There is good old-fashioned photography, and there will be plenty more. By old-fashioned I mean no gimmicks or fancy techniques or digital manipulation (at least for the most part) – just color, black and white and cyanotype images done the old fashioned way, by a photographer working alone with a camera digital or a darkroom.
Currently there is Bruce Brown’s lovely ‘Birds’ in Cove Street, for which he has brought together the work of nearly 20 artists under his avian theme. February will bring an exhibition of the Tsiaras family photo collection to Colby, which brings together some of the most iconic names in the field, from Ansel Adams and Berenice Abbott to Gordon Parks and Gary Winograd. Another major institution will soon unveil the legacy of an exceptional photographic collection.
And currently at Speedwell Projects is “Inventory”, showcasing recent work from The Bakery Photo Collective (until January 29). The 15 artists whose work is on display vary widely in their approach to their medium, which is one of the exhibition’s many delights.
The Bakery celebrates its 20th anniversaryand birthday. The collective was born in the rented basement of Calderwood Bakery in Portland. A handful of local photographers have pooled money to buy and install camera equipment so they can help defray the costs of building and stocking their own darkrooms. They had nominal monthly dues and rented out to other photographers, professional and amateur, for additional income.
To stay afloat, they also hold an annual auction of their work, Photo A Go-Go, which attracts a huge local turnout every year. After moving to Westbrook for 10 years, they moved back to Portland in 2017, occupying the back rooms of Speedwell Projects on Forest Avenue.
With the pandemic, their membership doubled to around 15. But the coronavirus canceled their annual auction this year. Rather than let the work fade into invisibility, they curated “Inventory,” a rather everyday title for such an empowering show.
You won’t always find the photograph on the wall. Inspired by Australian costume designer Lizzy Gardiner’s dress made from gold American Express cards – which Gardiner wore to the 1995 Oscars to accept her Oscar for her work on “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” – Nanci Kahn offers “Little Black Dress of Memories”. ”
For this piece, she rummaged through old Kodachrome and Ektachrome 35mm slides (remember those?) dating from 1979 to 1994. They chronicle life in her twenties, through images she took in Maine, as well as trips through Europe and Africa. As a couture piece, it has the sexy side of something you might have seen Deborah Harry wearing at Studio 54 in the 1980s. “little black dress” (sometimes abbreviated simply as LBD).
Kahn covered an old dress form that belonged to her fashion designer mother-in-law with LED lights, then diffused their sharp, precise lighting with a translucent fabric. She then connected hundreds of slides, their cardboard cases painted black, using metal rings to evoke her own LBD. You could spend hours delving into moments from Kahn’s life – both documentary and intensely personal – although a magnifying glass could be a useful tool to have around the gallery.
Kahn is one of the rare photographers in the exhibition to use their medium as a diary, notebook and documentary. Another is Smith Galtney, whose “Notebook” installation is essentially a record of his habit of watching movies and television. Galtney permanently freezes a frame and grabs her phone or camera to record an interesting gesture or composition that appears onscreen. Or it could be, as he puts it in his statement, “just a hot guy,” interesting lighting, or an expression on an actor’s face.
For the installation, he assembled around 130 of these casually shot images, printed them on archival paper and wrapped around a corner of the gallery by pinning them, unframed, to the walls. This type of display indicates the refreshing lack of pretentiousness in the show. Things are unframed and neatly hung in a rigid row around the space at eye level. This type of visual presentation seems accessible, and since the images come from movie pop culture, we can immediately get lost in multiple worlds of our own memory.
Unity is strength for Galtney, but also for Ian Unger and Nick Gervin. Unger uses a drone to photograph aerial views of boats floating in the waters off Islesford and Vinalhaven. Black-and-white images are nearly identical in composition and exhibit many of the formal qualities of classic black-and-white photography in terms of light, focus, and depth of field. Alone, they might have bordered on something you might find in a tourist art gallery in many Maine coastal towns. As an installation, however, they convey a more interesting sense of presence.
Nick Gervin doesn’t need to have created the irregular grid installation of his images like he did. Each is fascinating in itself. Gervin is drawn to the underside of life in and around Portland – arrested people, drunks, abandoned buildings, seedy neighborhoods, broken statues. His sensitivity and methods are reminiscent of Weegee’s black-and-white crime scene photography.
Most seem to have been taken, as with Weegee, at night. But Gervin photographs day and night. It all looks nocturnal, though, probably because it brightly lights the foreground (with a flash?) and underexposes the background, which adds to their demi-monde attitude. This is another installation that one could spend hours watching for its strong narrative content. We really want to know what’s going on in each frame.
The quality of storytelling also permeates Maya Tihtiyas Attean’s striking “Nests” series of photographs. A young Wabenaki artist who grew up on the Penobscot reservation, she struggled for years with physical and mental illness. Photography, particularly during the pandemic isolation of recent years, has led her to a series of portraits that document the environments in which she and her friends nurtured their loneliness and sense of alienation.
All are interiors of cluttered environments, many stuffed with plants, technology, stuffed animals, pots, pans, shoes. They’re somewhat messy and visually overloaded, a manifestation of what she says in her statement is her “unwillingness to let go, physical adornments, trauma, nagging grievances.”
Attean’s portraits are shot without a smile and in harsh, unforgiving light, which amplifies their underlying sense of psychological boredom. They are powerful and disconcerting, proof of considerable talent that will be interesting to see develop (she is the studio manager of The Bakery, as well as a photography student at the Maine College of Art & Design).
Equally poignant are Justin Van Soest’s photographs of Marian, his 95-year-old mother, which serve as a kind of epilogue diary of his life as she succumbs to dementia. One of Marian dragging her walker down a road towards a brilliant pink sunset just might break your heart.
There is much more. Meredith Kennedy uses cyanotype, a technique developed in the mid-19and century, in the service of modern ends. Among his meticulously constructed images, a bouquet of tulips held together by rubber gloves is a remarkable statement for our times, seen through the lens of an ancient process. If it weren’t for the clothes people wear in Richard Wexler’s images of Paris, you might mistake his scenes, especially those in Montmartre, for something Brassaï or Eugène Atget.
The show is a visual feast, a wonderful way to celebrate the sense of community the collective has built over the past 20 years.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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