Berenice Abbott, “Repair shop on Christopher St. NYC,” 1950, silver print, 19 x 15 inches

The promise and power of photography is on resplendent display in two rich and complex shows in Portland: “The Steve and Judy Halpert Collection” at the Maine Museum of Photographic Arts (through June 10) and “Outside the Frame: Todd Webb in Africa” at the Portland Museum of Art (through June 18).

The Maine Museum of Photographic Arts show, curated by local photographer Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest, is encyclopedic, whereas the Portland Museum of Art show is specific. Steve Halpert started collecting photography in the late 1960s or early ’70s, though “collecting” is a misnomer, since he never set out to assemble a collection. He bought what he liked, guided by a passion ignited in his youth. Halpert grew up looking at photography. His uncle was a photographer and hung work on the walls of his childhood home. Later, his mother fanned that passion with a gift of Berenice Abbott’s “Repair Shop, Christopher St., New York” of 1950, which is in the show.

Halpert, who is curator of photography at the University of New England, started hanging photo shows in an empty space at the institution in 1964, when it was still called Westbrook College, and where he taught literature, English, film and writing (which he also pursued at University of Southern Maine and the Portland School of Art, now the Maine College of Art and Design). The collection he amassed with his wife, Judy, now numbers over 300 photographs, far too much to display at the MMPA in any great depth.

I’ve often criticized the MMPA’s penchant for cramming so much onto its walls that quieter works are lost in the clamor of images. Here, however, it works beautifully. Chronologically, it begins with photogravures of Native Americans by Edward Curtis, which are displayed flat in a Plexiglas case. They are as poignant and beautiful today as they were in 1910.

It’s impossible to talk about the work of every artist on display. But the show has some very wonderful strengths. Among these are several photos by Berenice Abbott and Todd Webb, with whom Halpert formed lasting friendships. Abbott is abundantly represented by famous New York street scenes, a portrait of her friend, the actress Eva Le Gallienne, and two of her science strobe photos capturing a ball’s bouncing motion. Some Webb images here overlap with the PMA show.

Portraits are another outstanding feature: Arnold Newman’s likeness of artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi, elegantly pensive on a chaise (1941), Abbott’s iconic image of James Joyce with his shock of hair (1928) and Philip Halsman’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe about to bite into a burger at a drive-in (1952) are some highlights.


Jim Daniels, “Burma,” 1995, Inkjet print, 13 x 20 inches

There are also unforgettable documentary images such as that of a black-veiled Jacqueline Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery for the burial of JFK, snapped for the Magnum photo agency by Elliott Erwitt in 1963. On this same wall nearest the front windows of the gallery are two of the most haunting color photos – at least for me – in the show. Jim Daniels’ “Burma” (1995-98) shows a little boy crouched on a wall looking at a Burmese soldier holding a gun, its bayonet glinting in the light. Whether he’s cowering from fear or sneaking closer for a fascinated look, the juxtaposition of innocence and imminent violence is quietly shocking.

Paul D’Amato’s “Chicago” is from his Barrio series, taken over 14 years in the city’s largest Mexican neighborhood. The image is of a little girl, dirty-faced and wearing soiled clothing, sitting in a shopping cart outside what looks like a dump filled with old tires. Her face is upturned as she emits an ear-piercing howl of protest. We can’t actually “hear” her of course. But her filthiness, the desolate urban surroundings, the shopping cart pilfered from a store parking lot – all these convey a devastating sense of abandonment and a terrified child’s fear.

Paul D’Amato, “Chicago,” 1991, C print, 15 x 18 inches

There are poetic images too. Some favorites are Froelich’s own photo of cutlery on a table at her grandfather’s wake, Joan Wright’s “Waterlines” (of net fences protruding above the water), Ni Rong’s “In America, Fall #4” (Rong standing in a row boat under an umbrella, her back to us).

Cumulatively, the show illustrates the miracle of photography’s ability to pull back the curtain on our human condition in all its variegated flavors: introspection, pain, joy, fear, playfulness, ugliness, beauty, poignancy, and on and on. It’s an extraordinary assembly and well worth poring over for hours on multiple visits.


Shortly after photographs became widely available in the mid 1800s, a phrase became common currency: The camera never lies. In the wake of Photoshop and AI, of course, few would make this claim today. But what’s certainly true, as “Outside the Frame” makes plain, is how photography initiated as pure documentation can transmute into political commentary and critique when viewed through the lens of our contemporary consciousness.


It’s significant, for example, that the first images to confront us in “Outside the Frame” – isolated within three temporary walls as we enter the gallery – were taken within a context that has since morphed, so that our response to them today is more likely to be dismay (perhaps outrage) by what are essentially depictions of the wholesale rape of Africa’s environment and natural resources.

In 1958, the United Nations Office of Information commissioned photographer Todd Webb to document emerging industries in nine African nations. The anticlimactic result of the trip, during which Webb captured some 2,000 images, was a brochure featuring only 22 of them called “A Continent Awakes: United Nations Photos, Supplement No. 7.” The presumption is that the U.N. considered this pamphlet evidence of “progress.”

The show could have opened with less controversial images, such as two women walking on a beach in Somaliland (Somalia), their yellow dresses and diaphanous veils billowing in the wind, a mosque in Tanganyika (Tanzania) with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background, or a woman carrying an astonishing load of breads on her head as she passes blue doorways in Togoland (Togo). Instead, we are deliberately provoked to contemplate a host of questions:

Should we consider these images propaganda, or was Webb’s eye trained on the human, economic and ecological costs of the African “project?” How do we interpret these images today through a post-colonial prism? Who gets to define what progress looks like? Do Anglo-European ideas about this definition leave victims in their wake? What happens to newly independent countries and economies after colonial powers depart?

Todd Webb, “(44UN-7776-038), Ghana,” 1958 Courtesy of Todd Webb Archive

In this first grouping, we see molten slag being poured into an ore pit in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), a soldier spraying pesticides onto cocoa crops in Ghana and trailers at a Sinclair Oil site. Even scenes that appear harmless carry unseen consequences. A sisal plantation in Tanzania (the cultivation of which crowded out indigenous species), for example, or a view of the construction of Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River, which, though it provided cheap power and created wilderness refuges around the lake, also displaced 57,000 Tonga people.

We see images of age-old subsistence practices against the backdrop of landscape-altering industries, such as fishing boats in a Sudanese harbor ringed by oil rigs or women balancing baskets on their heads as they walk past a cargo rail in Togoland, tankers visible in the distant gulf. There are beautiful pictures, sans modern encroachments, too: a dozen men and boys pulling a boat onto the beach in Ghana or three fishermen just come ashore in Somalia.


Todd Webb, “(44UN-7967), Somliland (Somalia),” 1958 Courtesy of Todd Webb Archive

But overwhelmingly, the show tackles many troubling issues, such as segregation that continued in schools for years, pervasive economic inequality and more. Was Webb consciously chronicling colonial injustice? Betsy Evans Hunt, whose 2016 discovery of five steamer trunks filled with Webb negatives made this and other exhibitions possible, says he came from a Quaker family, abhorred prejudice and was “keenly aware of inequities.”

Yet Evans Hunt, who knew Webb and his wife, Lucille, well, believes this body of work reveals the photographer more as wide-eyed observer than social critic. His trip to Africa occurred in an era of enormous transition, as countries were gaining their independence. Togoland had become an autonomous republic within the French Union, but would gain full independence in 1960. Ghana had become independent from British rule in 1957.

Of course, as colonial powers exited the scene, so did cash and development. By the mid 1960s, Ghana was bankrupt (due mainly to the collapse of cocoa prices) and Togo today ranks as the 10th poorest country in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund. Clearly, Webb could not have foreseen these repercussions. But hindsight infuses these images with a potency that is worth absorbing and debating.

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

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