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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: December 2, 2015

Maine Historical Society and UNE show rare and compelling photographs

Written by: Bob Keyes
, an unidentified woman and an Unidentified family from “Early Maine Photography.”

, an unidentified woman and an Unidentified family from “Early Maine Photography.”

As the Maine Photo Project winds down a yearlong concentration on photography with statewide exhibitions, Portland audiences have two gems to enjoy.

The Maine Historical Society is showing the earliest photographs taken in Maine, and the Art Gallery at the University of New England is showing portraits of artists taken over the past century, from the writer James Joyce and the musician Leadbelly to painters, writers and musicians working in Maine today.

Both shows are remarkable for different reasons.

The Maine Historical show hinges on the earliest photographic records of Mainers and their environment. The UNE exhibition is all about celebrity – of the subjects and the artists who made the photos.

Between the two Portland exhibitions, viewers get a sense of Maine’s rugged frontier history as well as its role in shaping art in America.

We start at the Maine Historical Society. “Early Maine Photography, 1840-1870” documents pioneer photographers who created Maine’s early visual legacy.

The Frenchman Louis Daguerre developed the first commercial photographic process, known as the daguerreotype, in 1839. In 1840, the American artist Samuel Morse learned the process, and he helped introduce photography in the United States.

“By early 1840, we have photographers crossing over the Piscataquis River from Portsmouth and starting to take pictures in Maine,” said historian Earle Shettleworth, who curated the exhibition. “It was less than a year from the time that photography was unveiled to the world that it arrived in Maine, and from there on in, right up through the Civil War, it became a major social force in Maine as well as across the country.”

Photography replaced painting and other artistic forms as the primary means of portraiture. Even though photographic portraits were expensive – according to the advertising of the day, $3 per portrait, which was a lot of money back then – many individuals and families sat for portraits.

Processes evolved quickly, and by the Civil War, glass-plate negatives had become the standard. That was important because from a negative, additional prints could be made. With daguerreotypes, only a single image could be made.

Maine Historical has been collecting photos since that time. The society was established in 1822, just two years after Maine became a state. It’s the third-oldest state historical society in the country, and photography has been central to its mission since its early days. The society commissioned photographers to document early Maine settlements, places of historical significance and prominent Mainers.

Shettleworth has helped the society increase its collection of early photography as well. Since he was a child, he’s collected pictorial material about Maine, including early photos. In the 1960s, he befriended James Vickery, who also was building a collection of early photos. They often went out together in search of material, and each built a substantial collection of work.

When Vickery died in 1997, he left his collection to Shettleworth, who has since begun giving the combined collection to the Maine Historical Society for safe keeping. Their photos, as well as images commissioned by the historical society, form the bulk of the exhibition.

It offers a sense of Maine in its early years. There are photos of individuals and families, providing insight into their lives and lifestyles. Many of the images are small and displayed under glass in cases.

Across town at the University of New England, the gallery is showing “Portraits of the Artists,” curated by Stephen Halpert. It includes portraits of artists in all disciplines – writers, actors, painters, composers, filmmakers – from Maine and around the world. Collectively, they represent some of the key artists of the 20th century, including James Joyce and Bob Dylan. Subjects range from the internationally famous to the locally famous: Edward Hopper, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ashley Bryan and Rose Marasco.

In all, there are 110 subjects by 35 photographers.

Photos by the contemporary Maine photographers Diane Hudson, Dave Wade, Sean Alonzo Harris, Peter Ralston, Doug Bruns and Jack Montgomery are included here, as well as photos by more established names like Berenice Abbott, Todd Webb, George Daniell and Verner Reed.

The show has been open only a few weeks and has received a lot of attention. The power of celebrity has enticed people to come and look, said gallery director Anne Zill.

“It has a global reach because of the subjects,” Zill said. “And at the same time, it celebrates the artists living among us now in our communities. It does both masterfully.”

“Early Maine Photography, 1840 to 1870”

WHERE: Maine Historical Society, Brown Library, 489 Congress St., Portland
WHEN: On view through Jan. 16; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday to Saturday
HOW MUCH: $8 adults, $7 seniors and students, free for ages 5 and younger
INFO: 207-774-1822 or mainehistory.org

“Portraits of the Artist”

WHERE: Art Gallery at UNE, 716 Stevens Ave., Portland
WHEN: On view through Feb. 7; 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; 1 to 7 p.m. Thursday
HOW MUCH: Free
INFO: 207-221-4499 or une.edu/artgallery
RELATED: Curator Stephen Halpert and gallery director Anne Zill will discuss the exhibition from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Dec. 10 and Jan. 14.

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