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8/20/2014 2:00:00 PM
Wiscasset Filmmaker Discusses New Documentary

By Jacob Hyatt

Isaac Simpson's photographs often depict Mainers eking out a living on the edge of civilization. (Isaac Simpson photo courtesy Sumner McKane)
Isaac Simpson's photographs often depict Mainers eking out a living on the edge of civilization. (Isaac Simpson photo courtesy Sumner McKane)
Wiscasset filmmaker and musician Sumner McKane's new documentary, "The Maine Frontier: Through the Lens of Isaac Walton Simpson," showcases not only its subject's range of skills, but also the skills of its director, who also conducted the film's interviews and composed the film's hauntingly spare score.

Wiscasset resident Sumner McKane is the director of the new documentary
Wiscasset resident Sumner McKane is the director of the new documentary "The Maine Frontier: Through the Lens of Isaac Walton Simpson." McKane also composed the score for the film. (Photo courtesy Sumner McKane)
The documentary tells the story of Isaac Walton Simpson (1874-1951), a northern Maine native and a man of many trades, who could cut hair, shoe horses, repair tools, and, as McKane says in the documentary, "work with virtually any machinery."

He was a blacksmith, a carpenter, a barber, a town-hall musician, a mechanic who owned his own shop, a husband to his hardworking wife, Effie (1887-1984), and a father of 13 children.

He was also, as the film's scores of black-and-white photographs point out, a singularly gifted photographer, whose pictures are memorable, as McKane notes in the film, for their clarity and their unglamorized "factual representation of Northern Maine."

The Maine frontier - encompassing the northern halves of Piscataquis, Somerset, Penobscot, and Washington counties, as well as all of Aroostook County - thus came to be documented via "the lens of Isaac Walton Simpson."

Simpson was born to David and Mary Ann Simpson, of Amity, Maine, the youngest of six children. He worked with his father in youth and received his first camera at the age of 16.

From then on, he utilized his many cameras to great effect, at times making postcards, entitled Views from the Maine Woods, and selling them for profit, and at other times taking photographs and selling them outright to their subjects.

Taken together, Simpson's photographs chronicle decades worth of northern Maine history, as the railroad and automobile altered labor, as mills like the East Millinocket Mill opened for business, and especially as people eked out a living on the fringe of civilization. Their survival, as the film notes, "not only depended on the land but just as much in the virtue and fortitude of its inhabitants."

McKane, an award-winning filmmaker and musician, became aware of Simpson's story when one of Simpson's granddaughters, who had heard of McKane's previous film, "In the Blood," and who was a friend of McKane's band, approached McKane and told him of her grandfather, who had photographed northern Maine at the turn of the century. McKane was intrigued.

McKane said he wanted to "get Isaac's story into the public view" because it provides a "great look into northern Maine." McKane considers the time period during which Simpson was a photographer to be a "pretty valuable era in Maine's history... [a] big transitionary time."

McKane ultimately produced a fascinating examination of not only a place in time but also a look at the people who lived there.

McKane grew up in Damariscotta, where his father is an electrician. He attended Great Salt Bay Community School and spent two of his high school years at Lincoln Academy before attending the Maine Central Institute.

A "lot of my time [was] spent with friends," he recalled, doing "a lot of musical, [a] lot of band things."

McKane moved away in adulthood but later returned, citing "familiarity and home" as his reasons. McKane, who now lives in Wiscasset, said "I love where I'm from... [it's] what I've grown to love in an environment."

Over his career, McKane has recorded over a dozen collections of his instrumental music, including "Night Blooming Cereus" (2005), the critically acclaimed "What A Great Place to Be" (2008), and the score to "In the Blood."

Since 2001 he has taught guitar and bass at the Buckdancers Choice Music School in Portland, and in 2008 he started Midcoast Guitar School in Wiscasset.

He is currently working on a third film entitled "Running Rum," which is, according to his website, an "historical documentary that tells the story of rum runners and bootleggers in the Northeast between the years of 1851-1933."

McKane was recently awarded the 2014 Maine Arts Commission's Media and Performing Arts Fellowship. With his features, he has an accompanying "docu-exhibit," a live exhibit that features oral histories, films, photography, and live music.

The goal of this, said McKane, is to try "to turn a history lesson into something more entertaining and inspire kids with a medium they can understand." For his effort, McKane was honored with the fellowship.

The docu-exhibit for "The Maine Frontier: Through the Lens of Isaac Walton Simpson" is currently booking and will begin in September, with a first showing at the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft.

For more information about "The Maine Frontier: Through the Lens of Isaac Walton Simpson," McKane's previous films, his music, or his docu-exhibits, visit

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