Snapshot of Homer's photography at Bowdoin

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BRUNSWICK — The featured exhibit at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art may have just launched last weekend, but the inspiration for it originated five years ago from a single phone call.

On the line was a Scarborough man who claimed to have artist Winslow Homer’s camera.

Today, the camera is one of 130 objects on display as part of “Winslow Homer and the Camera: Photography and the Art of Painting,” on view at BCMA through Oct. 28. The exhibit opened June 23, and admission to the museum is free.

In addition to Homer’s paintings, the display also features oil studies, drawings, prints and photographs by the artist that span his entire career. It also includes other archival objects, such as his painting palette, watercolor brushes, walking stick and fishing net.

On June 22, museum Co-Director Frank H. Goodyear said after the museum received the call about the camera, he, other museum officials and students, began trying to figure out if the item was authentic.

“We were able to confirm that attribution several  months later after consulting with Homer experts around the country,” he said.

Before getting the call, Goodyear added, staff hadn’t known Homer was interested in photography, and researching that aspect of the artist’s career served as the inspiration for the exhibit.

Information printed on one of the exhibit’s introductory walls echoes that sentiment, stating Homer was “first and foremost” a painter from a young age. Bowdoin’s display, however, explores the artist’s lifelong engagement with photography.

Goodyear said one of the reasons the museum is doing the show, and what makes Bowdoin the “perfect” place for such an exhibit, is due to the college’s extensive collection of Homer’s work.

In 1964, former museum director Phillip Beam accepted the Winslow Homer archival collection, which was a gift from Homer’s family to the museum, and comprises several pieces created and owned by Homer.

“Bowdoin has been a sort of a center for Homer studies, really ever since,” Goodyear said.

Goodyear and Assistant Professor of Art History Dana Byrd curated the exhibit.

The display is organized chronologically, beginning in 1857 and ending with works from the end of the 19th century. Homer died in 1910.

In addition to works from the museum’s Winslow Homer Collection, the exhibit also features work on loan from 25 institutions and collectors from across the country.

One of the themes it deals with is source material Homer used as inspiration for his work. Often the source was a photograph, both pictures Homer took himself and work from other photographers, such as Matthew Brady.

For instance, one piece featured in the exhibit is a wood engraving of President Abraham Lincoln, which Harper’s Weekly reprinted for its cover on Nov. 10, 1860, after Lincoln’s election.

Byrd said while Homer copied Lincoln’s likeness from a Brady photograph, the artist transformed some of the elements to make Lincoln “look presidential.”

Using photography as a basis for his illustrations, Byrd said, is “one of the many ways” Homer utilized photography throughout his life. The Brady photo Homer worked from, she added, was taken before Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech.

“You’ll notice that he’s taken this photograph, this everyday thing, this thing that can be comprised in multiples and has transformed it into something a little more stately,” she said.

Goodyear said part of the reason Homer copied photographs as a commercial illustrator was because he was often “working on tight deadlines,” and “asked to portray portraits of prominent individuals he might not have had access to.”

Later in his career, Homer also used photography in reverse, by photographing his paintings and selling the photos to patrons. “The Fisher Girl,” a painting by Homer, and a photograph he later took of the piece are both on display towards the end of Bowdoin’s exhibit.

Another room showcases Homer’s photography on his Kodak 1 camera, which Goodyear said many people refer to as “the first amateur camera.” The photos are placed above watercolor paintings the artist did of nature scenes.

The paintings, Goodyear said, take on new meaning when placed beneath Homer’s photographs.

“When you look at them individually, they’re about adventures in the wilderness. Homer was a great fisherman; he (liked) to travel extended periods in the backwoods,” he said. “But when you look at these pictures together, when you put them in juxtaposition with some of the Kodak number 1 (photos), you see this profound interest in how to represent water.”

In addition to the camera the museum acquired in 2013, its new exhibit also features another camera Homer owned, which were two of the three cameras he owned in his lifetime.

Ultimately, Goodyear said when working on researching an “iconic American artist” like Winslow Homer, curators are “building on generations of scholars that have thought about his life and artistic practice.”

“I think what we hope this exhibition does is add just another layer of complexity that problematizes our understanding and appreciation of his artistic process,” he said. 

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

Frank Goodyear, co-curator of Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s “Winslow Homer and the Camera: Photography and the Art of Painting,” in the exhibit June 22. 

Dana Byrd, co-curator of Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s “Winslow Homer and the Camera: Photography and the Art of Painting,” in the exhibit June 22.

Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s “Winslow Homer and the Camera: Photography and the Art of Painting” examines how photography informed Homer’s work. It will run through Oct. 28. 

The exhibit features two of the three cameras Homer owned in his lifetime, one of which was donated to Bowdoin by a local man in 2013. 

The exhibit features 130 objects by the artist across all mediums, including a wood etching of Abraham Lincoln reprinted for the cover of “Harper’s Weekly” in 1860. 

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