in this still 1998 photograph by Mitch Epstein, a woman is seen from a side angle with her head reclined in the backseat of a vehicle
Mitch Epstein, Untitled (New York), 1998, chromogenic print. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine. (© Black River Productions, Ltd., Courtesy of Mitch Epstein / Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York)
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A pair of large, captivating survey shows are currently giving Maine viewers an unparalleled opportunity to go sightseeing through the past 50 to 60 years of contemporary photography. 

“Drawn to the Light: 50 Years of Photography at Maine Media Workshops + College” at the Portland Museum of Art (through Sep. 10) features about 100 works by photographers who have worked at the Rockport workshop since its founding 1973.

“People Watching: Contemporary Photography since 1965” at Bowdoin College Museum of Art (through Nov. 5) includes 120 photographs by some four dozen photographers. “People Watching” draws on images in Bowdoin’s extensive photography collection and is arranged in sections that feature people photographed on the street, on assignment, at home, and in the studio as well as artist self-portraits and photographs in which the presence of people is only implied.

Taken together, “Drawn to the Light” and “People Watching” provide an insightful selection of fine art photographs and make the point that Maine holds a significant place in contemporary photography.

Maine Media Workshops + College was founded as Maine Photographic Workshops in 1973 by David Lyman, who is one of the photographers included. Some of the others with Maine and workshop connections are Berenice Abbott, Paul and John Paul Caponigro, Kate Carter, Dick Durrance, Sean Alonzo Harris, Cig Harvey, Alan Magee, Eliot Porter, Peter Ralston, Joyce Tenneson and George Tice.

With so many pictures to look at, the viewer gets a sense of how photo artists use cameras and photographic technology to different ends, from the gossamer romanticism of Tenneson to the surrealism of John Paul Caponigro and documentary realism of Berenice Abbott. The exhibition, substantial and subtle as it may be, also reminds in its grayness how much harder a photograph has to work than a painting.

“People Watching” fills a series of Bowdoin galleries with photos both famous and not, ranging from Larry Burrows’ classic 1966 image of a wounded marine in Vietnam to studio portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol and a panorama of Chinese fish farms by Edward Burtynsky.

I walked through the two exhibitions camera phone in hand, photographing photographs for future reference. My favorites at Bowdoin were a Katy Grannan nude and Mitch Epstein’s untitled photo of a woman asleep in the backseat of a car. I found myself wondering whether the image was posed, so perfect is it in repose. 

I also found myself thinking about what a photograph really wants to be. A framed picture on a museum wall? A printed image in a newspaper or magazine? Published in a book? Displayed on a computer screen? Stored on a chip? 

The two exhibitions underscore how photography has evolved from a technology we once trusted completely to one we no longer trust at all to deliver the truth. We were, of course, naïve to think that the mechanical and chemical machinations of camera and film ever delivered accuracy. The world is not black and white, two dimensional and 4 x 4 inches square. Yet for many years black and white photographs were regarded as paragons of documentary truth.

In this digital age, we all know that images are easily altered, manipulated, even faked. We are all much more sophisticated and skeptical consumers of visual information. In that sense, there is an appealing past innocence about the two hundred plus photographs on view at Portland Museum of Art and Bowdoin.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.

“Drawn to the Light: 50 Years of Photography at Maine Media Workshops + College,” group exhibition | Through Sep 10 | Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland | 207-775-6148 |

“People Watching: Contemporary Photography Since 1965,” group exhibition | Through Nov. 5 | Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick | 207-725-3275 |

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