this is quite open-minded on Miller’s part. It’s indicative of a generosity of spirit found throughout these photographs.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

Correction: An earlier version of this review contained an incorrect title for Eliot Porter’s book. The correct title is “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.”

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