Maggie Foskett (American 1919–2014), with much information provided by her son and daughters, Kenneth Foskett, Kate O’Neill, and Lynn Pierson.
Maggie Foskett was a pioneer, both as a photographer and as a woman. She was my dear friend and confidant. She nurtured all of her fellow artists and collected their work, often donating it to Maine museums. Maggie’s generosity and glee about life inspired all who knew her. She was indeed forever young in spirit, right up to her last breath at the age of 95.
Maggie was born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1919. Her mother and father had relocated there from the U.S. in order to run the family cattle ranching business. Her childhood focused on exploring the natural world of South America. She delighted in the lushness of the plants and the beauty of the wildlife. Out of that timeless time of childhood, grew a deep respect for Mother Nature.
In 1939 (as World War II was breaking out in Europe), Maggie left Brazil to attend Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. The school remained an important touchstone throughout her life, and she credited the faculty there for instilling in her the belief that as a woman she could pursue her own personal interests and not necessarily adopt the expected traditional feminine roles. She did marry and raise a family, divorcing her husband (whom she said was a terrible male chauvinist). She remarried in 1962 to John Foskett, who championed Maggie’s artistic creative journey, as she set up her stained glass studio in their basement. She discovered the immense pleasure that colored light gives as it passes through the colored glass, but because of the danger of the lead fumes and the fire from the soldering, Maggie decided she’d better try something else.
She was 57 when she enrolled in a community college’s photography class where she began shooting black and white film. She had wonderful opportunities to study with many of the best American photographers, including Ansel Adams, Sam Abell, Marie Cosindas, Ernst Haas, and Jerry Uelsmann. I’m not sure how she discovered color photography, but she became enthralled by the brilliant colors made possible by the Cibachrome process. She soon was working exclusively in color, even though the Cibachrome medium had not yet been embraced by critics as a legitimate photographic art form alongside black and white photography. She showed her work in Illinois, as well as in Sanibel, Florida, where she and John spent the winters.
In 1984, the Fosketts moved from Illinois to Camden, Maine, and Maggie’s career blossomed when she found the community of artists associated with the Maine Photographic Workshops in the nearby town of Rockport. She continued to photograph Florida’s flora and fauna, always at close range, and developed the images into 18-by-24-inch Cibachrome prints, magnifying small objects into larger than life works of art. Her first show at the Caldbeck Gallery was in 1989. It filled the gallery space with an intense energy. I clearly remember looking at a Cibachrome image of a fish eye, probably a Florida fish, as the colors were vivid—that huge eye surrounded by colors that vibrated, colors that literally woke me up! Her gifted use of the spectrum of light moved me physically, not just emotionally. Somehow I had never thought about that before. The vibration of light’s energy was her medium!
One day, while working in her Florida darkroom, she turned on her enlarger and saw the translucent outline of a spider magnified on the photographic paper below. The spider had crawled up into the enlarger’s “head”; its actual being was being projected onto the paper easel below. Maggie’s acute mind went to work. She took two four-by-four-inch clear glass plates and placed a few pieces of leaves and petals inside, fashioning a kind of glass sandwich with an organic filling. This went up into the color enlarger’s head and the light passed through the glass sandwich, through the magnifying lenses, and the leaves and petals appeared fully magnified onto the Cibachrome paper below. Revealed were intricate details and variations of color otherwise unseen by the naked eye. The idea of unmasking the hidden beauty and mysteries of nature fascinated her and she found no end to the varieties of materials. In dragonfly wings, she found honeycombs. In plant stamen, she found snowfalls of pollen. In flower petals, she found rainbows of color. She discovered that even rocks, cut thinly, could be shot through with the bright light of her enlarger to create extraterrestrial landscapes.
“I’m a rag picker of small cosmologies in nature,”
she would come to say.
This technique of projecting actual objects on to light-sensitive paper has been around since 1835, when William Fox Talbot experimented with drawing on glass to make a direct reproduction on light sensitized paper. The French artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was fascinated by this technique and called it cliché verre (stereotype glass). Maggie gave up shooting film altogether. She adopted the term cliché verre for what she was doing, referring to the direct relationship between projected light and photo sensitive paper. From C.R.O.W., the wildlife rehabilitation center on Sanibel Island, she would get numerous x-ray films of injured birds and animals, and with those she composed images that superimposed natural objects onto the skeletal traces revealed on the x-rays. She experimented with human x-rays, too, usually her own. One of her most memorable images shows blades of grass layered over an x-ray of her thigh, with the caption, “and then my bones will hold the seeds of summer grass.” Her mammograms became fuel for the fire as well. Her work carries layers of meaning, however you want to see it.
Maggie exhibited at galleries and museums throughout the East Coast, and her works are included in the permanent collections of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., and in the Farnsworth Museum of Art in Rockland, Maine. She made trips to Washington, D.C., and met with curators there. She had more than 25 solo shows over her lifetime and in 2000, she was included in Photographing Maine 1840–2000, a published compendium of Maine’s most significant photographers. In 2013, she was included in Maine Women Pioneers III, a collection of Maine’s notable women artists. “A sensitive and exacting observer, Maggie Foskett reveals nature’s incredible variety in new and surprising ways, as she penetrates the internal structure of birds, plants, insects and reptiles,” the National Academy of Sciences’ curator wrote of the artist’s 1998 exhibit there.
Darkroom work requires hours and hours of standing at the easel, and with Cibachrome, you have to work entirely in the dark, figuring out ways to feel with your hands where everything is. In her mid-eighties, Maggie surrendered to the physical challenges of darkroom work. it was getting more and more impossible to get the chemistry for the developer baths and so forth, Maggie gave up her cliché verre and her darkroom. But she didn’t stop working.
In the last decade of her life, she and her Florida neighbor raised Zebra Longwing butterflies in their screened-in porches, tending the delicate chrysalises and delighting when the new life emerged. Maggie documented the metamorphoses with her camera, only now with digital technology. Her delight in and intense love for nature never waned. At the age of 93, she was able to organize one last exhibition of her cliché verre work. It was at the Boston Children’s Museum in 2012–13, and was titled after a beloved quote from Xenophanes of Colophon (ca. 536 BC): For We Are All Sprung from Earth and Water and harkened back to her wonder-filled days in Brazil. The museum published a beautiful catalogue for her show. Maggie wrote the text for each image, directing it to the inquisitive and open minds of the little kids who would be coming to the exhibit. As with all of her creations, Maggie tortured herself over how everything must come out. She would put so much of herself into an exhibit that she would often exhaust herself completely.
She was not satisfied with how the catalogue was evolving. She worried that it might not communicate her life’s work: her life of giving of herself to the arts and to the transcendence of nature. She expressed her concern over the catalogue’s mission to Cyndi Prince, her dear friend and graphic designer. “Maggie,” asked Cyndi, “who is this catalogue for?” Maggie thought for a moment. “Well,” she said, “it’s for me.”
Image at top: Maggie Foskett, Down By The Bayou, cliché verre and X-ray, 20 x 16 in., n.d. (photo: Caldbeck Gallery).