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Winslow Homer and Photography: A Reassessment
Over the past decade, the Portland Museum of Art’s restoration of the Winslow Homer (1836–1910) studio on Prouts Neck in Scarborough, Maine, and the acquisition of his view camera by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art have spurred important new scholarship about Homer’s relationship to the visual culture of his day. The recent exhibition and catalog Winslow Homer and the Camera: Photography and the Art of Painting carefully reexamine Homer’s life and art in relation to the emergence of photography over the course of his prolific career.
Period photographs in particular have expanded our understanding of Homer’s domestic life in Maine and his travels to the warmer climes of the Caribbean in his later years. By examining the photographic record of the re-siting and expansion of his small studio by Portland’s leading architect, John Calvin Stevens (1855–1940), we gain a better idea of the role the Homer family played in developing their real-estate interests in the Scarborough summer community at Prouts Neck. The family’s collection of photographs (now housed in the Bowdoin College Museum) includes buildings, landscape scenes along the coast, and portraits of the artist, his family, and friends. Some images were taken by popular commercial portrait photographers in New York, such as Napoleon Sarony, and some by Simon Towle and other unidentified New England landscapists. Examined together, these photographs provide a more complex picture of the artist’s attachment to the Maine coast and his activities there. In his essay in the Bowdoin catalog, museum codirector Frank H. Goodyear III relies on the physical evidence of Homer’s newly discovered view camera to begin his study of the relationship between Homer’s art and the visual impact of photography.
As Goodyear explains, that relationship was rooted in Homer’s early career as a magazine illustrator before the Civil War, just as photography was beginning to emerge as an important form of visual record making. Until recently, Homer was known to have owned two cameras, including an English-made “miniature” camera, used to make small images, 1½ inches (3.8 cm) square, and intended to fit into one’s pocket. However, as there are no extant photographs of that small size attributed to the artist, one Homer scholar speculated that “he couldn’t make it work” (33). In 1888, Homer’s brother Charles gave the artist the then new and simpler Kodak No. 1 camera, recently introduced by George Eastman for use by amateur photographers.
A third view camera that took glass-plate negatives recently came to light in 2013 when it was given to the Bowdoin College Museum by a local Scarborough resident. As the resident’s story goes, the camera was given to his family by one of the artist’s relatives in exchange for electrical work on one of the Homer properties at Prouts Neck. Made by Mawson and Swan in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, the camera was purchased by Homer during his year-long stay at the fishing village of Cullercoats on the English North Sea in 1882. That camera was probably used to take the oddly cropped and poetically abstract photograph of a sailboat that Homer tellingly pasted into his copy of Chevreul on Colours (1855), a popular handbook of modern color theory that Homer and many of the French Impressionist artists read.
The photograph Cliff at Prouts Neck, taken with this camera, is the only Maine photograph in the Bowdoin collection that can be attributed directly to Homer. It is a small albumen print (3⅝ x 4½ inches / 9.2 × 11.4 cm), made sometime shortly after his return from England in 1882. Unlike the rather simple notational image of the English sailboat, Homer’s photograph of the cliffs and surf at Prouts Neck is a more complex composition that relates formally to his new interest in painting scenes of the Maine coast, in both watercolor and oil. Despite the paucity of physical evidence, Goodyear builds a strong case that Homer’s interest in photography helped shape his powers of observation, especially in his later years. He notes: “Though [Homer] privileged painting’s ability to convey truth and beauty, he did not shy away from photography” (47). Homer even provided photographs of his paintings to publishers to make sure that his oils were better known and would be reproduced by the press.
The largest surviving body of photographic work attributed to Homer is the series of images he took with his Kodak No. 1. Homer carried it with him on summer fishing trips to the Adirondacks and on his winter travels south to the Caribbean. This new film camera came preloaded with a hundred exposures, which the user would send back to Kodak to be developed. While there is no evidence that Homer was interested in the darkroom or new developing processes, as was his contemporary, Thomas Eakins, it is clear that he was intrigued aesthetically by the circular format of the Kodak prints. In carefully composed landscapes taken of Florida waterways and palm trees, especially, Homer’s images display a more defined photographic vision.
The second essay in the Bowdoin catalog, by Dana E. Byrd, assistant professor of art history at Bowdoin College, delves into this set of Homer-related tropical photographs as a springboard for a discussion of Homer’s travels to the Bahamas, Cuba, and Florida in the mid-1880s. Commissioned by Century Magazine to illustrate a travel article promoting tourism in the Bahamas in 1884, Homer intended to provide the publisher with watercolors and took no camera. But he was well supplied with illustrated guidebooks and hotel brochures filled with photographs. Byrd’s essay discusses the particular attractions of the Bahamas: the resort hotels, exotic flora, and sightseeing tours around the island, where Homer would have come in contact with black Bahamians, whom he often featured in his watercolors. During his trip to Santiago de Cuba, the artist concentrated on the local Spanish-inspired architecture that reflected the colonial aspects of the island’s politics and history. But it was not until he went to Florida in 1886 that Homer took pictures with his Kodak camera. There he fished with his father and made images of the natural world. As Byrd points out, “Homer frequently painted, photographed, and fished from a canoe” (129), and this low-lying vantage point provided him with a new perspective on the landscape. She posits that the culmination of Homer’s tropical experiences was his dramatic painting The Gulf Stream (1899), which appears in the only known photograph of the artist working in his Prouts Neck studio. Taken around 1900 by an unidentified photographer, whose intention remains obscure, this image serves to remind us of the link between Homer’s travels abroad and his rootedness in Maine—and the complexity of the relationship between painting and photography that had emerged in the art world by the turn of the century.
Both essays and the lavish illustrations of Homer’s watercolors, paintings, and archival photographs are essential for any course on the history of late nineteenth-century American art and visual culture.
Independent Art Historian