Then and now

History and art meet at the Portland Harbor Museum
By IAN PAIGE  |  November 14, 2007
BEFORE + AFTER: Portland's working waterfront.

Slideshow: Photos from "Picturing Portland: A Century of Change"
The Portland Harbor Museum, in collaboration with the Bakery Photographic Collective, is blurring the boundaries concerning what a history museum can exhibit. If you drive out to the museum’s scenic home overlooking Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland, you’ll first encounter more typical offerings: a gift shop with requisite Maine paraphernalia, followed by a permanent exhibit teeming with rusty and rotting artifacts from Portland’s halcyon days of shipbuilding.

Go one room further and you’ll find “Picturing Portland: A Century of Change.” Curator Hadley Schmoyer worked closely with the BPiC to polish up what turns out to be a treasure chest of glass-plate negatives from the turn of the century. The museum has been sitting on this collection since 1992, when it was donated by South Portland historian Earle Angell. Using the Westbrook collective’s talent and equipment, 27 images from Portland’s past were printed and matched with individual Bakery members’ contemporary images of the site, forming a highly satisfying “then and now” effect. The historical and the contemporary shake hands and invite you to join an open-ended discussion of social and urban development that locates our contemporary place in history.

Each Bakery member is challenged to match the exact vantage point of the antiquated photos from, among other places, the Munjoy Hill Reservoir, Willard Beach, and Bramhall Street. The “now” photos are stringently denied digital manipulations and feel consistent with the originals thanks to Bob Monroe’s many hours toiling in the darkroom. Each photograph in the show is scrutinized, allowing even the most amateur shot from 1900 to stand on its own in tonality and composition.

The effect of the show, however, is strongest when each pairing is strung together as vignettes in a larger story of the city of Portland. Themes of industry, personal life, social gatherings, and activities provide a historical perspective crucial to defining a sense of place. Some juxtapositions are ambiguous — “The man who lost his bet” from 1915 presents a crowd of men outside City Hall. They pose with a donkey wearing a campaign sign for Teddy Roosevelt. Tanja Alexia Hollander’s 2007 take of the same scene is a beautiful look at our modern streets, albeit disheartening in its abstraction. Right angles prevail along with an ominous chain-link fence where Federal architecture and throngs of people once enlivened the cityscape.

This pairing exemplifies the crossroads of artistic and historical processes that makes this show a success. The sign on the donkey refers to a non-event. Roosevelt did not run for President in 1916 and a “Portland to Portland” reference could refer to the Roosevelt Highway running between the West and East-Coast cities, if only the idea for the highway wasn’t conceived four years after this photograph was taken. The museum’s academic curiosity is a perfect complement to the Bakery’s artistic achievements. The two form a dialogue that challenges our vantage point in the present moment.

This challenge is necessary because our city changes in perpetuity, and the dramatic transformations over 100 years that are presented in the exhibit remind us that our current developments on the waterfront and Bayside will be inherited by future generations. Responsibility for this legacy starts with engagement, a developing and continued awareness. A show like “Picturing Portland” is remarkable because it incites an artistically oriented vision, a cultivated manner of looking more deeply, while also promoting a social and political process of questioning the present while referencing the past.

"Picturing Portland: A Century of Change" | through Nov 25 | at Portland Harbor Museum, SMCC campus, Fort Rd, South Portland | 207.799.6337

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