With the scholarship about him as incomplete as it is, Winslow Homer is an open question. “Winslow Homer and the Camera: Photography and the Art of Painting” is an exciting and provocative exhibition, less for any answer it provides than for the unanswered questions it poses.

And as an exhibition featuring the work by Homer, one of America’s greatest, best-known and most influential artists, it is loaded with masterworks of unusually intense visual and intellectual content.

The displayed gathering of Homer’s paintings, prints, drawings, photographs and personal effects, such as his cameras, paint box, mannequins and even his fishing net, brings a set of images of Homer that goes beyond his images or what we know of his biography. While the curators, Bowdoin College Museum of Art co-director Frank H. Goodyear III and art history professor Dana E. Byrd, dig deep within the cultural surroundings and historical facts, what comes out of the exhibition, for me at least, is the sense that Homer led the way for American photorealism.

We see, for example, Homer’s first artistic success – as an illustrator for magazines – led by his working directly from photographs by the likes of Mathew Brady, such as Brady’s February 1860 portrait of President Lincoln that Homer directly used for his November 10, 1860 cover of Harper’s Weekly.

Byrd and Goodyear also include “Baseball Running and Picking Up Ball,” an 1887 collotype by Eadward Muybridge, whose serial images were seminal for the visual unpacking of movement – from athletes in motion to how horses run, which was widely inaccurate in paintings of the 19th century. For an artist like Homer, who was a fan of Muybridge, this proved that visual accuracy lay with photography rather than European traditions. As an illustrator, Homer was concerned with, as the curators put it, “legibility and credibility,” and I imagine he realized that, as photography became the standard bearer for objectivity, the public would more and more look to photography rather than the historical conventions of traditional painting. We can see this playing out, for example, in Homer’s collected photographs of water and works in which he seeks to portray it. This is particularly apparent in the museum’s tiny Gallery Four with Homer’s photos printed on the wall and a suite of breathtaking watercolors of hunting and boating scenes.

“High Cliff, Coast of Maine,” 1894, oil on canvas.

This is hard for us to see now, since at this point photorealism has taken over as our dominant understanding of accurate representation. In Homer’s day, academic techniques and standards – and all of their weighty visual traditions – represented generations of the leading thinking. But with his use of photography and understanding of the popular media (Harper’s Weekly was hugely popular: Homer was well paid and had a vast audience), Homer was well positioned to sense and take advantage of a radical shift in pictorial culture.

We could, in fact, argue this view of Homer should lift him high in the ranks of radical modernists. I certainly believe that. But, to use the local wisdom: It’s hard sayin’, not knowin’.

The many gathered photos of the artist in “Homer and the Camera” remind us of his familiarity and friendliness to photography. His illustrations prove his trust in photography’s data. On the flip side, Homer is deeply committed to representations of traditional means of observation in his paintings and prints, but there he finds flaws.

The best known of Homer’s images of observation was his early triumph, the Portland Museum of Art’s 1863 oil “The Sharpshooter.” But the technology of the scope is dark and destructive.

“Homer and the Camera” also includes a series of images related to Homer’s 1868 “Artists Sketching in the White Mountains,” an image series featuring the observing of artists in the act of working en plein air.

“Eight Bells,” 1886, oil on canvas.

In the iconic 1886 “Eight Bells,” on loan from Addison Gallery of American Art of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, we see two seamen using navigation technology, including a sextant. But navigation then was as much art as science, and the tools were far from perfect.

A related image, but with far more narrative, is Homer’s wood engraving “Approach of the British Pirate: Alabama” published in Harper’s Weekly on April 25, 1863. In this case, several women and their children crowd around a heroically solid officer who observes the enemy ship through a spyglass (with its camera-like lenses). No one looks to the sailor glancing out from up on the rope ladder.

Homer in 1908, gelatin silver print by an unidentified photographer.

I see this wisp of a penchant for sentimentality as a hint to a key pairing in “Homer and the Camera.” From time to time, Homer would have his paintings photographed, and he signed the photographic reproductions with the idea of selling them. (To say the least, that was not a common practice.) One of the most beautiful and powerful images in the show is Homer’s 1894 painting “The Fisher Girl,” in which a strong young woman with a fishing net draped over her shoulder peers out to sea in bad weather. Homer had this painting photographed, and one of the signed commercial images is on display next to the painting. However, the background of the photographed image is painted with a tall set of rocks behind the figure rather than the vague, open and atmospheric setting of the painting. The details of the photograph, however, lend a clear flavor of sentimentality to the image. One could argue the ever-restless Homer was simply repainting his images until he was satisfied, but when comparing the textured details of the photo image to the painterly qualities (glazing, impasto, pentimenti, etc) of the canvas’s background, it’s hard not to believe that Homer knew the differences between and best qualities of the two media – as well as the differences of his intended audiences. I have no doubt Homer made these distinctions by plan.

Homer’s willingness to ignore traditional academic techniques was not ignored by contemporary critics. He may not have had a traditional academic education, but his skills and abilities make it clear he could have pastiched any leading style of the day if he wanted. But Homer was up to something else, something completely new. Combine this with his willingness to borrow phrases, textures and details from varied sources, including photographs, and we start to see an artist who incorporated a new discourse of image “legibility and credibility.” It’s then possible to consider the man who was America’s leading artist at the end of the 19th century as our first photorealist.

“Homer and the Camera” casts a bright light on a vaguely lit cultural moment. It’s an exciting exhibition filled with strong works and interesting objects. Best of all, however: It raises important questions.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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