Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest’s “Photographs of Portland” is a relatively small show of 13 silver gelatin prints in the Third Floor Gallery of the Maine Jewish Museum. The gallery is, in fact, a space above the synagogue’s sanctuary – a quiet, beautiful and authentic site of Portland’s cultural heritage.
It’s an excellent setting for van Voorst van Beest’s images. While street photography can be noisy, energetic and jostling, these photographs are thoughtfully observed, silenced by subtle mysteries and just enough intervening years to give us the sense that our questions are past answering.
The works in “Photographs of Portland” were shot over 20 years spanning from the late 1980s to 2007. Readers may be more familiar with van Voorst van Beest’s medium-format images, often seen in his regional shows. But these were all shot with a handheld 35mm Pentax.
The format matters: van Voorst van Beest includes the very borders of the film in almost all of the visible images, precluding his ability to crop or level them. This creates a subtle but stark contrast to digital photography and its essentially endless ability to be edited, corrected and changed. Here, very quietly, we are led to follow the path of the photographs directly back to the artist’s original observation.
The resulting images feel right, but often exude an understated strangeness. For example, in “Pearl Street,” a dark but tonally wide image of a man walking past the Custom House, there is no immediately obvious tilt. The sidewalk handrail runs with the slight angle of hill that rises against the verticality of the stoic official building. But with a longer look, the building seems to be leaning up the hill like the hurry-strided figure. This too is a bit camouflaged by the American flat jutting diagonally up from the left façade into the sliver of silver white sky. We feel the motion of the image, the man and the building. Van Voorst van Beest could have easily corrected this tilt by shifting the print, but he chose not to. The film frame makes it clear: He is honestly presenting his photographer’s view rather than anything contrived.
Another image of the Custom House is radically different. “Bird’s Eye View of the Custom House” looks down at the façade of the building with the water behind it. This too uses tilt to activate the scene, but this time with a genuinely witty compositional sense. This time, however, the function is not structural but compositional. The corner of the guard rail reaches to the very right edge of the frame – practically forcing the eye to scan from that point, down across the front of the building to the left side where the road opens up. Assisted by a car at that spot, we turn right and head back up into the image. Curving over the top of the building, we find our eye drawn to a resting square on the back right of the roof. Only after we have taken in van Voorst van Beest’s compositional path, do we even notice, for example, the curve of the horizon line back down to the left. It’s a strong image, smart and compelling.
Nonetheless, the best of these photographs do not call out to be analyzed. “State Street” is a welcoming view up a straight, well-traveled neighborhood sidewalk. The row houses sit comfortably with their 19th century charm fully intact and friendly. It is a nice image and an excellent print. “Evergreen Cemetery” is the smallest print, and its scale serves its visually luscious sense of mystery. A memorial angel, its head and wings in high contrast under gossamer white clouds, reaches to the sky. We barely notice the handless arm as it leaves just the tiniest synapse between its empty wrist and the upper border of the image (an excellent use of the film framing). The path and space before us are dark, but the print takes over and leaves us with a sense of photographic richness rather than anything bleak or nostalgic.
In “Canal Plaza,” van Voorst van Beest captures a figure exiting the upper left corner of the image, leaving a spreading path like the expanding wake of a boat passing on its busy way. The image is spare, but there is enough architecture, line-skinny vertical trees and cement gridding of the sidewalk to awaken the wave-like looseness of the path’s edge closest to us.
One image features a man running away from the viewer to exit a boxy hallway into the light, while darting a sharp left. The drama is highlighted by the reflection of the light shooting back down the hall on the left wall. The obvious and alarming reading is that he is escaping. Are we the victim? If you don’t recognize the space, the artist at least reminds us with the title, “Ferry Terminal,” that the runner is trying to catch his boat, we can assume, back to his island home.
Van Voorst van Beest’s Portland is a lonely but likable place. His architectural sense is romantic, even when he looks to a modern bridge, but more commonly with older stone structures. An oddly straight shadow falls down an ancient, lumpy tree. A railing stands straight and stately, but its shadow dances with jazzy syncopation over old stone steps.
Much of the success of the work stems from the quality of van Voorst van Beest’s prints, his satisfying sense of dark that he keeps in balance with an understated but pleasantly broad tonal range. They are not fussy or overly fancy but affably honest, and this allows for easy access to the photographer’s pictorial sophistication and observational skill.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: