There is something exciting about the Owen and Anna Wells collection of photography now on view at the Portland Museum of Art. We have seen a few of them before, but most are images by important photographers that have not been shown to the point that the mystery is gone and all we have to do is recognize them. Visiting this show is like meeting new neighbors: Home base has been changed and recharged.
It’s another step up for the PMA.
The Wellses have both chaired the PMA’s board, and they have already donated important work. Their gift of “Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp” by Frederic Church is arguably no less important than Winslow Homer’s great “Weatherbeaten.” After all, Church essentially founded Maine art as we have come to know it: He came to Maine to paint in 1850, fell in love with the state and never stopped coming back. He kept a home in New York but bought land in Maine and returned every year to paint.
And that is the well worn path of so many of Maine’s greatest artists.
Another artist of this common narrative is Berenice Abbott – one of America’s greatest photographers. Abbott was born in Ohio and then did her artistic growing up in Europe and New York before finally settling down in Monson, Maine.
Abbott’s “House, Belfast, Along Route 1” is easy enough to date without reading the label (1954): It’s a silver print of an old Victorian home. An autumnally leafless and ancient elm soars to the sky in front of the house. And old car drives up the road in the distance – past colonial revival homes (so widely inspired by PMA force John Calvin Stevens) and leaving us with postwar mailboxes in the foreground. It’s the vernacular poetry of Maine: the unburnished and gritty elegance of real people living in a beautiful but brutal place.
Another Abbott image is completely different: It’s an object photograph of a piece of wood that has been coaxed from an insect-riddled, rotten log into an organically reductive sculpture. It is a philosophical metaphor of photographic art: Take what you find and expand its own logic until the authorship is intriguingly balanced between the subject as observed and the photographer’s aesthetic and technical interventions.
This idea of photography raises questions, however, about some of the most interesting works in the collection. An Ansel Adams portrait of “the Heweston Girl” standing next to a redwood trunk is titled “Graduation Dress, Yosemite Valley, CA.” The model is, well, no model, and this common mode was decidedly uncommon for Adams, so the motivation behind the image becomes part of the content. Was this a paid gig or a favor photo of a friend’s daughter? It’s a nice change for an Adams image because it motivates the viewer to look closely for quirks and details instead standing back in aesthetic awe.
Margaret Bourke-White is represented by one of the few genuinely iconic images in the show – a 1935 aerial shot of the Sierra Madres. But hanging next to the gorgeously misty-eyed mountains is a commercial shot she took while working for TWA. A well-dressed and well-to-do woman is comfortably snacking on a virtual cornucopia of treats and beverages as she gazes out the window. With her eyes averted, we are invited to look as long as we want. Our view is from the server’s standpoint, so our attention feels like servile attentiveness, and we quickly find ourselves wishing to trade places with this well-attended patron. It’s a brilliant piece of marketing.
Another atypically intriguing image is a New York City street scene by Robert Mapplethorpe. Again we are pressed to put on our Sherlock Holmes caps since the scene shows a Hasidic man selling simple clothes on the open-market street. We have to look past the model’s timeless fashion to the style of the luggage hanging on hooks and a plastic milk crate – the often absconded and repurposed plastic boxes invented in 1968. This is Mapplethorpe in a mode common to the greats with whom his name is so often mentioned – and he absolutely stands up to them.
But this is only the beginning: About 40 of the nearly 70 works in the Wells donation are on view. Other notable images include Philippe Halsman’s silver print of a 38-year old Paul Newman chopping wood in a chaotic spring forest, gorgeously subtle Eliot Porter photos of a flower in a black cliff and budding tree growth in bottomland, William Wegman’s C-print of a female dog in profile standing over an oddly-placed geometric watering can, and George Tice’s iconically stunning portrait of an Amish boy.
My favorite image in the show is both quirky and delectable – an orchard image by Cushing, Maine’s Paul Caponigro. The 1981 dye imbibition print features colorfully luscious fruit on a tree with snow on the ground (typically, a bad combination). The labeling only makes you pause more: The title is “Apple Orchard, Tesuque, NM” while the wall label describes the “red berries.” But such misfires only play up the intrigue of the works on display.
The Wells gift is a wide-ranging collection in which the quirks don’t feel like mistakes or market leftovers. It’s a solid and fascinating body of photography that makes for a welcome addition to the PMA.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:[email protected]