About Me

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Spofford, New Hampshire, United States
Jeff Newcomer has been a physician practicing in New Hampshire and Vermont for over 30 years. Over that time, as a member of the Conservation Commission in his home of Chesterfield New Hampshire, he has used his photography to promote the protection and appreciation of the town's wild lands. In recent years he has been transitioning his focus from medicine to photography, writing and teaching. Jeff enjoys photographing throughout New England, but has concentrated on the Monadnock Region and southern Vermont and has had a long term artistic relationship with Mount Monadnock. He is a featured artist in a number of local galleries and his work is often seen in regional print, web publications and in business installations throughout the country. For years Jeff has published a calendar celebrating the beauty of The New England country-side in all seasons. All of the proceeds from his New England Reflections Calendar have gone to support the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the Cheshire Medical Center. Jeff has a strong commitment to sharing his excitement about the special beauty of our region and publishes a weekly blog about photography in New England.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Requiem in Orange

I come, not to bury the Keene Pumpkin Festival, but to praise it.
(With apology to W. Shakespeare)

On April 2nd the Keene New Hampshire city counsel voted 13-1 to 
refuse to issue a permit for the 2015 Keene Pumpkin Festival. The future of the event, or something like it, is not clear, but the decision was not a surprise. The festival started as a relaxed community harvest gathering to celebrate the beauty of our New England autumn. Almost incidentally it also became a reason to amass the jack-o-lanterns that are the symbol of the season's signature event, Halloween. In recent years the festival, had become a costly and barely manageable mega event that, while drawing tens of thousands of participants from all over the country, had chased many of the locals to the safety and calm of their homes.

At the first festival, nearly 25 years ago, the community gathered a total of 600 Pumpkins and by the next year garnered their first
"World Record" with only 1,628. It seemed like a lot at the time, but as, our harvest celebration morphed into the "Pumpkin Festival", the numbers and the people soared. In 2013 Keene claimed its ninth world record with 30,581 orange gourds. Last fall we fell a bit short with "only" 21,912 Pumpkins, but the 2014 festival will not be remembered for that number, but for the rampage of a few alcohol addled early post pubescent hoodlums whose mindless rioting appears, at least for the time being, to have killed the festival and provided Keene with
Campus Peace Before the Storm
a dose of undeserved negative notoriety. It is little appreciated that, when the violence of a few Keene State College students and other young visitors broke out, the Keene Police and and many regional emergency personal did a remarkable job containing the mayhem to a few streets around the campus. The rioters were not permitted to assault the actual Festival and thankfully, the thousands of families who were enjoying the pumpkins had no idea about the island of the chaos that was broiling just a few blocks away. No one was seriously hurt, the rioting was contained, and a few traffic signs were dislodged, but the serious damage had been done. The danger of a greater tragedy and the cost of maintaining security had become too high, making the city counsel's decision to pull the plug reasonable and responsible.

Over the years I have greatly enjoyed the Pumpkin Festivals. As a photographer it has provided a unique opportunity to capture a

Checking In
special part of the great beauty and the culture of our autumn season, but in the last few years I had come to believe that the event had gone WAY over the top and needed a substantial restructuring towards a more relaxed, community oriented celebration. Although it may be seen as traitorous, I found myself rooting for another city to grab the record with some obscenely large number of pumpkins. Perhaps one
hundred thousand would force us to throw in the towel and concentrate on celebrating all the varied aspects that make our
Pumpkin Run
New England fall so
special. The outrageous colors in the trees, the refreshing nip in the air and the wide range of harvest produce, even including pumpkins. I hate the fact that it may be that a bunch of brainless thugs forced us to make a change, but, in the end, it may be all for the good. Maybe we should thank them, but, please, don't raise a monument with a bronze statue of a kid heaving a beer bottle.

The Amazing Pumpkin Festival

Ok. That's enough about the last unfortunate year. My real intention is to celebrate a great run. For many years the Pumpkin Festival has
been a defining piece of autumn in the Monadnock region and I have enjoyed it immensely. The challenge of collecting, carving and lighting the thousands of pumpkins has united our community and Susan and I have volunteered in various aspects of that effort. When our children were young (and here!) we helped them savagely gut and carve numerous sacrificial pumpkins. Before the crowds became overwhelming, it was great fun walking Keene's Main Street and watching the kids faces as they marveled at the rows and rows of glittering, candle lite faces, always searching for their own contributions to the show. It really was a multi-sensory event and, for me, the biggest treat was to experience our downtown smelling pungently like fresh pumpkin pie. In later years Susan and I volunteered primarily as Pumpkin lighters. On windy evenings we had to continuously light AND relight the gourds. One year, after a torrential rain storm, we had to empty each Pumpkin and the candles were so wet that I needed to walk along the street with a flaming blow-torch. My goal was to either lite the candles or cause the damn Pumpkins to burst into flames.

Getting the Shots

The Crowd

The Crowd
My Photographic approach to the festival evolved over time. The two primary subjects of the festivals were the mass of pumpkins
and the hordes of people, and timing was everything. Amongst the throngs it was difficult to get a sense of the numbers of pumpkins. In fact, at its busiest, the crowds were
Above the Crowd
packed so tightly that it was difficult to move, let alone step back for an unobstructed view. I could only hold my camera high above my head and pray that if I stopped for a moment I wouldn't be stampeded. On one occasion Susan arranged for me to go up several stories in a Cherry picker to get an elevated view of the fully engulfed Main Street. The packed crowds were truly amazing, but my primary interest was the Pumpkins and the people were most often only a annoying obstruction between me and the orange stuff.

Orange Everywhere 

I had various approaches to capturing the Pumpkins through the crowds. The first was to elevate. For long views, I would often look for a chair or bench which might be stable enough to stand on and then hold my camera above my head. I still would have to hope that, of the thousands who fired their totally futile flashes, none would do so as I hit the shutter.


other approach was to get close, concentrating on individual pumpkins or small groups. The groups were especially dramatic when illuminated at night, but I had to keep a constant watch for people who might stumble over my tripod.


Festival Morning
For many years, my best approach to avoiding obstructing crowds was to go there when the people weren't around. I typically arrived on Central Square at 7 AM and wandered among the pumpkins largely by myself. It was the only time that the immense scale of the effort could be fully appreciated. Of course, in the early morning, I missed the twinkling candles, but the warm glow of the sunrise light provided its own special magic to the scene. The early morning was also the time to watch all the enthusiastic participants in the Great Pumpkin Run, triumphantly running, jogging and limping up and down Main Street.

And then, by 9am, I was able to escape well before the true craziness began.

As much as I have enjoyed the Pumpkin Festival over the years I recognize that change needs to come. I'm hoping that there will be a replacement that reflects the region in which I live. Many would like to see that include a return of the Pumpkin orgy. Perhaps, but there is so much more in the autumn season which speaks to the warmth and closeness of our community, and knowing how the Monadnock Region works together, I am fully confident that we can craft a fall celebration in the future that will reflect that wonderful feeling.

Check out my Pumpkin Festival Gallery on my web site.

Jeffrey Newcomer


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