Don Dunbar doesn’t shy away from grand photos. He once shot the East Quoddy Lighthouse on Campobello Island when the thermostat read 36 degrees below zero. He’s photographed coyotes and bobcats, and a few years ago managed to snap a rare picture of a golden eagle, a raptor with a 6-foot wingspan that is endangered in Maine.
His latest project, by contrast, chronicles a more modest subject — a snail named Murph, the protagonist of the children’s book that Don and his wife, Kathleen, published in May.
“I never would have thought a book about a snail would have taken off,” Don said, sitting in his gallery, Eastern Maine Images, in Eastport — the easternmost city in the United States, located in Washington County about a two-hour drive from Ellsworth.
The photographer first encountered Murph three years ago while taking pictures of a dew-covered spider web. Dew drops are one of Don’s favorite photo subjects.
“I’ll take pictures of anything,” he said.
He kept the snail as a pet, and Kathleen, a dental hygienist, recalled that she had written a story about an adventurous snail named Murph many years before. The Dunbars couldn’t find her original story, but decided to start anew with the premise of an intrepid snail.
The end result, “The Adventures of Murph the Happy Snail,” features Don’s photos and Kathleen’s writing. In its first few months, the book’s popularity exceeded the couple’s expectations. They sold 68 copies at the initial signing event, and have since had to order 100 more. Don hopes to publish a sequel in a few years.
In a happy coincidence, Murph — who lives in a tank at Eastern Maine Images — gave birth to more snails the day after the book’s signing party.
“Now you have kids asking how Murph can have babies,” the photographer laughed. Snails, incidentally, are hermaphrodites, meaning Murph isn’t really male or female.
None of the book’s images, which include Murph dressed as a pirate, in the company of a ladybug, and riding on the back of a snapping turtle, are Photoshopped. Don constructed the miniature pirate hat himself, found the snapping turtle while four-wheeling and waited patiently for the right moment when the ladybug was perched on Murph.
Patience is at the core of Don’s philosophy as a photographer. When shooting larger wildlife, he’ll wait in nature for hours to snap the perfect picture. He used to get cold sitting outside for long periods of time; now, he uses a portable heater to make the winter days more bearable. He often works with blind setups, and once built a floating blind, which allowed him to take photos out on the water unbeknownst to those around him.
“I’ve sat right next to people fishing and they have no idea I’m there,” he said.
He works with a 300-millimeter lens, smaller than what’s used typically for wildlife photography. As such, he needs creatures to be nearby — often close enough that they can hear the click of his camera. With a little bit of luck, they might turn they head toward the noise, enabling him to snap the perfect staredown shot.
Don, who grew up in Eastport and graduated from Shead Memorial High School, hasn’t always been a photographer. He bought his first camera after being discharged from the military in the 1980s as a way to build his credit score. In 2001, he started taking photos for a friend’s gift shop. He also set up a website and his work began to catch attention online.
Four years ago, he opened a small window gallery after he was laid off from his job as a lab technician at the former Tex Shield plant. The small showroom received so much attention that he soon moved into a bigger space on Water Street in downtown Eastport.
He is grateful to Kathleen, who supported his decision to make a career out of his passion.
“I have to give a lot of credit to my wife for allowing me to do this,” he said. “She wants me to do what I love.”
While he enjoys the outdoors and takes pictures all over eastern Maine, one of Don’s favorite spots is his backyard in the town of Perry, six miles from Eastport, where he has photographed deer and coyotes, among other creatures. In town, he also has gained a reputation as an on-call animal photographer. The day I visited, he received a call about an albino squirrel. It was gone by the time he arrived on scene, but he was confident he would get a photo eventually.
The Eastporter also has begun to garner attention outside of his hometown. At the 2018 State of Maine Sportsman’s Show in Augusta, he entered 10 photos, and eight of them won prizes. Copies of “The Adventures of Murph the Happy Snail,” which is available for purchase on his website, have been sent as far afield as Ireland and Germany.
Don recently heard a comment about one of his photos, which was given as a wedding gift.
“Someone was like, ‘Oh, it’s a Don Dunbar,’” he said. “I never thought it would be that way.”
Eastern Maine Images is located at 28 Water St. in Eastport. Tel: 853-0727. Website: http://www.easternmaineimages.com/.