John McKee

John McKee, Associate Professor of Art Emeritus, died on March 8, 2023, in Brunswick, Maine.

(The following notice was shared by President Rose on March 13, 2023)

I’m sorry to inform the Bowdoin community that Associate Professor of Art Emeritus John McKee died on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, in Brunswick, after a period of declining health.

John was born on October 20, 1936, in Evanston, Illinois, and grew up in Palatine, Illinois. He graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth as a music major in 1958 and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He earned a master’s degree at Princeton in 1962, where he did additional graduate work and was an assistant instructor in French. His black-and-white documentary film about undergraduate life at Princeton, “Princeton Contexts,” won the Silver Award (highest in the category) at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1962—an early indication of his talents as both a photographer and filmmaker.

John came to Bowdoin in the fall of 1962 as an instructor in Romance languages, a position he held until 1966. His photographs and accompanying catalogue for a 1966 exhibit at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art—“As Maine Goes…”—revealed some ugly truths about the environmental consequences of pollution, seaside dumps, and unchecked development along the coast. It was widely recognized as a catalyst for the environmental movement and for legislation banning billboards on public roadways in Maine. Following the exhibit, John was named the director of the Bowdoin Center for Resource Studies in 1966 to explore land-use issues along the Maine coast. The extraordinary photographs from “As Maine Goes…” also won him the National Conservation Communicator of the Year Award from the National Wildlife Federation.

His second exhibit of photographs at our museum—”Hands to Work and Hearts to God,” about Maine’s Sabbathday Lake Shaker community—was recognized by the Maine Commission on the Arts and Humanities with the 1973 Maine State Award for images that “…summon poetry out of simple things and do not yield to the obvious or the picturesque.” A major retrospective in 1984, “Photographs 73–83 John McKee,” also received critical acclaim for John’s artistry. His influence as a teacher was on display in a 1994 exhibit and catalogue of the work of his former students, “Bowdoin Photographers: A Liberal Arts Lens.”

John was a lecturer in the art department from 1969 to 1987 and an associate professor of art from 1987 until 2001, when he retired and was voted emeritus status. His former students established the John McKee Fund for Photography in 2002 to honor his legacy.

John’s faculty file contained a sealed envelope to be opened upon his death. Inside is a note, written in December 1990, informing the dean of the faculty that he did not want a memorial service: “Anybody who wants to, might some good day go for a quiet walk and enjoy looking about.” This was followed by “If a memorial minute must be read at some faculty meeting, it better not last more than sixty seconds.”

John’s life and career have had a lasting impact on the College, on Maine, and in his field. We join with his former students, friends, and colleagues in expressing our gratitude for the many ways he encouraged us to see the world around us with new eyes.



3 Comments John McKee

  1. Kathy Kershner

    John bought my great grandparents’ farm and i stopped in now and then to visit and see his latest additions to his rock collection he had going with his young Lachance friend and tease him about leaving me the weather vane off the barn to keep it in the family…..we always has stories to swap as i would tell him stories of the farm life my dad had there and he would tell me what he had been up to and his future plans for the farm … i will miss my visits and his stories

  2. Mike Ritter '02

    John was the best teacher I ever had and I never even had him for a class. He was my advisor and so tuned in to me as a person and student. When I finally got a photography class in my junior year, Mike Kolster, a wonderful teacher in his own right, was my professor not John as he was retiring. I kept in touch with John after Bowdoin and visited him over weekends occasionally. He was so good at being in the present it pulled me into it as well. He thought big picture and among other activism he put land in trusts to keep it undeveloped. His concerns were beyond himself which should be a goal of us all. I’ve been a freelance photographer for 18 years and John was always there encouraging me. I’ll miss him dearly, and I’m sure he would say this reminiscence was too long.

  3. Bob Kinn 77

    One of the very best at Bowdoin, and that of course is saying something extraordinary. I had hoped to visit him this summer at his forever home off Pleasant, but sadly arrived too late. I think of John often, an exemplary member of the Bowdoin community and a beloved friend, and now must carry over to memories.


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