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Photography review

A different lens for Winslow Homer

(DENNIS GRIGGS)
Mawson & Swan camera owned by Winslow Homer, c. 1882
Mawson & Swan camera owned by Winslow Homer, c. 1882 (Bowdoin College Museum of Art)

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Winslow Homer, a great American painter, was not a great American photographer. “Winslow Homer and the Camera: Photography and the Art of Painting” doesn’t make that claim. Instead, it does something more interesting. The show runs through Oct. 28 at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Homer (1836-1910) owned several cameras, two of which are in the show. He made occasional use of them for his painting, relying on them as he might rely on drawing and watercolor: as a form of preparatory sketch or aid to memory. Photography also had commercial appeal. As early as the 1880s, Homer was having photographs taken of his paintings. On occasion, he’d have the reproductions mounted and he’d sign them, further enhancing their value.

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Homer also used the camera as most everyone does: to create visual souvenirs of travel and daily life. It’s just that he had rather a better eye. The show includes six circular blowups of Kodak snapshots he took on travels to Florida and Quebec.

Photography, per se, is largely incidental to the show. Thematically, its concerns are how different media dictate different imperatives, the way those imperatives can alter the visual treatment of similar subject matter, and the differing effects that reproducibility can have — not just with photographs but also prints and illustration.

Napoleon Sarony’s photograph “Winslow Homer in New York,” 1880
Napoleon Sarony’s photograph “Winslow Homer in New York,” 1880(Bowdoin College Museum of Art)

If that sounds a bit dry, even rarefied, the average museumgoer will find ample compensation in the fact that these themes provide a framework for what is, in effect, a career retrospective of one of the most justly cherished American artists.

“Winslow Homer and the Camera,” which was curated by museum co-director Frank H. Goodyear III and Bowdoin art history professor Dana E. Byrd, includes more than 130 items. The show’s ambitiousness is indicated by those items coming from 26 institutions, with the lion’s share drawn from Bowdoin’s very extensive holdings.

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In addition to photographs by and of Homer, there are paintings, watercolors, prints, and drawings. The cameras are among a number of personal possessions on display: a walking stick, a watercolor box, Homer’s Civil War press pass, a fishing net, a knapsack, a family photo album. There’s nothing dry or rarefied about those — or the five (excellent) watercolors by his mother. Homer’s work has an inherent modesty and plainspokenness. Those qualities are part of its appeal. Yet they can also make his art seem reticent, even distant. These objects, along with the several photographs of Homer, go a long way toward collapsing that distance.

Photography played a role in Homer’s career from early on. The show includes a number of examples of his illustrations for Harper’s Weekly hung next to the photographs he turned to for inspiration. A wood engraving of Abraham Lincoln from 1860 clearly derives from Mathew Brady’s famous Cooper Union photograph, the one that Lincoln said “made me president.” Homer reverses Brady’s image and puts a notably grander background behind the candidate. That’s something he could afford to do, because he needn’t worry about distracting from his subject’s face, being able to control lighting and proportion as Brady could not.

Winslow Homer’s "Jumping Trout," 1889
Winslow Homer’s "Jumping Trout," 1889(Bowdoin College Museum of Art.)

Sometimes photography could have a limiting effect. The show includes an oil on panel from 1864, “Albert Post.” It’s the first instance of Homer painting directly from a photograph. Maybe it’s the novelty of the experience that leaves the painting so lacking in life. The contrast in energy with “Jumping Trout,” a watercolor from 1889, is far greater than the passage of a quarter century might dictate. The 1880s saw the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey, and Thomas Eakins. The show includes one of Muybridge’s serial images. You can see why a wall label suggests a kinship.

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There are some very well-known works here, such as the Civil War-era “Sharpshooter” and “Eight Bells (1886). We see both in two iterations. “Sharpshooter” as painting differs subtly from “Sharpshooter” as wood engraving, and in ways that go beyond the possibilities unique to each medium (the painting is in color, for example). The element of artistic choice is made clear by the basic similarity and many differences between “Taking an Observation,” from 1884, and “Eight Bells.” Both are paintings — with “Observation” on panel, and “Bells” on canvas — so the differences have to do with intention rather than medium.

There’s an excitement to seeing Homer’s process of alteration, both in individual groups of works and played out over his career. He isn’t thought of as an innovator. Instead, “Winslow Homer and the Camera” presents something innate to the work and in certain respects more interesting even than innovation. Again and again, we see Homer as experimentalist.

WINSLOW HOMER AND THE CAMERA: Photography and the Art of Painting

At Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 245 Maine St., Brunswick, Maine, through Oct. 28. 207-725-3275, www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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