When Smith Galtney decided to act on his instincts and learn about photography from professionals, he kept hearing over and over, “Nobody wants happy.”
Galtney’s photos of his domestic life didn’t have enough pathos, he was told. There wasn’t enough tension, turmoil or conflict. But Galtney objected. “Hey, a lot of work went into this happiness,” he said.
Had he taken up photography years before, he could have given them pathos, all right. He was an addict and had been to some pretty dark places.
Learning to become a better photographer was part of Galtney’s recovery. The art form suited him well and spoke to his instincts as an observant, caring person. He also realized the things he learned about becoming a photographer were similar to the things that helped him become a sober person. “It was uncanny that everything we learned in 12-step was so weirdly in line with everything that good photography is about – staying in the moment, moving with the light, being patient and open and receptive to the world.”
He was instantly obsessed with photography. This winter and spring, the University of Southern Maine is showing some of Galtney’s black-and-white photographs at the Area Gallery in the Woodbury Campus Center in Portland. His exhibition, “My Principal Ghost,” is on view through March 29. Galtney, 47, will discuss his work at a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 21.
Galtney graduated from the International Center of Photography and also studied photography at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland and at Maine Media Workshops in Rockport. He worked as a print journalist for 20 years, writing for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and other publications before moving to Maine from New York in 2009. He lives in Raymond with his husband, John.
The exhibition takes it name from a phrase in the Loudon Wainwright III song, “Older than My Old Man Now.” Galtney thought it was a lovely phrase and kept it close to his heart.
The photographs in “My Principal Ghost” represent parts of the artist’s recent past and journey, and include scenes from New York and Maine. He took the photos between 2014 and 2018, “a period when the chaos of my early adulthood somehow evolved into a calm, content midlife,” he writes in his artist statement. “I’d just finished photography school. My partner and I got married. My transition from New Yorker to Mainer felt complete. I also said goodbye to a dear old friend, who died suddenly – and rather unsurprisingly – in early 2016. This work is an attempt to show the continuance of the past by photographing its imprint on the present.”
The exhibition answers the riddle: How do you photograph the past when the past is no longer around? These images represent echoes from Galtney’s life and show how ghosts from the past can sometimes sneak into the contented present. He considers these photos snapshots, linked mostly by their mood.
There are images of his now-deceased and much-beloved dog, Kate; a box of ashes of his friend; snow piled high along a fence. And there are photos of light sneaking under a closed door, of sun reflecting off the windows of a high-rise apartment building, and of two distant automobile headlamps, framed by the dark of night and shining their light forward.
WHERE: Area Gallery, Woodbury Campus Center, University of Southern Maine, Bedford Street, Portland
WHEN: On view through March 29, reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 21 with artist talk at 6 p.m.