“Maine Photography: A History, 1840-2015” is not just another picture book. It is a no-nonsense, overarching study of this state’s photographic history, from the first daguerreotypes to the digital photography of today. It is also thoroughly researched, thoughtfully, sometimes provocatively written and quite attractively designed.
There are many imprints dedicated to this state’s photography, including the catalog “First Light: The Dawn of Photography in Maine” (1999) by John Monroe and Earle G. Shettleworth Jr.; “Isaac Simpson’s World: The Collected Works of an Itinerant Photographer” (1990) by Geraldine Tidd Scott; and “A Portrait of Maine” (1968) by Berenice Abbott and Chenoweth Hall.
“Maine Photography” does for the art form what “Maine and Its Role in American Art” (1963) did for painting and sculpture. The latter had eight chapters, by three local and five national specialists. “Maine Photography” has nine chapters by three Maine scholars: Libby Bischof, professor of social and cultural history at the University of Southern Maine; Susan Danly, longtime museum curator and author, with Bischof, of “Maine Moderns: Art in Seguinland,” (2011); and state historian Shettleworth, who has written dozens of first-rate books and monographs.
One would be hard-pressed to assemble a better group of writers and researchers for the task at hand. On top of that, this book is a product of the recent Maine Photo Project, a campaign that included more than 30 exhibitions and programs in as many Maine cultural organizations, ranging from the Tides Institute & Museum of Art in Eastport to the Museums of Old York and that included museums at Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges, the University of Maine in Orono, the University of Southern Maine and more. If ever there was a statewide collaboration, this was it.
(A disclosure: I serve as part-time librarian at the Maine Historical Society, which was a partner in publishing this book, and I have worked as a freelancer for several institutions involved in the Photo Project, but I had nothing to do with producing the book, nor do I derive any benefit from it.)
Divided into nine chapters with an introduction, “Maine Photography” boasts a glossary, a list of institutions that participated in the statewide project, a list of Maine’s photo-archives, a bibliography and a useful index. The book starts with a chapter by Shettleworth spotlighting the first 25 years. Unlike with other art forms, we know that Samuel P. Long of New Hampshire began taking daguerreotypes in Portland, Gardiner and Augusta in May and June of 1840. In 1843, the first settled photographer came to Maine in the person of Marcus Ormsbee. Oh, what standout images he and his rivals produced of citizens, events and architecture, of war and conflagration, changing the way life was perceived. Shettleworth goes on to explore tourism from the end of the Civil War to the start of World War II, and he studies “photography in the service of art.”
In her chapters, Bischof examines the work of four women photographers, the now-celebrated Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, Emma Sewall, Emma Coleman and Joanna Colcord, and she covers labor photographs, from a formal daguerreotype of a carpenter with his square and folding rule to Lewis Hine’s rugged photographs of child workers. In Chapter 7, she focuses on 20th-century photographers “from away,” including Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott and Eliot Porter.
Susan Danly writes about pictorialist photography in the first half of the 20th century and covers contemporary practices. Like those of her co-authors, her essays are first-rate.
Though my taste runs to earlier images, I was especially transfixed by a 2007 image by Mark Klett called “Panorama of Congress Street,” featuring the Baxter Building. This is a street scene I pass every day, and yet it is presented in a clear, fresh way, calling attention to details never seen in such a way before.
This is a necessary book for all Maine libraries concerned with the arts.
William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.