Harold Strout at his Pepperell Mill studio in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — Kaleigh McClure was there for a photo shoot to build her modeling portfolio. As they brainstormed, Harold Strout is pretty sure he was the one who suggested they go get a snake.

The lighting was right. The orange corn snake was chill. Drew Desjardins, Strout’s neighbor at the Pepperell Mill, gently talked the model through her snake phobia as it slithered over her ear and against her head, which was bald from alopecia.

“A lot of the models I work with may have anxieties or they may have issues for any reason,” Strout said. “A lot of them have been picked on for being too tall or too short or too skinny or not too skinny. A lot of times they’ve made a decision to do something about that and take a positive step in their modeling.

“If you have two people together dealing with each other on that level, creativity can happen. I knew we were creating magic at the time; some people you just know it at that moment.”

McClure, who until recently had lived in Maine, said it was by far one of her best modeling experiences.

“Harold is an amazing photographer,” she said. “When she (the corn snake) wrapped up around my head, I was nervous for a second but quickly became aware that she was just checking things out.”

By day, Strout, 62, of Monmouth is the executive director of a nonprofit that connects people with mental illness with housing. For the past 11 years, six of them in the mill, he has kept up KittyHawk Studio, shooting with mostly antique cameras on nights and weekends with an array of props, not so much taking photos as making statements.

“I’m always experimenting with light, light and concept,” Strout said. “I’m addicted to creative process. Photography to me is very similar to music, in a sense. When I’m working with people, I feel like they’re jamming with me.”

He first picked up a camera more than 30 years ago, when he and a girlfriend bought a 35mm.

“She didn’t care for it and I gravitated toward it,” he said, eventually building his own dark room.

In his 30s, Strout took a few photography classes in college, which broadened his horizons. Photos did not have to be literal. They could be anything.

While he is not a commercial photographer, Strout has shot weddings, baby pictures and senior portraits, almost always with some twist.

For a senior portrait, “we would do things perhaps in the parking garages or the fire escapes on the third and fourth floor of the building,” he said. “I consider the concept more than anything else. It sounds kind of weird. Content is concept.”

Strout keeps hundreds of props in his studio: frames, wood boughs, 14 TVs flickering static, cow skulls, old newspapers, old ads, fans, sticks, a motor, old clocks, old stereo components, clocks, chairs, mirrors, crosses, guitars. …

“My wife thinks I’m a hoarder,” he said. “I collect things, keep them for years, think about them.”

For another photo he had in mind, Strout carved the ends of regular wooden clothespins to a sharp point, painted them black, taped them to a model’s hands and had her pose her fingers over ramshackle piano keys. The shot is tight — just the hands and keys.

“I really wanted the viewer to see they were taped onto somebody’s fingers,” Strout said. “That’s part of the show, if you will.”

Strout said he often connects with models — women and men — over Instagram, either reaching out to them if he has an idea or hearing from them about portfolio shots.

“There’s a pretty sizable network of photographers and models here in Maine, and that stretches into New Hampshire and Massachusetts,” he said.

Previous studios were at the Kittyhawk Industrial Park in Auburn, where the business got its name, and then above Subway on Lisbon Street. The Pepperell spot has worked out well.

“Even having this big mill and the studio, it never ends,” Strout said. “You’re always trying to push yourself and be more creative. You find things: Light changes, temperature changes, the mill is always changing.”

And sometimes, there is a neighbor willing to loan you a snake.

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Model Kaleigh McClure poses with one of the snakes from Mr. Drew’s Exotic Rescue and Education Center, during a recent photo shoot with Harold Strout at the Pepperell Mill in Lewiston. (Photo courtesy Harold Strout/KittyHawk Studio)

An image that Harold Strout named “Nails and Tape Solo,” with model Abby Daggett. On her fingers, Daggett is wearing clothespins that have been carved to a point and painted black. (Photo courtesy Harold Strout/KittyHawk Studio)

Harold Strout at his Pepperell Mill studio in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)