Acadia Impressions

Howie Motenko Captures Acadia Using the Japanese Philosophy of Godai


For photographer Howie Motenko, Acadia National Park is his backyard. Living in Seal Harbor with wife Brenda, they spend most of their spare time in the park.

“Being in the park takes me back to childhood—when you are a little kid, you want to go out and explore your backyard, looking for new ways to use your imagination,” Motenko describes.

In the winter of 2021, Motenko was in search of inspiration and community. He found both in an online workshop that explored the Japanese philosophy of Godai through photography.

Diptych by Howie Motenko

Rooted deeply in ancient Japanese thought and spirituality, Godai encapsulates a profound understanding of the fundamental elements that constitute the natural world and human existence. Derived from Buddhist and Shinto traditions, Godai represents the five elements – Earth (Chi), Water (Sui), Fire (Ka), Wind (Fu), and Void (Ku) – each symbolizing distinct qualities and aspects of life, both tangible and intangible.

Motenko applied the philosophy to create a captivating look at Acadia National Park in winter by emphasizing the interplay of its elemental principles. The elements are present in their physical form not only in images, but they are also represented symbolically through the flow and balance running through each image.

Earth is symbolized by the tangible subjects and landscapes captured, grounding images in physical reality. Water is evoked through the fluidity and emotional depth conveyed through compositions, reflecting the ever-changing nature of the visual appearance of the park. Fire is represented by dramatic contrasts to evoke emotion and intrigue.

Wind is symbolized through movement, rhythm, flow, and submersion, guiding the viewer’s eye and creating dynamic tension. Void, often associated with emptiness and space, is embraced through negative space, silence, and the unseen, allowing room for interpretation and contemplation.

This summer, while attending a printing workshop, Motenko was inspired to find juxtaposition between his black and white Godai images to pair them as diptychs and triptychs.

“I paired photos that have similar feelings,” he described. “Some shapes and flow reflect each other; others have similar textures and feelings.” Playing in abstraction and realism, Motenko hopes to offer the viewer self-exploration and quiet contemplation about the park and their relationship with it.

By integrating the principles of Godai, he has cultivated a holistic and nuanced approach to capturing the park, exploring the elemental balance, harmony, and interconnectedness inherent in capturing moments frozen in time during Acadia’s “quiet season.”

“Like as a child, I still enjoy exploration,” Motenko said. “Now, instead of just adventuring in Acadia, I am also thinking meditatively about what the feeling I get from the park means and how I can interpret it through the still image.”

JULIA WALKER THOMAS is Friends of Acadia’s Visual Storytelling and Creative Projects Manager.

Triptych by Howie Motenko

Motenko’s Acadia Impressions Showing at Blum Gallery

Howie Motenko is a longtime friend, volunteer, and donor to Friends of Acadia. He has collaborated on community photography events like “Painting Bridges” and has been a proceeds donor through his former business, “Acadia Photo Safari,” and from print sales at various photo shows around the island over the years. He also serves on the Acadia Advisory Commission. Friends of Acadia and College of the Atlantic are co-hosting a showing of Howie Motenko's collection of photographs, "Acadia Impressions," July 3-20 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Blum Gallery at College of the Atlantic. Open to the public. All are welcome at the "Meet the Artist" event on Tuesday, July 9, from 4 to 6 p.m.

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