December 22, 2013

Portland couple gives collection of photos to PMA

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

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

Anna Wells’ first reaction was surprise.

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Owen and Anna Wells pose in the fourth-floor gallery at the Portland Museum of Art with some of the photographs they have donated to the museum.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Owen Wells, right, who donated a collection of photographs to the Portland Museum of Art along with Annie Wells looks over some of the yet to be hung photographs along with, Craig Denekas, during a recent visit to the museum Monday, Dec. 16, 2013. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below



WHEN: On view through Feb. 23; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday

ADMISSION: $12 adults, $10 seniors and students with ID, $6 youth ages 13 to 17, and children 12 and younger free; free for all from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday

INFO: 775-6148;

“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.


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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

“Apple Orchard, Tesuque, N.M.,” 1981, dye coupler print by Paul Caponigro.

© Paul Caponigro

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Untitled, 1990, dye coupler print by William Wegman.

© William Wegman

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“Park Avenue Garage,” 1965, printed 1980, gelatin silver print by Ralph Steiner.

© Ralph Steiner Photography

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