Todd Watts, “Now and Then,” 2023, 46 x 66 Photos courtesy of Maine Museum of Photographic Arts Gallery

There’s a lot of good photography in and around Portland at the moment, but “Chelsea Ellis and Todd Watts” at the Maine Museum of Photographic Arts (through Sept. 30) uses this medium to innovatively push its own boundaries and ask deep questions about human behavior and some of our most primal fears.

Todd Watts has been a photographer since the 1970s. He is well known in Maine for, among other things, being commissioned by the legendary photographer Berenice Abbott in 1974 to print a limited-edition portfolio of her photographs. Which is to say that his technical bona fides are impeccable. But the work he is showing at the MMPA could not be more different than the formal black-and-white documentary-style imagery of Abbott.

The surrealistic, psychologically complex photographs in this exhibition are remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is their harnessing of various techniques and their astonishing labor-intensive processes.

Take a work such as “Now and Then.” Ostensibly, it is a picture of a toddler looking out a kind of window onto a crowd of people. Right away we sense something is odd, most obviously because the people are all black and white and the child and the room in which he finds himself is rendered in vivid Technicolor. It’s like Dorothy’s dual worlds in “The Wizard of Oz” bizarrely colliding within one frame.

But to understand the complex processes that led to this is to marvel at Watts’ dedication to expanding the possibilities of his medium. First of all, each and every individual in the crowd the toddler is looking onto was silhouetted from a picture Watts took, then placed into this human melee using digital software.

It’s clear, in fact, that the whole photograph is a digital manipulation, perhaps even aided by AI, but one that is off-putting in a “Twilight Zone” kind of way. It leaves us with all sorts of questions. The title seems to refer to a past and a present, but of what? The medium itself (i.e. color versus black and white, traditional versus digital)? Though the crowd is black and white, the people are not of the past; they are all contemporary. So, what, exactly comes from “now” and what hails from “then?”


The inside-outside nature of the composition also implies a kind of isolation, with the child sequestered in a hermetic environment away from the outside, with its mobs of people. This suggests ideas of “stranger danger” or a parental desire to mold a child’s experience in a way that is disconnected from reality. There are many other contemplations here, of course, many possibilities. But few feel comforting, perhaps because at an essential level, the image personifies ambiguity and not-knowing, its very ungraspable nature eliciting doubt and uncertainty.

Todd Watts, “First Uncertainty”

Watts’ best images all have this sort of mysterious vagueness. “First Uncertainty” is another. A naked man and woman appear suspended between two worlds. The title implies the biblical parable of the Garden of Eden. Yet it doesn’t seem to relate a simplistic moralist Adam and Eve tale. The woman’s arms are spread out in a gesture that seems to ask, “What? What’s the matter?” Or she might be imploring, “How could you?”

The man’s arms also seem to be asking something. Or he might be explaining (rationalizing?) his behavior. We don’t actually know. Neither character, however, seems happy with the other. The discord between them is palpable. Has someone been unfaithful in some way? If so, which of them is responsible for the betrayal? The work emanates an atmosphere of accusations and excuses. We wonder if the trust between them is irreparable, or whether whatever has happened can be healed.

These photos are juxtaposed with those of Ellis, actually a student of Watts. They are, like Watts’, suffused in intensely saturated colors. But they are equally discomfiting, if in a different way. Ellis paints her body and photographs it, then manipulates the images, isolating a leg, a face, a breast, an arm and hand, a foot. These body fragments are then placed in settings of the same color but a different gradation.

Chelsea Ellis, “Afflicta,” 60 x 40, 2022

“Afflicta,” for example, superimposes portions of Ellis’s face, shoulders, a single breast, one hand, a slice of belly, a knee of one leg and the tibia and foot of another on a chair that sits in a room. The title implies some sort of affliction, leading us to the inevitable conclusion that whatever disease has overtaken her, it is eating away at her body, leaving only traces of Ellis. In this interpretation, the green hues of the image seem to enhance the idea of toxicity and queasiness.

Chelsea Ellis, “Anilios,” 60 x 40, 2022

Other images feel even more dismembered – one mostly orange photo joins only an arm and a leg, another pink one melds three sets of arms and legs in attenuated, ribbony configurations. Often Ellis’s compositions can recall the creepy homunculus Jack Nicholson becomes in the 1987 film “Witches of Eastwick” – shriveled, deformed, painful.


Ellis, of course, is not merely out for tawdry horror-show effects here. These images are a way of prompting much deeper questions about the nature of what we are, and whether that means we are only our bodies. In particular, she seems to be asking us to consider women’s bodies and, by extension, their objectification throughout history and the liberties we assume can be taken with them (mostly by men).

By reducing her body to assemblages of parts, she interrogates the pretexts by which we are able to apprehend a person as only a fraction of what they are, rather than beholding the whole miraculous entirety of them. Ellis’s methodology feels uncomfortably violent, to be sure. But that may be the point, for compartmentalization itself is a kind of violent act. It is what enables social attitudes like misogyny, racism, and othering. At its most monstrous dimension, we could also say that compartmentalization – of our attitudes toward whole peoples, our ideas of justice, what someone does or does not deserve, of being superior to someone etc. – is what leads to human horrors like genocide.

Both these artists’ work is sure to get under your skin.

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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