This is a photo of the birth place of Portland native Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
A church near Hicksville, Long Island. Photo by Todd Webb
A colorized postcard from the early 1900s shows Old Orchard Beach.
If the Maine we know and love today represents the way life should be, do photos from the past represent the way life was?
A photo exhibition at the University of Southern Maine Art Gallery in Gorham presents the Maine of yesteryear, as seen through the eyes of photographers who documented Maine in the early part of the 1900s and helped create the image of the state as a tourist destination.
At USM Portland, the Woodbury Campus Center is showing two dozen photographs by Todd Webb, offering images of New York, Paris and New Mexico from the 1940s to 1980s, when Webb traveled widely before moving to Maine.
Both exhibitions are part of the Maine Photo Project. From 3:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, USM hosts the Maine Photo Project Symposium at Glickman Library. It will include lectures and discussion about the photos on view in both shows, and will end with a reception for the Webb exhibition. The symposium is free and open to the public.
Both exhibitions resulted from gallery director Carolyn Eyler’s combing through USM’s art collection. “We are not a collecting entity, but we have a few things,” she said. “I was looking at what would be exhibit potential, and at the same time the Maine Photo Project was coming together.”
Webb’s work came to USM through his long association with the USM art department. “Todd Webb: Historian with a Camera” includes 25 black-and-white photos, representing his travels across the United States and Europe. He grew up in Detroit, and moved to New York in the mid-1940s when he began taking pictures professionally.
He was friends with Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe and Berenice Abbott. He was known for his New York street scenes, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship to record pioneer trails of early settlers of the western United States. He moved often — around the United States and overseas — and maintained a documentary approach to his work.
He settled in Portland, and died in 1980. He left 25 images to USM, all of which are on view in Portland.
The USM gallery in Gorham is showing “Picturing Maine: The Way Life Was?” Curators Donna Cassidy and Libby Bischof assembled this show mostly with images from Detroit Publishing Co. photos from the 1900s to 1920s and Farm Security Administration photos from the late 1930s.
Detroit Publishing hired photographers across the United States to make scenic photographs, and used many of them for postcards and what were known in the trade as “souvenir views.”
The photos show historical sites and landmarks in Maine, including Longfellow’s birth house in Portland, Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth, the Poland Springs resort, hotels in Bar Harbor and the pier at Old Orchard Beach. There are several photos of Portland’s former Union Station, including one from the Western Prom that shows how the station dominated the city’s western landscape. These photos represented Maine to the outside world, and helped build its reputation as a tourism destination.
The Farm Security photos were part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program, and were part of an effort to resettle farmers following the Depression. From 1939 to 1943, a team of photographs fanned out across rural Maine, seeking images of small-town life. There are many images from northern Maine, including portraits of farmers. The photos portray an America that wasn’t pretty, with broken-down houses and barns and people living frugally.
Both exhibitions have been popular with viewers, Eyler said.
“Unlike some contemporary art shows we’ve had, people instantly recognize the places in these photos. It’s fun to watch. People will be staring at the photos and say, ‘I know that place. I grew up two doors down.'”
WHERE: Area Gallery, Woodbury Campus Center, USM, 35 Bedford St., Portland
WHEN: Through Dec. 9; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday
WHERE: Art Gallery, USM, 37 College Ave., Gorham
WHEN: Through Dec. 11; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
WHERE: Glickman Family Library, USM Portland
WHEN: 3:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday