UMMA’s first national exhibit showcases contemporary fine art photography

Posted June 23, 2011, at 8:24 p.m.
“Departure” cyanotype by Thomas Hager, 2009.
Courtesy photo
“Departure” cyanotype by Thomas Hager, 2009.
“I Remember Warm Rain” gelatin silver print by Sean Alonzo Harris, 2008.
Courtesy photo
“I Remember Warm Rain” gelatin silver print by Sean Alonzo Harris, 2008.
“Clean Fridge, Moving Day” by Sarah Szwajkos, 2005.
Courtesy photo
“Clean Fridge, Moving Day” by Sarah Szwajkos, 2005.
“The Tarn” archival pigment print by Jim Nickelson, 2009.
Courtesy photo
“The Tarn” archival pigment print by Jim Nickelson, 2009.

Photographers hopped aboard planes to fly thousands of miles to attend the opening reception of “Photo National 2011: A Survey of Contemporary Photography” on Thursday at the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor. Others only had to drive a few minutes from their homes to celebrate their artwork on display.

“Photo National 2011,” UMMA’s first national exhibition, features 76 works by 34 fine art photographers from throughout the United States, and offers a diversity of contemporary photography processes and topics.

“As the show came together, we were really able to get a glimpse as to where photography is headed,” said UMMA executive director and curator George Kinghorn, pointing out the few black-and-white images and the abundance of color, digital and large-scale images.

Jim Nickelson of Camden, who has won a number of awards for his color photography, uses color and composition in unconventional ways to bring abstraction to Maine landscape. When he learned about the national show, he didn’t hesitate to submit his work, and he persuaded a number of his fellow photographers to follow suit.

“Color photography is probably stronger now than it has ever been,” said Nickelson. “A lot of people went into black and white because it was the only way to control the final image. And a lot of those people became liberated when the digital world came.”

Though that isn’t the case for Nickelson. He shoots film and still opts for color.

Nickelson is one of the 11 Maine photographers selected for the show, which received 150 submissions and was juried by Brian Paul Clamp, director of the CLAMPART gallery in New York City, and Kinghorn.

The other Maine photographers are Jeffery C. Becton of Deer Isle, Melonie Bennett of Gorham, Leslie Bowman of Prescott, Anne-Claude Cotty of Stonington, Julie K. Gray of South Portland, Sea Alonzo Harris of Portland, Robert Moran of Bar Harbor, Dianna Rust of Camden, Sarah Szwajkos of Rockland and Shoshannah White of Portland.

Several common threads run through the show, such as unconventional landscape, vacant interior spaces, portrait, photo collage and photo documentary.

For the past 20 years, Bennett has worked on a project of candid photos of her family and friends, who all live within a mile of each other in Gorham. She enjoys documenting their day-to-day lives because her active family members always do something to surprise her, and she hopes they will surprise viewers of her work.

One of the two photos that were chosen for the show is one of Bennett’s father sitting down to a TV tray covered with three slices of pizza from the variety store bordered by hot dogs and various condiments.

“My father is always doing something I can’t believe,” Bennett said, laughing. “So that picture that’s in the show — that’s a typical dinner setup for him. It’s like a whole process, and he always has to have a whole jar of mayonnaise because mayonnaise goes on everything.”

Her gelatin silver print images document humor, action and reality, without glamour.

Szwajkos of Rockland focuses on interior spaces, devoid of humans but reflecting their lives through possessions and arrangements of living spaces. Her fascination for rooms began when she was housesitting for a couple of artists and realized how they had made their home a piece of art.

In her artist statement, she writes, “I am compelled to photograph people’s homes out of a belief that we can learn about others through the ways they inhabit their spaces, and the possessions they collect around themselves. The dishes drying next to the sink, the day’s clothes flung over the closet door, the elegant sofa sinking into quiet disrepair, and even the items that get left behind on moving day.”

Though she usually photographs other people’s space — exclusively when she’s alone in the space — the two images chosen for the “Photo National 2011” are of her former home in Appleton.

“I didn’t want to move there, but I really loved it when I moved out there,” she said. “It felt like I was in the middle of nowhere — the prairie instead of the town of Rockland. I was compelled to get up in the early morning and photograph in that space because there were two rooms [the bedroom and kitchen] that had amazing light.”

Though bold colors jump from the white walls of UMMA for this show, some black-and-white photography is included, many of the works digital. Rust uses some of the oldest historical processes known — such as palladium, platinum, cyanotype or salt printing —  to produce her images.

Both contemporary and historical processes and images are brought together in Thomas Hagar’s solo photography exhibit “New Dawn Fades” in the Edward D. Leonard gallery, a space that leads viewers into the national show.

“New Dawn Fades” is a sampling of projects that Hagar has been working on for more than 10 years, and can be broken up into two series: botanical and portraits.

An avid art historian, Hagar uses historical artworks as a point of departure, often layering the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Andreas Vesalius with his own images.

In the self-portrait “Departure,” Hagar attempts to portray the struggle between flesh and spirit through a ghostly image of his naked torso, arms outstretched and face to the sky, layered by an anatomical drawing of a skeleton, revealing the material aspect of human existence.

“It’s an Italian Renaissance theme,” Hagar said. “At the time where the Dark Ages were ending, they started to use real-life looking people in their paintings and it was almost disconcerting — portraying the actual physicality with the spiritual world and in the afterlife.”

With a mortar and pestle, Hagar grinds his own chemicals into a fine powder and works in a wet darkroom, painting the emulsion on watercolor paper. But he also employs new technology and techniques to achieve his large-scale images. Each work in “New Dawn Fades” is large, some 30 by 40 inches.

The botanical series came later, when Hagar decided to step outside his dark studio and enjoy the Florida landscape.

“When I was shooting all the self-portraits, I was inside and working on internal things,” Hagar said. “But I decided it was time to get out of the studio and start working outside. I got married and things got a lot happier.”

He employs early photographic processes such as cyanotype, a process first by used by inventor John Herschel (1792-1871) to record flora specimens. Botanist Anna Atkins (1799-1871) also applied the process to algae and ferns.

The resulting images are ethereal, similar to the portraits, but instead of illustrating existential thought and internal dilemma, the enlarged sweet pea and ginger communicate wonderment of discovered beauty.

“Photography isn’t that old of a medium compared to painting or sculpture, of course,” said Hagar. ”But the way I work — I feel fortunate to know and be able to make images as they did in the 19th century.”

A free panel discussion in conjunction with the show will be at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 11, at the museum. “Photo National 2011” and “New Dawn Fades” will run through Sept. 24. For information, visit www.umma.umaine.edu or call 561-3350. The museum is free and open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

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