The world comes into focus when Maryann Cheung looks through her viewfinder.
The Hillsborough photographer sees elements of small-town charm in her work, material she might not have noticed without a tightly framed slice of life to emphasize subtle, simple scenes.
“If you look at her photos, you can tell she has an incredible talent to bring out the best in what we have here,” said Laurie Jutzi of Hillsborough. “It’s a real gift, and for a struggling town template decaying like others all over New England, her work has been an inspiration for those to see what they really have here and are so lucky to be near.”
Jutzi nominated Cheung for the Monitor’s Hometown Hero series. She described a local woman who had photography in the back of her mind for years, yet only immersed herself in the art two years ago. At age 60.
Circumstances dictated that it was time for Cheung to pursue something that she knew she’d love. Covid had hit, and Cheung’s husband contracted the illness and spent five weeks in the hospital, near other patients who later died.
“When something like that happens, you know life is short,” Cheung said. “I thought that sounded like the right time to do it.”
Cheung remains in the midst of an awakening, a two-year process thus far that’s given her a keener appreciation, a reminder to stop and smell the flowers.
“For years, I tried (photography) at a younger age, but I was a working mother,” Cheung said. “Recently this served as a wake-up call. I was so happy and grateful for my husband’s return home from the hospital, but if you remember, those were dark times. I had to do something, and one thing I wanted to do was photography.”
Her late father had given her a Minolta, her husband a tripod. That was many years ago.
“My father gave me a great one and it sat on my shelf for 30 years,” Cheung said. “And now I use it and now I am a photographer. I wish dad had seen that.”
He would have seen scenes that elicited warmth through simplicity. The little girl with a determined look pulling a rope attached to a goat at this year’s hometown parade.
The darkened silhouette of a squirrel eating a nut while crouched on a tree branch. The water skiers helping the town to celebrate its 250th birthday.
On her website, Cheung explains that “I photograph where I live, capturing and sharing the beauty of the landscape and those that live here.”
Cheung, in fact, has become part of this intriguing landscape herself.
“When I am pulled over and I’m shooting, they beep their horns and wave to me and give me tips and they message me about themselves,” Cheung said.
Her photographs of the town’s 250th tribute this summer are included in the 88-page souvenir program book. In fact, her photos are everywhere in town, and she never charges a dime for the use of any of them.
Her work will be displayed at the Hillsborough Historical Society, depicting various stages of the pandemic.
“She shares her images on Facebook and has a huge following,” Jutzi wrote in her nominating email to the Monitor. “She reminds everyone of what a wonderful place we live in and the simple pleasures of daily life in a smallish NH town.”
Once, shortly after moving from Keene to Hillsborough in 1992, Cheung and her husband opened a Chinese restaurant in town and owned it for 20 years. They sold it seven years ago.
“The restaurant was very successful,” Cheung said. “When we opened it, it was the recession, and people were still waiting outside the door. But it was time to move on to other things. Enough was enough. It was lots of work and we felt we had nothing else to bring it.”
Cheung is a caregiver for a family member. That’s a job. Photography is something else entirely. She submits her photos to the town’s Facebook postings and her work is featured in her own personal journal.
She continues to learn about the aesthetic beauty that her town offers, saying, “I take photos of downtown at night. I got home that first time and (the photos were) not great, but they looked so different than what I had actually seen.
She continued: “We walk around and take things for granted, especially at night. You don’t notice anything, and then you see that our little park looks so very nice.”