The Hippo


Aug 23, 2019








Gary Samson. David Putnam photo.

NH’s Artist Laureate program


A photographic retirement
New Hampshire artist laureate relishes his new role

By Kelly Sennott

 New Hampshire native Gary Samson “just about fell out of his chair” when, this spring, he learned he’d been appointed to be the state’s next artist laureate — but then he realized there was no better time for this to happen.

“When Roger [Brooks] said, ‘You were selected to be the artist laureate,’ I thought, ‘I’m young enough so that I could actually enjoy that!’” Samson said, laughing, during an interview at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, where he’s worked for 30 years.
At the time of his meeting with Brooks, who’s chair of the New Hampshire State Council for the Arts, Samson was preparing to retire from his position as the NHIA photography chair. For decades, he’d worked two jobs — as the University of New Hampshire filmmaker and manager of photography and a part-time NHIA professor — until 2000, when NHIA became a four-year school. Samson felt eager to work on independent projects and sift through decades of negatives.
“I just felt like retiring now was the right thing to do. Some of the students certainly were upset about it, but if you think about it, you can never take care of all the students, because you always have new ones coming in,” Samson said. “I thought, while I still have the energy, I want to have time to photograph.”
Of course, he takes the word “retirement” lightly, particularly with this new artist laureate position. In June he spent a month teaching in Greece with the school’s study abroad program, and later this summer he’ll conduct a variety of workshops and lead a community-wide photography project in Peterborough. Anything he can do to help promote art in New Hampshire, he’s game.
“Even though I’m not formally teaching, I’m not saying I’m completely giving up teaching. I certainly would make myself available for people who want to learn about photography, especially young people,” Samson said.
Samson learned about the importance of giving back to artists from renowned photographer Lotte Jacobi, a German-American who lived in Deering from the 1950s until her death in 1990. She was known for her portraits of some of the 20th century’s most extraordinary people, including Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Thomas Mann, Peter Lorre and Eleanor Roosevelt. When she was in her late 70s, UNH commissioned him to create a film about her.
“I was intimidated by her. Here’s this woman who spent her life taking photographs of extraordinary people. I was in awe,” Samson said. 
Despite this age difference, they became friends, and at the end of her life there were several institutions interested in obtaining her collection, including the Library of Congress, but she offered it to UNH — under the condition she was to work with Samson. He traveled to her home regularly for years creating a catalog of her 47,000 negatives.
“Every time an artist or photographer said, ‘Can I come and visit you?’ or, ‘Can I come show you my work?’ she found time in her schedule to sit and provide advice. … It helped me become a better teacher,” Samson said.
In his own photography, Samson loves telling stories, particularly tales about history and culture. It all started with his 1976 film A World Within a World: The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company and Milltown, a photographic history of the textile mills and the immigrants who labored in them. 
Samson, a first-generation American born and raised in Manchester by French-Canadian immigrants, can remember growing up at a time when he had to hide his cultural heritage; his grandparents worked at the mills, and so did his father. He was given a very American name — Gary, after Gary Cooper — in the hopes he might avoid the prejudices that were common against French-Canadians at the time.
“People would say, ‘What nationality are you?’ and I would say, ‘What nationality do you think I am?’ They would say English or Scottish, and I just agreed,” Samson said. “When I was a sophomore taking French at Manchester Central … the teacher ridiculed [a French-Canadian student] for talking Canadian French and not what they said was pure French or Parisian French.”
Samson knows some of the things he taught at school will become outdated in a few years because the technology will change, but he feels photography is a universal medium. No matter the language you speak, you can understand a photograph, and the things you have to say with photography or with art will never change. 
“What [people] care about is the image, and if it says something, if it moves you in some way. That has to come out of your heart,” said Samson, who also hopes to help other local artists find their voices, no matter their level. “Many of [the NHIA community education students] are professionals, and many of them make a lot of money, but they say to me, ‘Gary, when I come here and take a class … it keeps me sane. This is what feeds my soul.’ I believe there’s creativity and an artist in everyone, and you just have to find out what the outlet is.” 

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