PORTLAND, Maine — A collection is only as good as its collectors. What kind of eye do they have? How flexible (or rigid) are they in their tastes? How idiosyncratic? All the money in the world can come up with little more than quantity over quality. Only a little money, spent wisely, can work wonders.
Owen and Anna Wells would seem to come down on the side of wonder. The 36 images that make up “American Vision: Photographs From the Collection of Owen and Anna Wells” at the Portland Museum of Art are varied and often surprising. Which is more of a shock: Robert Mapplethorpe photographing a Hasid or a graduation photo from Ansel Adams? At least the graduate stands alongside a tree.
More important, the images, taken together, are coherent and characteristic. They’re drawn from the collection of 69 photographs the Wellses donated to the museum earlier this year. Anna Wells is president of the museum’s board of trustees. Individually, almost all the photographs are of notable quality. Together, almost all make sense as parts of a greater whole, which is less common with collections than you might think.
AMERICAN VISION: Photographs From the Collection of Owen and Anna Wells
The pictures tend to be uncluttered visually. Theatricality is not to the Wellses’ taste. Oddly enough, two of the exceptions both involve Syria: an Alfred Eisenstaedt view of an Aleppo bazaar and Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph of soldier on camelback. The collection’s non-wow aesthetic extends to personality. The one celebrity subject in the show, Paul Newman, photographed by Philippe Halsman, is nearly unrecognizable. He’s bearded, chopping wood.
Period doesn’t matter to the Wellses all that much. The earliest photograph, a Pictorialist farming scene, is from 1905. The most recent is from 2000. They’re outliers, though. Nearly all the others fall between 1930 and 1990.
Then there are further surprises, as noted above. Bourke-White has a landscape in the show (a Bourke-White landscape, imagine that), which sure looks as though it could be a Laura Gilpin landscape. As it happens, there’s a Gilpin in the show — but it’s a portrait. Or there’s a Geoff Winningham color photograph of an Arkansas post office that looks uncannily like one of William Christenberry’s Alabama architectural studies.
Many of the photographers have Maine connections. That was the Wellses’s initial collecting criterion. The first two photographers whose work they purchased were Berenice Abbott and Paul Caponigro. How their work relates to the rest of the show exemplifies the way curatorial fellow Zmira Zilkha has organized the show so that it’s nicely (yet unobtrusively) dense with interactions.
The Caponigro shows an apple orchard in snow. The delicacy of its colors is ravishing: the play of the red apples with the white snow and the tree trunks’ dark absence of color. But it’s no more ravishing than the Eliot Porter photograph of a redbud tree that hangs with it. There are several other striking nature studies, including one of grasses at Horseneck Beach, by Harry Callahan (speaking of surprises). The Callahan chimes, in turn, with Larry Fink’s “Molly (Child at the Beach).”
Abbott’s handsome “House, Belfast, Along Route 1” hangs next to Walker Evans’s “Doorway, 204 West 13th Street, New York City.” The images connect formally (both are architectural) and personally (the photographers were friends). The Evans dates from the early ’30s, when Abbott began her great project “Changing New York.” A few feet away hangs Ralph Steiner’s “Park Avenue Garage.” Even though Steiner took it in 1965, the image could fit right into “Changing New York.” In addition, the way the latticework in the Steiner flirts with abstraction recalls Aaron Siskind. Well, also hanging nearby is a fine Siskind from 1935, before he abandoned social documentary — and with its emphasis on architectural detail, the Siskind fits right in with the Abbott and Evans. Through such connections, collection becomes collectivity.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.