Anna Wells’ first reaction was surprise.

“Where have all these been,” she asked when her husband, Owen, showed her a few of the photographs he intended to donate to the Portland Museum of Art. “Most of them I had not seen.”

The Falmouth couple, known for their arts philanthropy, have given nearly 70 photographs to the museum. The collection includes landscapes and portraits, documentary work and abstraction, and encompasses many of the major thematic and stylistic developments in American photography over 100 years, said curatorial fellow Zmira Zilkha.

The Wells collection represents many highlights of 20th-century U.S. photography with an emphasis on photographers working in Maine.

“It’s eclectic and varied, and that’s the strength of the collection,” said Zilkha, hired by the museum to document the collection and mount an exhibition.

About 40 of the photographs are on view through Feb. 23 on the museum’s fourth floor in “American Vision: Photographs from the Collection of Owen and Anna Wells.”

“It’s an amazing gift of works by some of the most amazing photographers of the last 100 years,” said museum director Mark Bessire. “It’s all blue-chip photography.”

The collection includes key names in 20th-century photography, including Berenice Abbott, Paul Caponigro, Eliot Porter, Ansel Adams and Robert Mapplethorpe. There’s are vintage Paul Strand prints, printed by the photographer himself, portraits and landscapes by Margaret Bourke-White and dog profiles by William Wegman.

HE BOUGHT WHAT HE LIKED

Owen Wells would tell you he put together the collection haphazardly over 20 years, buying at auction prints that piqued his curiosity. He did so without any scholarship in mind, choosing images that he liked by photographers he recognized.

Zilkha said Wells made many smart choices. “Owen has a very keen eye. He has a more discerning eye than even he realizes,” she said.

He worked quietly, not even telling his wife and never putting the photos on display. They remained in storage in the couple’s Falmouth’s home, with Wells’ intent always to turn them over to the museum at the appropriate time.

The collection began with the purchase of an Abbott photograph of a house along Route 1 in Belfast. Taken in 1954, it shows a country home beneath a sprawling tree, its fall branches bare.

This is from her series “A Portrait of Maine,” which Abbott published in 1968. She was living in Maine by then, having moved up from New York.

Wells could have purchased one of her better known and more valuable New York photos, but he chose a Maine subject, and thus evolved a theme for his collection. Whenever possible, he purchased work by photographers with ties to the state.

The collection includes a still-life by Rudy Burckhardt, who came to Maine in 1963 to visit Lois Dodd and Alex and Ada Katz. Two years later, he and his wife, Yvonne Jacquette, purchased a home in Maine.

There are four photographs by Paul Caponigro, who has ties to Maine Media Workshops and has lived in Cushing since 1992. The four in the collection – photographs of nature and architecture – represent key elements of Caponigro’s interests.

Wells bought photographs that were out of character for the photographer.

Two examples:

When we think of Ansel Adams, we think of Yosemite. The Wells collection has a Yosemite print, but this is not the arching landscapes that we’ve come to associate with Adams. Instead, we get “Graduation Dress,” an elegant portrait of a young girl in her graduation whites, perched against a massive tree in the Yosemite valley.

And certainly, Robert Mapplethorpe conjures sexually charged, provocative images. In the Wells collection, we see “Man on Side Street” from 1976. The photographer experiments with light and composition as he frames a solitary figure tending to a sidewalk shop in New York.

“It’s different,” Wells said. “It’s not what you would expect, which is what attracted me.”

CURATORIAL CHALLENGE

Zilhka, 27, began working on this project in the summer. She grew up in Portland, graduated from Middlebury College in 2008, and earned her master’s at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, studying European modernism with a focus on photography.

Home visiting her parents this summer, she learned of the opportunity to work with the Wells collection, and accepted the challenge of researching and assembling the show.

When this project is over, she plans to return to her research position at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.

Owen and Anna Wells have deep roots with the Portland museum. Owen is past president of the trustees; Anna is current president.

They met at a museum function in 1980, fell in love and spent their life together collecting and donating art to museums across Maine. Among their gifts to the Portland museum is a Frederic Church landscape, “Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp.” It’s one of the most important paintings in the museum collection, Bessire said.

“If you just walk around the museum and look at the labels, you will see that over time they have had a major impact on our collection,” he said.

The photography collection is the latest example.

Owen Wells learned the giving way at the helm of Maine philanthropist Elizabeth Noyce, who gave art across Maine and founded the Libra Foundation. Owen Wells is vice chair of the Libra Foundation.

“I’ve taken great inspiration from Betty,” Owen Wells said. “She loved her art, she loved collecting and she loved giving it away.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes