There’s some good, old-fashioned photography around, and there’s about to be a lot more. By old-fashioned I mean no gimmicks or fancy techniques or digital manipulation (at least for the most part) – just color, black-and-white and cyanotype images made the old-fashioned way, by a photographer working alone with a digital camera or a darkroom.

Currently there is Bruce Brown’s lovely “Birds” at Cove Street, for which he gathered the work of almost 20 artists under his avian theme. February will bring an exhibition of the Tsiaras Family photo collection at Colby, which assembles some of the most iconic names in the field, from Ansel Adams and Berenice Abbott to Gordon Parks and Gary Winograd. Another major institution will soon reveal the bequest of an outstanding photography archive.

And currently at Speedwell Projects is “Inventory,” showcasing recent work by The Bakery Photo Collective (through Jan. 29). The 15 artists whose work is on display vary greatly in their approach to their medium, which is one of the many outright wonderful delights of the exhibit.

The Bakery is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The collective was born in the rented basement of Calderwood Bakery in Portland. A clutch of local photographers pooled money to buy and install photo equipment so they could help defray costs of building and stocking their own darkrooms. They had nominal monthly dues and rented to other photographers, both professional and hobbyists, for additional income.

To remain afloat, they also hosted an annual auction of their work, Photo A Go-Go, which draws enormous local participation each year. After relocating to Westbrook for 10 years, they returned to Portland in 2017, occupying the back rooms of Speedwell Projects on Forest Avenue.

With the pandemic, their membership has doubled to about 15. But coronavirus quashed their annual auction this year. Rather than let the work fade into invisibility, they organized “Inventory,” a rather quotidian title for a show this stimulating.

Advertisement

Nanci Kahn, “Little Black Dress of Memories” Photos courtesy of The Bakery Photo Collective

You won’t always find the photography on the wall. Inspired by Australian costume designer Lizzy Gardiner’s dress fashioned from gold American Express cards – which Gardiner wore to the 1995 Academy Awards to accept her Oscar for her work on “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” – Nanci Kahn offers “Little Black Dress of Memories.”

For this piece, she rummaged through old 35mm Kodachrome and Ektachrome slides (remember those?) dating from 1979 through 1994. They chronicle life in her 20s, through images she took in Maine, as well as travels throughout Europe and Africa. As a piece of couture, it has the sexiness of something you might have seen Deborah Harry wearing at Studio 54 in the 1980s. But it is also a clever homage to Coco Chanel’s essential piece of apparel, the “little black dress” (sometimes shorthanded simply to LBD).

Kahn covered an old dress form that belonged to her fashion designer stepmother with LED lights, then diffused their sharp, pinpoint illumination with a translucent fabric. She then connected hundreds of slides, their cardboard housing painted black, using metal rings to conjure her own LBD. You could spend hours delving into moments of Kahn’s life – both documentary and extremely personal – though a magnifying glass might be a helpful tool to have in the gallery.

Kahn is one of a few photographers in the show who are using their medium as journal, notebook and documentary. Another is Smith Galtney, whose installation “Notebook” is essentially a record of his movie- and TV-watching habit. Galtney is forever freezing a frame and reaching for either his phone or camera to record an interesting gesture or composition that appears on screen. Or it might be, as he says in his statement, “just a hot guy,” interesting lighting or an expression on an actor’s face.

Smith Galtney, “Notebook”

For the installation, he assembled about 130 of these casually snapped images, printed them on archival paper and wrapped a corner of the gallery by pinning them, unframed, to the walls. This sort of display points to the refreshing lack of pretension in the show. Things are not framed and neatly hung in a rigid row around the space at eye level. This sort of visual presentation feels accessible and, because the images come from the pop culture of film, we can immediately get lost in multiple worlds of our own memory.

There is strength in numbers for Galtney, but also for Ian Unger and Nick Gervin. Unger uses a drone to photograph aerial views of boats floating in the waters off Islesford and Vinalhaven. The black-and-white images have pretty much identical composition and exhibit many formal qualities of classic black-and-white photography in terms of light, focus and depth of field. Alone these might have bordered on something you might find in a touristy art gallery in many a Maine coastal town. As an installation, however, they transmit a more interesting sense of presence.

Advertisement

Nick Gervin, “Resurgam”

Nick Gervin needn’t have created the irregular grid installation of his images as he did. Each is mesmerizing in its own right. Gervin is drawn to the underbelly of life in and around Portland – people being arrested, drunks, derelict buildings, seedy neighborhoods, broken statues. His sensibility and his methods recall the stark black-and-white crime-scene photography of Weegee.

Most look like they were taken, as with Weegee, at night. But Gervin shoots in both daylight and at night. It all appears nocturnal, however, probably because he is strongly lighting the foreground (with a flash?) and underexposing the background, which adds to their demimonde demeanor. This is another installation one could spend hours looking at for its strong narrative content. We really want to know what is going on in each and every frame.

Maya Tihtiyas Attean, “Nests”

The quality of narrative also permeates Maya Tihtiyas Attean’s arresting “Nests” series of photographs. A young Wabenaki artist who grew up on the Penobscot Reservation, she has struggled for years with physical and mental illness. Photography, especially during the pandemic isolation of the past years, led her to a series of portraits that document the environments in which she and her friends nurtured their loneliness and sense of alienation.

All are interiors of cluttered environments, many crammed with plants, technology, stuffed animals, pots, pans, shoes. They are somewhat disorderly and visually overloaded, a manifestation of what she says in her statement, is her “unwillingness to let go, of physical adornments, of trauma, of stubborn grievances.”

Attean’s portraits are shot unsmiling and in harsh, unsparing light, which amplifies their underlying sense of psychological ennui. They are powerful and discomfiting, evidence of a considerable talent that will be interesting to watch develop (she is the studio manager of The Bakery, as well as a photography student at Maine College of Art & Design).

Just as poignantly narrative are Justin Van Soest’s photographs of Marian, his 95-year-old mother, which serve as a kind of diary of the epilogue of her life as she succumbs to dementia. One of Marian shuffling down a road with her walker toward a brilliant pink sunset just might break your heart.

Meredith Kennedy, “Botanical Series”

There’s much more. Meredith Kennedy enlists cyanotype, a technique developed in the middle of the 19th century, in the service of modern ends. Among her meticulously constructed images, a bouquet of tulips held together by rubber gloves is a standout statement for our times, viewed through the lens of an antique process. Were it not for the clothes people wear in Richard Wexler’s images of Paris, you might mistake his scenes, especially those of Montmartre, for something by Brassaï or Eugène Atget.

The show is a visual feast, a wonderful way to celebrate the sense of community the collective has built over 20 years.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.