This Maine ‘curmudgeon’ shot LL Bean’s first color catalog, then saw China —17 times

I never met photographer Mason Philip Smith. I wish I had, but it’s too late now.

A sudden heart attack took him away on Nov. 25, at the age of 83, at his home in Cape Elizabeth. It was quick. He died in the arms of his wife, Barbara. They were married for 56 years.

For three decades, Smith ran a commercial photography studio on the third floor of Mechanics Hall on Congress Street. He shot countless senior portraits, hundreds of weddings and the first color photographs to appear in the L.L. Bean catalog.

I didn’t know Smith, but I did know of him. You couldn’t be a photographer in this town and not be aware of him. He was everywhere, a photographic chameleon who could shoot anything from architecture to food to street portraits. He adapted his style to fit the job at hand, letting the subject shine for itself rather than muting it under his own vision.

"Laundramaid" a photo made by Mason Smith in Portland in 1962, courtesy of Barbara Smith.

“Laundramaid” a photo made by Mason Smith in Portland in 1962. Photo courtesy of Barbara Smith.

He was a giant, both in reputation and stature.

“He could be quite intimidating, being so opinionated and such an imposing physical figure,” said Steve Halpern, a friend for 50 years.

Portland artist Larry Hayden knew Smith and loved to draw his lived-in face.

“If you wanted to have an illustration of a curmudgeon, he would make the grade,” said Hayden.

But Barbara, his wife, said that gruff exterior didn’t run deep.

“Once he got to know you and you got to know him, all that exterior was just gone and he was a teddy bear, a sweetie pie,” she said.

When Smith wasn’t making pictures, he found time to run five marathons. He bicycled the entire route Lewis and Clark took from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. He was an Air Force veteran, serving in Korea, and earned a photojournalism degree from Boston University.

Smith closed his studio in 1993 and embarked on a second career as an author and fine art photographer.

He wrote and published books about Maine maritime disasters, including “Four Short Blasts” about the then unsolved 1898 sinking of the S.S. Portland.

Mason Smith visited Yunan Province in China 17 times.

Mason Smith visited Yunan Province in China 17 times.

Smith visited China’s Yunnan province 17 times, making photographs and friends wherever he went. He published several photo books about his travels and exhibited his pictures locally.

He hadn’t shown many signs of slowing down, even in his 80s. Hayden said Smith was always ready for an adventure.

“When he was in China he saw a fortune teller who told him he was going to live to be 103, so he was all set,” said Hayden. “He was probably as surprised as the rest of us when he left.”

A book of poetry Smith had ordered for Barbara arrived in the mail, a few days after his death. It was a final, surprise gift to her. She said he was always good at surprises.

“He loved me so much.” she said. “Those things I will miss but I’ve had them, so they’re always with me. Just to think of them, will always make me happy.”

Mason Philip Smith operated a photo studio in Portland for 30 years. Photo courtesy of Barbara Smith.

Mason Philip Smith operated a photo studio in Portland for 30 years. Photo courtesy of Barbara Smith.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.