The Light Fantastic—Painting Bridges in Acadia

Mowtenko setting up for Painting bridges

Howie Motenko suggests a location for a light painter while Tom Lawrence checks equipment.

Voices softly call greetings as we approach Waterfall Bridge in Acadia National Park. People arrive in pairs, alone, or in small groups. It is dusk, and we have come to paint the bridge with light.

As day fades to dark shadowed figures are positioned below the bridge, perched in the snow bank behind it, and off in the woods facing it. There is chatter. A woman across the stream asks if she is in a good spot while another describes the sweet and tart Key Lime bars everyone had after the last shoot. “Four” the shout comes, and all conversation ends. “Four” we all answer. Then “Three-two-one” and finally “Open shutter!” We turn our flashlights on and rhythmically wave the light across the face of the granite stonework and into the arch of the bridge. Silent now, intent and working together, our beams swing back and forth. Warm yellows intersect with cool blues. It is perhaps thirty seconds, but it seems infinite. There is no sound. I can see the ray of light from my flashlight. I direct it in vertical sweeps, then in circular motions across the stonework. I don’t want this to end. My beam is distinct, and then merges with the light from others. I lose myself in the whole, too. We are one, creating a light painting.

setting up for painting bridges

A curious hiker chats with Howie Motenko before the Jordon Pond Road Bridge shoot.

“Close shutter!” is called and we turn off our lights and let out a collective sigh. It seems as though we have been holding our breath for an eternity. The shadow and light we created are captured in a time exposure by Howie Motenko, who orchestrates this light play.

Howie,his wife Brenda Beckett, and photographer Tom Lawrence took the first nighttime bridge photo in July 2012 with help from seven friends and light painters. There are 16 bridges on the carriage roads of Acadia National Park, and they have just photographed the last one, as well as two carriage houses.

Howie heard about time exposures with moving light at a workshop at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. One of the subjects was The Big Shot, an annual photo shoot with community members shining lights on buildings, boats, and landscapes. Started in 1987, this event is organized by the Rochester Institute of Technology. Howie had the vision to transfer this concept to the sculptured bridges of Acadia, and the project Painting Bridges, Uniting Community with Art and art was born.

Jordon Pond Road bridge

Light painters socialize as the shoot gets set up. This was the last bridge, and there were twenty light painters.

Waterfall Bridge, shot on February 23, was the fifteenth bridge. The mile walk along the carriage road was icy, creepers were worn by most, a few skied in, the regulars greeted each other and chatted, and newcomers were welcomed by Howie and Brenda. A couple, John and Mary Whetstone drive half an hour from Trenton. “We wouldn’t miss one,” John says. Mary adds. “We love getting to hike into the park, at a time of year we wouldn’t have thought of hiking.”

The small group gathered at the bridge is growing. A sixteen by twenty-four inch print of the previous shoot is pulled out of a plastic bin. It is a photo, but the wash of light brings out the spirit of the bridge in a way a natural light picture does not. At the end of the shoot, there will be a drawing, and one lucky person will go home with it. The final images will be printed on metal, and the silvery reflective surface enhances the slightly surreal light-soaked photographs. The before shot of these bridges show a lovely view of these large stone structures, each one unique. The after shots dazzle. Going back to a before shot, it suddenly becomes drab and lifeless.

Waterfall Bridge, daylight.

Waterfall Bridge, illuminated by 23 light painters.

Matt Bratzler and Nancy Sawyer of Bar Harbor have each won a print in the raffle, but the reason they come every two weeks, regardless of weather, is to get out of the house. “We’d be home in front of the TV if it wasn’t for this.” Matt says. He talks about a shot a few weeks back that was bitter cold. Matt is wearing mittens with battery-powered heaters he bought after that night. Others show high-powered flashlights they purchased just for the light painting. The group is a mix of devoted followers and those who have just been able to go a few times. But everyone I asked said they came as often as they could.

To stand around in the dark on a cold night in the middle of the park waving flashlights about with a bunch of people you barely know doesn’t seem like something one would want to do again and again. But it wasn’t really about the process. And it wasn’t really about the art. It was a sense of being part of a group that had a joint purpose and worked together.

Howie Motenko brought light painting to Acadia National Park, with help from Brenda Beckett and Tom Lawrence.

When we arrived, Brenda was helping people find places to stand, and handed out strobes and flashlights. Howie was checking his position and he and Tom were getting all the equipment ready. These three pull this project together. They spend hours before and after each shoot making it work. They scout the site early in the week to choose the angle, and decide where the light sources should be. Then there is Photoshop work to bring out the best of each image, writing details of the event in a blog, producing the print to be given away, and baking the tasty treats. Howie is the maestro, though, and his gentle leadership is what creates the sense of oneness.

There is no ego, just a warm sharing that it takes the entire group to create these glowing images of the stone bridges. For that hour, or a bit more, random members of the community were together, creating art.

All 18 images can be seen at the Painting Bridges website and will be on display at the Northeast Harbor Library during May (more information below the recipe).

Recipe for the brownies Brenda baked for the Waterfall Bridge shoot
Cheesecake-Swirled Brownies
Makes 16 2-inch square, thick brownies
Brownie batter
1 stick (1/2 cup or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
Cheesecake batter
8 ounces cream cheese, well softened
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Make brownie batter: Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan. Heat butter and chocolate in a 3-quart heavy saucepan or double-boiler over moderately low heat, whisking occasionally, just until melted. Remove from heat and whisk in sugar, eggs, vanilla, and a pinch of salt until well combined. Whisk in flour until just combined and spread in baking pan.
Make cheesecake batter: Whisk together cheesecake batter ingredients in a small bowl until smooth. Dollop over brownie batter, then swirl in with a knife or spatula.
Sprinkle chocolate chips over cheesecake/brownie batter swirl.
Bake brownies: Bake until edges are slightly puffed and center is just set, about 35 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

The stats: 150 Volunteers, 18 Images, 9 Months, 1 Exhibit

The metal prints will be on view and for sale for the month of May at the Northeast Harbor Library, and there will be two receptions where you can meet the photographers and light painters.

Northeast Harbor Library Exhibit
Exhibit of all 18 images, prints available for purchase.
100% of the profits from the exhibit will be donated to Friends of Acadia.
Opening Reception:  Saturday, May 4, 2013 – 5:00 to 7:00 pm
Closing Reception:  Sunday, May 26, 2013 – 4:00 to 6:00 pm
Northeast Harbor Library, Mellon Room
1 Joy Road
Northeast Harbor, ME 04662
207-276-3333 <>


Karen O. Zimmermann

About Karen O. Zimmermann

Karen O. Zimmermann savors chance encounters with people throughout the state of Maine, and is endlessly delighted with the tales they have to share.