Looking at Art

Homing in on Homer

Five artists commissioned to shoot Winslow Homer's studio bring a contemporary interpretation to a classic setting

Alan Vlach, Cliff Walk, Near West Point, 2012.


In 2006, the Portland Museum of Art bought the converted carriage house in Prouts Neck, Maine, where Winslow Homer lived and worked for the last 27 years of his life, and found evidence of the celebrated painter’s sense of humor. There was a windowpane with Homer’s initials scratched on it and a sign that read “Snakes! Snakes! Mice!,” which he would prop up to scare away the curious when he was painting outdoors. The house contained various everyday objects—teacups, cigarette packs, rusty bolts, a razor—that the museum also acquired.

These items caught the eye of Keliy Anderson-Staley, one of five artists commissioned by the museum to photograph the studio and its contents for “Between Past and Present: The Homer Studio Photographic Project,” running from October 6 to February 17. Like all the artists in the show, Anderson-Staley used historical photographic processes available during Homer’s lifetime (1836–1910) in combination with digital techniques. Her tintypes, made with the wet-plate collodion process, frame each mundane object against a white background, giving them the look of important evidence. Still, Anderson-Staley says, “the curators aren’t sure if they actually belonged to Homer,” or if other inhabitants left them behind.

The show is part of a museum-wide celebration of Homer. In September, the studio opened for tours after a meticulous renovation, and an exhibition focusing on work he painted there, “Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine,” runs through December 30. The photographers offer a more contemporary and personal interpretation of the site. Brenton Hamilton’s closeup cyanotypes and gum-bichromate prints of Homer’s illustrations isolate fanciful fragments. Abelardo Morell projected the landscape directly onto the ground using a camera obscura and then photographed the projection. Alan Vlach’s salted-paper prints show the famous Maine light, and Tillman Crane’s palladium and platinum prints record the house and its surroundings. Crane used a pinhole camera for a shot of the ocean-facing piazza, which he says looks “like the prow of a ship.”

Even on a sunny day, the rocky landscape evokes the stormy paintings Homer made there, but the photographers were free to see the place for themselves. “I don’t think it reflects Homer exactly,” curator Susan Danly says of the show. “It’s more of their own sensibility.” To try to capture Homer’s vision, Crane adds, “would have been a gross injustice.”

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