Cameras encountering Winslow Homer’s studio
PORTLAND, Maine — In September, the Portland Museum of Art completed its restoration of Winslow Homer's Prouts Neck studio, opening it for public tours. The tours have been a great success. Reservations for the remainder of this year have been filled. Openings for the spring, when tours resume, are already being booked.
To celebrate the restoration, the museum has mounted two exhibitions. "Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine," consisting of works by the artist, is proving to be the most popular show in the museum's history; it is scheduled to remain open through Dec. 30. "Between Past and Present: The Homer Studio Photographic Project" directly relates to the studio. It runs through Feb. 17.
The museum commissioned five photographers to document aspects of the studio and do so with photographic processes in use during Homer's lifetime. Hence the show's title: A building made notable by its past history is recorded in the present using past techniques.
Sometimes the interaction of past and present can take mundane form. Note the bit of Grace Ultra roofing that peeks out in one of Tillman Crane's 10 platinum prints of the studio. More often, Crane imparts a timeless quality to the building and grounds. A roof corner looks like a ship's prow. A lobster pot along a cliff walk looms like a piece of sculpture — part David Smith, part Etruscan. The main room has the gravity and hush of a medieval cloister.
Alan Vlach's 10 salted paper prints suggest the texture of 19th-century engravings. They look a bit like Homer prints, in fact. The grain of the wood in "The Painting Studio" is so palpable it almost takes over the image, making it seem stippled.
Brenton Hamilton's 11 images in the show aren't Homer prints, but they come from them. Hamilton uses light-sensitive paper treated with gum bichromate (a process popular with Pictorialist photographers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) to reproduce Homer prints in the museum collection. He then enhances them with gouache or washes. One-of-a-kind images, they're akin to monotypes. Hamilton's pictures aren't so much appropriations of the original Homers as reimaginings of them.
Abelardo Morell has only one photograph in "Between Past and Present," but it's a whopper. The image is very large, nearly 4 feet by 5 feet. Even its title is very large: "Tent-Camera Image on Ground: View of the Sea From Winslow Homer's Backyard, Prouts Neck, Maine." Morell has long specialized in taking inverted images indoors with a camera obscura. For the Homer picture, he set up a special tent behind the house, allowing him to superimpose a view of ocean on the lawn. It's quite phenomenal. The shadings of color have a delicacy that's poised in a realm somewhere between nature and art; and the texturing of that realm, as recorded by Morell, is a version of enchantment.
Striking as Morell's photograph is, it may not be the most eye-catching work in the show. The other candidate would be Keliy Anderson-Staley's "Objects of Uncertain Provenance" (even the title is memorable). It consists of 24 tintypes, each 8 inches by 10 inches, arranged in a grid. The tintype is the homeliest example of 19th-century photograph. Which makes it a fitting way to document these homely items — broken, discarded, or both — found in and around Homer's studio. There are butter molds, a safety razor, a broken plate, a crumpled cigarette pack (shades of Irving Penn's street detritus), a table knife, a hose nozzle, a bolt and washer, and so on. What makes their appearance so formidable is Anderson-Staley's simplicity of approach. They're like the rocks lining the shore in a Homer seascape: eloquent by dint of sheer endurance, beautiful through their purity of plainness.