Personal Articles · Photography

The Abandoned Mills of Sanford Maine


Before I retired I was a  landscape photographer.  I had a business called Hanselmann Photography where I sold large images of mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers, wild flowers, aspens and National Parks.  About 2010 I started to get more and more out of the photography business and my son Jeff began, more and more, to take over the business.  Now-a-days I’m 99% out of the business and Jeff owns it and runs it all.  About all I do now is shoot an occasional picture and write newsletters for the site.  This article began as a newsletter that I wrote early in 2017.

There are two photographers at Hanselmann Photography. The older one, myself, is Fred Hanselmann.  I’ve been taking traditional landscapes of mountains, rivers, National Parks and so forth for the last forty years or so.

The other photographer is Jeff Hanselmann, my son.  Jeff is now the owner and main photographer at Hanselmann Photography.  Jeff has been shooting for the last ten years and he also takes pictures of scenic landscapes, but as I’ve discussed in earlier newsletters,  his pictures are much more contemporary looking than mine.  In November of 2016 Jeff began taking pictures of the abandoned fabric mills in the town he lives in, Sanford, Maine.  By the time he finished, in January of 2017 he had a portfolio of 53 black and white pictures of the Mills.

This newsletter contains twenty-seven of these mill pictures.  In my comments under the pictures I look at these pictures both as contemporary art  and as a  commentary on life in many small American  towns.

12044, Sign on the Front Gate of the Mill

Sanford, Maine is a small town about forty miles south of Portland, Maine. In the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries Sanford was an important, prosperous, industrial town in the New England. From the old pictures I have seen, it appears to have been a bustling, prosperous place of well kept middle and upper class homes, shady streets and successful businesses. However, sometime around the middle of the 20th century the mills closed down and all the textile manufacturing was moved first to the American South and then to Asia. With the mills gone, prosperity in the town was threatened.

Now-a-days, Sanford is in many ways still a nice place to live.  And the people are indeed very nice here. It ‘s the only town I know where anytime you pull up to a stop sign to get onto main street, someone will stop to let you onto the always crowded avenue. Still, there is definitely the sense that this town is part of post-industrial America. There is a definite sense of fading prosperity, progress and fulfillment here.

12047, Snowy Day at the Mill.  The Mill is a big place covering maybe a half square Mile.

Looking at the pictures in the Old Mill Portfolio, I’m immediately struck by the difference between Jeff’s pictures and my pictures. My pictures are mostly about the beauty of the American landscape.  There are never any people or buildings in my pictures.   My pictures are all about the grandeur of the natural world. I took photos of a world that I felt comfortable in and that I loved. This was mostly the mountains and deserts of the American west. For a good example of the kind of pictures I love to take, look at the Teton pictures that filled my last newsletter.

I have always loved the Tetons and have returned to them again and again over the years since I was a small boy. And all of the pictures I shoot follower this pattern. There is very definitely a Romantic feeling about my landscape pictures. By Romantic I don’t mean romantic as in romantic love , but Romantic as in the pervading aesthetic and literary and cultural atmosphere of the 19th century. The nineteenth century was a time when Americans still lived at least somewhat in an undeveloped and open countryside filled with small farms and prosperous industrial cities. I was born in 1940 and grew up during the postwar boom in a medium sized Wyoming town. This was a town where I felt I belonged and a countryside in which I spent my adolescence hunting and fishing. So I’ve always felt very close to the earth and I’ve always tried to see and to portray in my photography the great beauty of the American earth.

12072, Double Doors and broken Window

Jeff grew up in a very different era and in a very different world. He was born in 1974, just when America was entering a period of change in everything. Politics, economics, cities, nature and everything else was in caught in a flux of rapid change. Inequality, global warming, stagnation in politics and economic growth and the devastation of the natural environment were all in his very near future.

So when Jeff started taking pictures in the 1990’s he lived in a different world than the world I grew up in. And he had a different world view than I did. Nature and wild America didn’t look as Romantic and Grand to him as they did to me. The world I was capturing, often seemed to him to be a fantasy, a world of the past, or maybe a world that never actually existed as a place where real people live their real lives.

Pipe Works Detail
12042, Zig Zag.  One of Jeff’s more unsettling images of the mill.

As a result, Jeff’s pictures are somewhat different from mine. He does still shoot classic American landscapes, but his pictures often have people in them and they almost always include the hand of man, ie homes, cafes, roads, docks, boats, cityscapes, and technology.

And there is often a feeling of anxiety, uneasiness, and out-of -placeness in many of Jeff’s pictures. His pictures sometimes feel like pictures of an alien world that he doesn’t belong to and that he is uncomfortable in.

And Jeff is not alone in these feelings; the great American photographer Robert Frank comes to mind. (You can see a picture of Frank’s at the end of this essay.) In addition, much contemporary art and literature reflects this same feeling of strangeness and alienation and out-of-jointness.

In the post-industrial, crumbling world of the now abandoned Sanford Mills, Jeff found a good metaphor for how the world he lives in feels to him.  Below are 23 of his pictures of that world including my interpretation of them.

More Old Mill images with commentary

12069, Snowy Fence, Mill  and Chimney

This photograph, like all of Jeff’s photographs, is very well designed and composed. The fence and curb fall off in a graceful arc and are contrasted with the rigidity of the building and the chimney and the blank white sky. There is also a theme of vertical lines interacting with the lower, more dominant horizontal lines. All the vertical lines in the fence, the windows, the building edge and the chimney balance against the soft curve of the fence line, curb and snow.

This picture is fairly comfortable to look at. For one thing it is softened by the familiar, cozy feeling of falling snow. Yet, the picture is not quite comfortable, something seems to be lurking behind it. It is not as disturbing or vertiginous as some of Jeff’s pictures. Here, there is just a slight edge of uneasiness behind the familiar snowy scene that is hard to explain. As we get on in this essay, we will explore, among other themes the edginess and uneasiness and anxiety of many of Jeff’s pictures. And we will look at where this mood comes from.

12060, The main entrance to the old Sanford Mills on a snowy day in January, 2017

This picture feels half like a snowy Christmas card of the old comfortable, romantic, world where nature and man could coexist comfortably. But it also has some of the dark uneasiness about the loss of an old, almost forgotten industrial world that was once so important to the town of Sanford . But this is still a pretty comfortable picture compared to many of Jeff’s other Mill shots that are yet to come.

12083, Sanford Mill Neighborhood

This is also one of Jeff’s more friendly pictures of the Mill area. Actually this shot appeals a lot to my somewhat old fashioned eye.

This is an almost comfortable, picture but not quite. Notice that this is not one of those often-taken cliches of a quaint little New England towns. This is a picture of a real town– a real middle class and working class New England town. The houses are crowded together and the non-pictorial power lines are not excluded as they are in so many quaint New England shots.

This is not the kind of natural world that filled my landscape pictures, which are always far from any city, with nothing man-made in sight. The nature in this picture is not wild nature. This is nature that has been cultivated for many years in this town. It is the kind of nature that most of us live with in our real lives. It’s the kind of nature we see everyday: something that we take for granted and when it is not a deliberately cultivated lawn or hedge, it is a bit frowzy around the edges, as on the left side of the picture.

Yet this picture does still have a bit of the quaint, cutesy New England feeling that never actually existed except in the fake seaside tourist towns. And this is the last time you will see even a little bit of the quaint, cutesy New England cliche in this portfolio.

12058, Sanford Neighborhood behind the Mills.

This picture is a different framing of the picture above, but here it looks a little less romantic,a little less cutesy. Here the style has shifted a little. The town in this picture is more of a real town. A little bit lonely and little sad, a little drab. Uncultivated nature is now definitely on the scruffy, scraggly side. In fact it is fenced off from the artificially cultivated town. There is not a bit of romantic or grand nature in this picture. No cutesy New England cliche here. This is plain, drab, mundane and very, very real. And it’s pretty much the real world most of us live in when we are not on vacation in a cutesy tourist town that pretends to be real.

12049, Birch Trees, Graffiti and Tin Siding.

With this picture we step into a very different world than the standard New England cliches or the world of one of my Romantic wilderness landscapes. I think this is a very beautiful and complex picture of the contemporary world in a small, post-industrial, New England mill town. The natural world is still here, and it is still beautiful but it is a long way from the pristine landscapes of the 19th century or the early 20th century.

For me, this picture is full of beauty and terror and confusion, all running together. The crumbling post-industrial world is here and so is a lot of the disaffection that goes along with that world. For me, this a very scary, yet beautiful picture.

12052, Broken Window and Disks

The tonalities in this picture, from pure white to deep blacks with a lot of middle grays in between is very appealing. However, the tilting granite column and the broken windows fill the picture with a sense of unease and anxiousness. Especially the tilting column.

12057, American Flag and Wires.

This picture of the American Flag flying on top of one of the old mill buildings in a snow storm with the crossed wires overhead seems to symbolizes, at least for me, the America we now live in. Especially the bleak, blank sky and the crossed wires. Its almost as if the wires were a no-entry sign, A sign crossing out the no-more-hope of the American flag or maybe of the America that used to be so inspiring but now holds out so little to many of its citizens. There is nothing dramatic or romantic or hopeful about about this picture. Even the tonalities are drab and gray and hopeless.

12061, Lamp Post and Mill

Again, this is not a very warm or hopeful picture. The lamppost, with its vaguely 19th century ornateness contrasts with the grim industrial facade of the mill building. The building has all the charm of a prison or a 19th century workhouse. The darkness of the building and the blank, white sky are both ominous yet pleasing in their grim regularity. For me, this picture is not comfortable at all.

12063, Leaning Building and Building with exhaust pipe.

This picture is filled with a sense of anxiety and vertiginous and alienation and claustrophobia. This feeling comes mainly from the leaning wall on the left and the grimness and closeness of the facade across the way. Again the blank sky enhances this feeling. This feels very much like not the place I want to be. Yet it is all so solid and inevitable and unmovable, just like everything in the America we now live in. Our America seems to be full of massive institutional structures that none of us will ever be able to move or change. It feels too late change anything or to escape.

12070, Mill, Snow, Sky, Tire

This mill building is definitely crumbling, the windows no longer hold out the rain. Yet the regular regression of the windows and the wonderful tonalities are quite beautiful. The snow here is a long way from the pristine Rocky Mountain powder I used to photograph under dark green pines, in front of the towering peaks of the Teton range and a bright blue sky. The picture above is a very, very different picture in a very, very different world. I really like this picture tho. It is so truthful, yet so beautiful in its tonalities and composition.

12073, Mill Side Entrance, Steps, Snow

This is a picture of a lost world that has been long forgotten but lingers to remind us of the past. The light on the snow is soft and beautiful. Maybe a remnant of the lost world of nature. The snow on the steps reminds me of the lost innocence of the long ago days of my boyhood. And then the decay above the snow emphasizes the absolute lostness of those days.

12076, Mill Windows, Date and Sign

12076, Mill windows, Date and Sign. I love the crispness and regularity and order of this picture. I also love the deep blacks of the broken windows and the soft loops of the dangling cord contrasted to the hard rectangularity of the window frames. Yet the message is clear: this is a picture of a lost world that once made a lot of sense, but that no longer does.

12078, Mill Roof Tops

To me, this is a stark, strong, hard picture of lines and angles and space and tonalities. In this picture it is the soft tonalities of the sky contrasted to the hard, dark tonalities of the roof that I really like. I also like the overall composition a lot. I like the texture of the details and the feel of the light.

Again, this is a picture of a crumbling world that points out loss of all kinds. in fact the central tone of all of these Mill pictures is that of loss.

Actually, thinking about it, the feeling of loss in these pictures is similar to that in an early Hemingway story titled “The End of Something.” A strong feeling of loss dominates this story: the loss of the virgin North Woods of Michigan, the loss of nature, the loss of first love, the loss of a town, the loss of a whole way of life.

Below is the first paragraph of the Hemingway story. The parallels to the loss in the Sanford Mills are very close.  This feeling of loss is probably the central theme of the best of Hemingway’s work.

“In the old days Hortons Bay was a lumbering town. No one who lived in it was out of sound of the big saws in the mill by the lake. Then one year there were no more logs to make lumber. The lumber schooners came into the bay and were loaded with the cut of the mill that stood stacked in the yard. All the piles of lumber were carried away. The big mill building had all its machinery that was removable taken out and hoisted on board one of the schooners by the men who had worked in the mill. The schooner moved out of the bay toward the open lake carrying the two great saws, the traveling carriage that hurled the logs against the revolving, circular saws and all the rollers, wheels, belts and iron piled on a hull-deep load of lumber. Its open hold covered with canvas and lashed tight, the sails of the schooner filled and it moved out into the open lake, carrying with it everything that had made the mill a mill and Hortons Bay a town.”

Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time (p. 31). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

12051, Young Man and Truck in Mill Alley

The smug, confident, smirking, vacuous expression on the boy’s face, his shinning new truck, both against a background of graffiti, seem to me a nice expression of the strange polarities and tensions in much of post-industrial America.

12079, Mill Window

The lines and angles in this picture are very interesting. And the bleakness of this room in this deteriorating, once grand building of flaking paint and rotting sills is poignant. I love the visual wonderfulness of the contrasty bricks and the smooth, bland column and that pointy, paint-flaked eve on right which projects into the empty sky. Don’t ask me why exactly I like it so much. It just what good composition does to the human eye and brain of the viewer.

12080, Long Receding Mill, Rocks and Snow

This is the new American landscape. This almost a parody of the classic American Industrial landscapes taken by Ansel Adams in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Except that Ansel’s mills were bright and shiny new. And they were to him a symbol of the growing American prosperity, progress and success. Now these same American factories are the crumbling, decaying remnant of what was once great about “The American City Upon a Hill.” As in an early America where John Winthrop described America as an example for the rest of the world: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” In the eyes of many Americans now, those days are  long gone.

12085, Sanford Mill and Sky

Again, it’s the sky and the crossed wires again that make this picture work for me. I love the three little peaky clear story windows and the receding banks of rectangularly divided windows broken by the vertical ventilation stack. Again the picture is topped by multiple crossed power lines. Here is the No-Entry symbol again. And again, including the wires in the picture makes it seem more like the real world and less like a cliche.

12087, Telephone Pole and Mill Side

There are huge amounts of angst and uneasiness and distress in this photo of the leaning building and stark power lines against the blank sky. Again the power lines and pole are an important part of the picture. I can hardly stand to look at this picture it makes me feel so uneasy and afraid. But the feeling is a real one in the kind of world we now live in.

12089, Looking Up Through the Broken Glass

Again a very uneasy picture. Very vertiginous, distressful and even claustrophobic. The building feels like it is falling and I’m trapped in a bad place full of flaking paint and scuttling bugs and spider webs.

12093, Vines on a Geometric Window

Here the natural world is just a remnant in the broken post-industrial world. The confusion of the chaotic vines on the regular geometry of the window is both interesting and disturbing.

12094, Cables and Grasses

A final, somber, lonesome, yet quietly strong image of the Sanford Mills. The composition, as in all of Jeff’s pictures is impeccable.

American Flag by Robert Frank

The more I think about it, these Sanford Mill pictures by Jeff Hanselmann remind me more and more of the pictures of Robert Frank. The picture above is by Robert Frank. It was taken in 1955 in Hoboken, New Jersey and published in his book, The Americans. Frank’s picture above reminds me a bit of Jeff’s picture of the American Flag flying on top of a Sanford mill building in a snowstorm that is included above.

The Robert Frank picture above was borrowed from “Phaeton News,” an on-line news magazine. It was accompanied with the following text:

“The image is typical of the kind of photographs Frank took on his journeys, which saw him cover almost all of the Continental United States, from Miami to San Francisco; Butte, Montana to Houston, Texas. There are no wide vistas or beauty spots in Frank’s images. Instead, he captured postcard racks and Greyhound stations, drug stores and hotel lobbies. In total he filled 500 rolls of film. Frank’s pictures did not show a happy, smiling country; his photographs are not the artfully framed or carefully balanced images that one might have associated with fine-art photography at that time. So perhaps unsurprisingly, the accompanying book, published first in Paris in 1958 as Les Americains, then in the US in 1959 as The Americans, featuring a foreword by Jack Kerouac, was not a commercial success. Yet it remains an influential work. Frank was one of the first to capture this bleak, blank side of the country. As John Szarkowski, the former director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, put it, Frank’s photographs ‘established a new iconography for contemporary America, comprised of bits of bus depots, lunch counters, strip developments, empty spaces, cars, and unknowable faces.'”

I have to disagree a little bit with one of the comments above. Actually this photograph is “carefully balanced” by the two figures in the two windows. I certainly agree with the rest of the comment though.

Walker Evans Graveyard
Bethlehem Pennsylvania, by Walker Evans

And while we are on the subject of famous pictures, above is a photograph by Walker Evans of a graveyard in front of a Bethlehem, PA Steel Mill. This picture reminds me of Jeff’s pictures but it is a little different. The theme is similar: heavy American industry in the city neighborhood surrounding it. But in Evan’s picture the feeling is more about the intertwining of  life and death in an American industrial town. Industry isn’t long gone and decaying as in the Sanford Mills, here it is young and vigorous.

Yet there are overtones of things-gone-wrong here also. Clearly the mill is overpowering the neighborhood it is located in. And the implication is that it is responsible for many deaths in this town. And the air is dark and murky and the tone is one of oppression and loss.

And then there is the fact that this photograph was taken in 1935, in the midst of the Great American depression. As in Jeff’s pictures,clearly life in America is not all springtime and prosperity. The Evan’s picture is dominated by a feeling of injustice, hardship, coercion and early death. Death seems to be literally encroaching into the backyards of these people, with the factories they cannot escape, literally in their front yards. So, this picture is not all that much like Jeff’s pictures, but the tone is similar and Jeff’s pictures did make me remember this one by Walker Evans. Part of the same tradition perhaps.

Fred Hanselmann, April 2017

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