This is an article about three shows: Two on photography and a third that introduces itself with a photograph — a very old one.
My bias in favor of traditionally achieved photographs has nagged at this column for years. Photography as we knew it — a blend of chemistry, light and glorious skill — came to an abrupt end when cell phones were taught to take pictures.
My sulk over that phenomenon abides, and I counter by jumping at opportunities to see classic photographs made by masters.
Silver gelatin gets my juices going, and platinum, gum bichromate and cyanotype raise the temperature. Ambrotypes and black-and-white pinholes carry me off the charts.
The blending of such archaic technologies and contemporary vision is endlessly fascinating; history and aesthetics sometime compel one another.
First is “Relevant Histories” by Brenton Hamilton at Addison Woolley Gallery in Portland. I do not find the title relevant to the event, but I find the event as compelling as any gallery show that I have seen this year.
It offers an excursion into the aesthetics that inhabit Hamilton’s mind — not an evening paddle on a still pond — and into a form of technical virtuosity that blurs its way between photography and painting.
The subject matter will keep you on edge; the vehicle — variations on an antique medium — adds to the challenge.
Hamilton’s work is for the serious of mind and those who demand durability, not just against physical deterioration (photographs can be fugitive) but also of intensity of purpose. His images will retain their force physically and emotionally.
The procedure begins with photographs of images that Hamilton apprehends from a variety of printed sources — think Bosch, Durer and the Cranachs.
The photographs are printed in sunlight in multiple washes on surfaces finished with platinum, gum bichromate (chromium), cyanotype (blue) or gum Arabic itself, and then given multiple applications of color.
It is a day-long event. The effect is work that is painterly intense and unique.
The process and subjects mute the presence of photography, but in some form, it lurks in the recesses. You may not be able to identify it, but in musing about the process, the photographic ancestry will appear to you.
In a word, Hamilton’s images are fascinating, and they will endure.
The artist offers us his taste for the macabre, for deformation, for impossible coalescence and ambiguities in history and in the history of art in particular. The tower of Babel in his eye is more flirtatious than the descendants of Noah could have imagined.
See this show. It’s a rare event.
THE SHOW that begins with an old photograph is titled “We Never See Anything Clearly,” and is at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick.
It was drawn from the museum’s collections by two students, Ben Livingston and Ursula Moreno-VanderLaan.
I have rarely turned this column toward student shows, but this event is a small jewel, and is so felicitous in the handsome Becker Gallery that I can’t resist it.
It has to do with watercolors and gouache, and little with lenses and film, but suggests photography as a philosophic provocation.
The introduction — the photograph — is a mid-19th-century English urban view by the legendary William Henry Fox Talbot.
One of the first photographers entitled to claim the invention of the imprinting of images durably and fixed on paper, Talbot had a pastoral eye. But the device under his control — a camera — was capable of recording information in infinitely finer detail than could any artist with brush or pen.
That technical capacity is the nub of the show.
The issue — the virtuosity of the photograph versus the effects usual to the fine artist — was raised by the English critic-painter John Ruskin. He found virtue in the romantic atmospheric effects in the paintings of J.M.W. Turner and his circle, but also in the detail-infused work of the English Pre-Raphaelites.
The reconciling of these views was a major effort of Ruskin’s and of certain American landscape painters who subscribed to him.
The matter was never resolved.
It is all rather quaint and academic to us, but the works selected to illustrate the historic divergence speak eloquently of the times.
In addition to the Talbot photograph, other images include an exquisite watercolor of a rock by Ruskin and an elegant drawing of a sugar maple by the American painter Jervis McEntee (1828-81) that struggles with the reconciliation of detail with effect.
Three small gouaches from the 1870s by another American, William Trost Richards (1833-1905) grace the event: Two are gentle coastal ambulations; the third is somewhat more forceful.
This list is not complete. It is intended to introduce an engaging occasion both visually and into the many uncertainties of art.
I CONCLUDE with “Photography: Here & There — The Power of the Particular” at Jonathan Frost Gallery in Rockland. It is a broadly ranging event studded with long-established names.
To suggest its dimensions, I’ll list the participants: Richard Barnett, Tillman Crane, Kathie Florsheim, Catherine Leuthold, Jim Nickelson, Rania Matar, Jeanette Phillipps, Olive Pierce and Craig Stevens.
I applaud its ambitions. In addition to the large number of accomplished artists, the range of work covers much of contemporary photography as we find it in our precincts.
One photographer, Pierce, narrates the sociology of a small community. Two, Leuthod and Matar, are world journalists and documentarians. Another two, Crane and Stevens, are classic landscape photographers.
Nickelson sees the landscape in its nocturnal guise; Florsheim covers the contradictions and banalities of American leisure; Phillips’ eye is tuned to the geometry of design; and Barnett is touched by vacancies in the landscape that people once filled and in places where they once lived.
As to the show’s ambitions, I see them as an effort to provide the public with a broad index into highly evolved photography available in Maine.
In that effort, it has succeeded admirably. “Here & There” is the best generalized photography show I’ve seen this season.
Philip Isaacson of Lewiston has been writing about the arts for the Maine Sunday Telegram for 47 years. He can be contacted at: