Starting today, Mainers can take a cross-country road trip and travel only as far as the Portland Museum of Art.

“Weston: Leaves of Grass” opens on the museum’s second floor and runs through March 13. It features 53 photographs shot by the legendary Edward Weston (1886-1958). Each of the rarely exhibited black-and-white images in the show was produced in 1941, when Weston embarked on a trip across America to illustrate Walt Whitman’s epic poetry book, “Leaves of Grass.”

“This is really a focused exhibition that shows what a master Weston was,” said Thomas Denenberg, deputy director and chief curator of the Portland Museum of Art. “There were very few photographers who had the range to take on ‘Leaves of Grass.’ “

Weston was one of a group of early-20th-century photographers who abandoned the then-popular pictorial style of photography, which relied on a soft focus to emulate paintings.

Along with Ansel Adams and others, Weston was a founding member of the f/64 group of photographers, whose work exploited the medium’s ability to create a sharp focus and a great depth of field. The Portland Museum of Art just wrapped up a group show that featured images shot by the f/64 group, whose work came to define modern photography.

The “Leaves of Grass” trip took Weston to 24 states over the course of 10 months. His challenge in illustrating the more than 400 lyric poems in the book was producing work that was striking enough to stand on its own while capturing the essence of Whitman’s wide-ranging subject matter.

Tracing the route Weston followed on the trip, the show, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, starts with works captured in California and ends with photographs shot on the East Coast, including two taken in Kennebunkport.

“We tend to have these single images in our mind of Weston’s work — such as the beautiful nudes,” Denenberg said. “But this (show) is Weston as an ethnographer.”

Weston’s pictorial study of American people and places follows Whitman’s depiction of everything from the country’s landscape to racial relations.

Denenberg points out that while almost a century separates their work — “Leaves of Grass” was originally published in 1855 — Weston and Whitman lived during times that faced similar cultural and social issues.

“One’s a poet and one’s a photographer,” Denenberg said, “but they’re using their art to tell the story of America.”

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

[email protected]

Follow her on Twitter at:

Twitter.com/AveryYaleKamila

 

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