The man behind the First Night button

Boston's 32-year old New Years Eve tradition is fast approaching and residents are eager to celebrate. First Night Boston- North America's largest art exposition- features the works of local, national and international artists and attracts over a million excited spectators. On Nov. 16 dozens gathered at Park Plaza Hotel and Towers to witness the unveiling of the First Night Boston button of 2008. Freelance photographer Mike Ritter, 27, says no one is more thrilled about this year's event than he is. "It means a lot to me that I actually get to be a part of it this year-- on the artistic side," said Ritter who was recently honored as artist the for new year's button.

A Dorchester resident, Ritter moved from his home in Maine just five years ago after graduating from Bowdoin College with a degree in art history and visual arts.

"I have always had an artistic side and originally planned to be an architect," said Ritter. "But when my dad gave me his camera during my junior year, that's when it all started: My love for photography. It became a way for me to express my identity."

The button, Ritter says, expresses what he feels is the essence of Boston.

"It was last 4th of July during an Aerosmith concert. I was standing on the Longfellow Bridge with a beautiful view of the skyline looking into the Prudential. It was one of those "Boston" moments and I took that picture to capture that moment."

Though Ritter says he enjoyed photography while in school, it was not a career path he'd intended to follow.

"It just kind of happened," said Ritter who worked for Stone Photo in downtown Boston soon after graduating from Bowdoin. "For two years I worked I had to work my way up from doing deliveries to producing photos and I learned a lot. I didn't only gain knowledge about the quality of products, but also problem solving and working with people. Life skills that would help me through future experiences."

After a few more "odd jobs" such as working at Lee Art Gallery in Winchester, Ritter was inspired to venture out on his own. In 2003 he founded Ritterbin Photography and quickly became well known within the community. Ritter has done photo shoots with doctors at Boston Medical Center. He's done shoots with Franklin Park Zoo, which was displayed on a billboard overlooking Dorchester Avenue.

Contributing to eight arts shows annually, Ritter's work has been displayed in exhibitions such as the New Arts Michael Price Gallery and the Cambridge Art Association national art show. "It's an extremely rewarding job in the sense that it is a continuous learning experience," said Ritter. "Through these art shows I have learned history of photography and better understand the chemistry of art."

Recently Ritter has discovered a passion for travel photography. Beginning with a trip to Peru last year where he did pro bono photo shoots for the rain forest expedition, Ritter says he made the decision to make it an annual mission.

"I did not plan to take this on it just happened. But seeing how much it helps people has made it an amazing experience."

This year Ritter traveled to Guatemala to shoot for Safe Passage, which helps provide opportunities for families living near the city dump. While Ritter hopes to become more involved with travel photography in the future, he says Boson will always be home.

"I love Boston. I don't know if I could have run my business like this in any other city," said Ritter. "I have learned so much through my photography as I worked within various close-knit communities. It's just a dynamic place to live."

All First Night events are free through the support of button sales. Buttons are $15 in advance (children under 4 admitted free) and will be available beginning Nov. 23 at Boston-area Shaw's and Star Markets, Store 24, L'il Peach, Tedeschi's, Au Bon Pain and various other locations.