Dirk McDonnell, “High Road with Telephone Poles,” Northwestern Argentina, 2009.  Photo courtesy of the artist

Even if you’ve never heard of 162 Russell, you might already know it. It’s the former Rockport home of the Center on Maine Contemporary Art before it moved to its swanky new digs in Rockland. It’s a particularly memorable space because its floors are often more wavy than the harbor it overlooks. Nonetheless it is white, bright and visually clean. It’s an excellent venue for photography.

The title of the current show, “Collective Work II,” hardly rolls off the tongue, but despite the dreary name, it’s notably strong. The landscape master Paul Caponigro headlines the five Maine photographers, two of whom – Eleanor Kerr and Anna Mikuskova – mastered their silver gelatin techniques by apprenticing with him. Dirk McDonnell and Ni Rong work digitally.

Ni Rong, “In America-Fall #3.” Photo courtesy of the artist

The Rockport-based Rong’s work is instantaneously recognizable because she appears in almost all of her works as her own model. She typically faces away from the camera, but her black bob and perfect posture are memorable enough. In her series “In America – Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter,” she regularly wears an Asian dress to play up her Chinese roots (she grew up in China and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s) and create a cultural contrast to the Maine landscapes in which she sets herself. In “Winter #4,” for example, she stands on a hill overlooking a harbor during a snowstorm. The landscape could be black and white – any color is grayed out by the snow – but Rong is in a red dress, draping an unseasonably thin black shawl over her shoulders. It’s a gorgeous study in contrasts. “In America #3” features Rong wearing a stylishly short and sleeveless dark dress while standing in the front point of a dory in a T-pose, as though about to dive in. Again the image is practically black and white, and this puts the skin tone of her arms in high relief as the singular source of color. Rong’s work is fundamentally surreal in the style of Rene Magritte. It acts like narrative but dead ends almost immediately in terms of rationality.

McDonnell’s large images are mostly landscapes, along with a couple of shots of sculptures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Camden photographer revisits his images in Photoshop and selectively takes sections out of focus. The effect – and clearly the artist’s intention – is to lead the viewer’s eye through the images, creating specific visual narrative paths through the landscape. He does this with “Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye, Scotland,” in which the craggy black rocks are sometimes blur-softened in the foreground, middle ground and background to lead your eyes through the image almost like stepping on stones to cross a stream. In “Mountain Road, Salta Area, Argentina,” McDonnell keeps the distant mountains and dirt road in high focus, forcing our visual path to the road by blurring out the power lines following alongside. It’s a strangely effective pictorial strategy: Instead of a complete, even-focused image, these works feel like how we use our eyes to see the world.

Kerr’s silver gelatin prints are elegantly understated. In “Collective Works II,” Kerr, who lives part of the year in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she grew up, features images of the batture – the “beaten” land between the Mississippi River and its levees. One of these images looks like a flat bowl on a table in a white room, but is in fact a sliver of mud pushing through the mirrored glass surface of the river on a misty day. Like much of Kerr’s work, it’s meditatively still and quiet.

Anna Mikuskova, “Spring Woods, McCarthy, AK 3026,” gelatin silver print, 12″X 8 3/4″ Photo courtesy of the artist

Mikuskova’s work is from the series “PO BOX MXY,” which the Brunswick-based photographer shot in the remote and tiny town of McCarthy, Alaska, in 2016 and 2018. The displayed works include images of people, but Mikuskova’s particular strength lies with her tonal subtlety in her woodsy landscapes. Mikuskova’s “Spring Woods, McCarthy, AK” is an upward view of a stand of birch trees that is so light-soaked and silvery that it seems to flutter like aspen leaves. Her “Marsh, McCarthy, Alaska” is Mikuskova at her best: subtle, tonally complex and compositionally nuanced.

While all four of the other bodies of work are very strong, Caponigro’s dozen images alone are worth the trip. Half of the works are images the Cushing-based artist shot in Britain, including his stunning scenes of Stonehenge. Leading the way into the exhibition (both literally and artistically) is Caponigro’s seminal “Running White Deer, Ireland,” in which a herd of 30 or so white deer practically fly as blurs through the black-dark landscape. It is an extraordinary image that feels more likely pulled from a dream than anything possibly seen in reality. And it stands as a stark reminder that Caponigro can have it both ways – or either – if he chooses: He can make an arresting high-focus and tonally masterful photograph, or can indulge in the visual richness of his subject or both. A leaf on a wet screen is masterfully common, an everyday moment noticed with a silent tidal wave of private spirituality. Setting a group of nautilus shells in a scalloped dark wood bowl on a wavy wood table, Caponigro creates an extraordinary study in textures. This is particularly stunning because Caponigro is famously at the top of the list of makers of silver gelatin prints in the line of Ansel Adams. (Caponigro used to teach the “zone technique” for Adams.) The only thing more impressive than the image is the quality of the actual print, the artistic product of Caponigro’s skill and extraordinary sensibilities.

Caponigro’s pears in a dark, raw wood bowl almost match the deer for iconic staying power: The pair of pears glows silver white in the otherwise almost black image. It’s suspended between everyday common and metaphysically otherworldly. It makes a compelling case that Caponigro earned his space among his mentors and peers such as Minor White, Adams, Edward Weston and others.

“Collective Works II” is an excellent reminder that Maine has an unusually strong community of photographers. The space at 162 Russell is a step toward what the state needs: more professional galleries that feature photography.

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

[email protected]

Paul Caponigro, “Running White Deer, Ireland” Photo courtesy of the artist

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