Monday, February 18th, 2019

Picturing Maine exhibit: The way life was

Krysteana Scribner | The Free Press

Posted on October 06, 2015 in Arts & Culture, Theatre
By USM Free Press

By Dora Thompson

Glossy postcards litter the shelves of gifts shops throughout our state, bearing bold bubble-letter statements like, “Maine: the way life should be,” or “Greetings from Vacationland!” These phrases are superimposed over sprawling images of Acadia National Park in Autumn, waves crashing around The Portland Head Lighthouse and a moose leisurely chewing grass in Sebago Lake.

These are the visions of Maine we’re all used to. But until December 11th, USM’s Art Gallery in Gorham invites viewers to question them with their exhibit, “Picturing Maine: The Way Life Was?”

Curated by Donna Cassidy and Libby Bishof, the exhibit draws from USM’s photo archives with images of Maine from the early 1900’s to the 1950’s.Some prints of the pictures are on sale at the gallery, and all are accessible through The Library of Commerce, where they are now public domain.

The exhibit is part of a large project called The Maine Photo Project, which is a consortium of curators throughout the state, all hosting galleries full of Maine-themed photographers. Some are pulled from collections and some are contemporary. Accompanied by Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby, USM has worth contribution to the project.

USM will also show works by Maine photographer Todd Webb at the Area Gallery in Portland. A previous artist-in-residence, Wedd left behind some works that will be shown. There will be a symposium on the works on October 15th at the Glickman Library.

One part of the exhibit features photos taken for The Detroit Publishing Company. One of the largest American publishers of postcards, the company hired numerous photographers to capture Maine’s beauty in a way that specifically appeals to potential tourists. Displayed in geographical order, the results are several clean and well composed photos of Maine’s notable country clubs, lighthouses, and beaches.

Some of the sites no longer exist, like an old train station, The Portland Union Station, that used to stand on the intersection of Congress Street and St.John Street. The land holds a strip mall now. Women in one piece bathing suits sit peacefully on Old Orchard Beach and great lawns sprawl out before large resorts. One can also view the colored postcards these images turned into.

“These postcards are telling tourists that Maine is their playground,” said Carolyn Eyler, Director of exhibitions and programs. The images were certainly aimed at well off white people with the ability to travel.

A stark comparison to the sunny photographs of Maine’s best lies across the gallery, as photographers try to capture the state’s “worst.” In the late 1930’s, the Farm Security Administration (FSA), was an organization the helped farmers after the Depression. They launched The Small Town Project with intention to small nostalgic shots of small town American family life. The very families that the FSA was financially helping.

“The goal was to show to justify funding small towns and customs. It was to evoke sympathy, and show what their dollars were supporting,” explained Eyler.

The black and white images certainly have a feeling of good-old, hard working America. Most taken in rural Northern Maine, a family sits in a run down home with a woodstove, a potato festival in Presque Isle looks lively, and run down farm houses stand out against the sky. Especially after the FSA received some flack for not photographing more of the war, the organization needed people’s support.

The idea was to show that agricultural culture was still a large and vital part of this country’s economy, but that farmers themselves were struggling. It’s a completely different Maine than the publishing company’s colorful postcards.

An 1936 script from an FSA economist, Roy Stryker, to photographer Paul Carter showed the motive behind the collection,

“Visit finest examples of state forests in Maine, both coniferous and deciduous stands—to be used as contrasts and to show how we (the FSA) are aiming to convert this seemingly barren land into what will become a national asset through reforestation.”

A third and very different view of The Pine Tree State is not taken by a photographer at all. A group of black women in 1950’s visited Maine and snapped photographs of their vacation. It shows the women in front of tourist destinations, but this time, it is not to sell the place. It is simply to capture a memory. They aren’t as well composed or as stylized as Detroit’s Publishing Company’s Maine, yet they are real. They offer a narrative not often thought about, as most advertising was directed at white people.

“There is all kinds of activity that mainstream history leaves aside,” said Eyler.

So as you wander through “Picturing Maine: The Way Life Was?” contemplate the extreme and often unconscious affect that photography has on our lives. Would we think these things about Maine if someone with a camera hadn’t told us to think it? What other ways does photography influence our perceptions without us realizing?

“There is always an agenda,” said Eyler. “It is important not to take for granted the images in front of us. It’s an incredibly varied state with incredibly varied people. You need to keep in mind the whole picture.”

The next time you see a postcard claiming Maine is seeped in blueberries, maple syrup,and smiling faces, you can think a little bit deeper.

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