Congress Street between State and High streets from John Duncan's "Take It Easy: Portland in the 1970s." (Courtesy Islandport Press)
advertisementSmiley face

You’ll have to forgive those of us who lived in Portland during the down years of the 1970s for having a certain nostalgia for a few complex years that were still somehow a simpler time.

Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll mixed messily with Vietnam, the moon landing, Watergate, and, along the Portland peninsula, poverty, old age, and urban renewal.

John Duncan
Photographer/author John Duncan in the early ’70s. (Courtesy Islandport Press)

Photographer John Duncan has captured those dull, drab, glorious days wonderfully in his new book, “Take It Easy: Portland in the 1970s,” (Islandport Press, Yarmouth. $19.95), a selection of 130 black and white photographs illuminated by Duncan’s spare text.

Duncan’s Portland past is not a comprehensive, systematic look at the old city, but rather a personal glance backward focused on the long-haired freaky people of his wild youth, the street life along Congress Street as seen by a hippie cab driver, and a few portraits of downtown denizens of the day.

I got lost among old friends as soon as I opened the book.

There’s restaurateur Jim LeDue, whose Good Egg Café and Alberta’s helped jump-start Portland as a destination for gourmets and gluttons. And there’s downtown gadfly Reggie Osborne of Ram Island Dance Company and the Hungry Hunza. And – ow wow – there’s photographer and free spirit Chris Grasse at Duncan’s wedding.

“Take It Easy” is such an intimate, spot-on portrait of 1970s Portland that I kept thinking I saw other familiar figures passing by in the street. Isn’t that poet Bruce Holsapple obscured by a bunch of youngsters as he hawks his poems outside the old Portland Public Library, where I worked from 1972-1979 – the very years Duncan photographed?

Mary Jo "Dusty" Keller
Mary Jo “Dusty” Keller as photographed by John Duncan in 1970s Portland. She died in 2016. (Courtesy Islandport Press)

Duncan’s own story is a complicated one. He was a Falmouth kid who took to the streets of Portland (and America) just as the counterculture washed over us. He worked as a dishwasher and a cab driver. (I drove for Town Taxi, he drove for both Town Taxi and Yellow Cab.) He did the on-the-road thing from Woodstock to Haight-Ashbury, worked in oil fields of Wyoming, but always returned to Portland.

In 1979, Duncan took off for Europe, where he met a Swedish girl in Florence, Italy. She took him home for Christmas and they returned together to Portland eight years later with two sons. Eventually, Duncan worked in an office supply business and drove trucks for a hardware wholesaler.

What he never did was work as a photographer.  

“I never thought of it as art,” Duncan said. “I was just taking pictures.”

Duncan rediscovered the riches of his photo archive right along with others who had never seen his pictures. Many appeared in the online Portland Encyclopedia. Others were exhibited in a pair of local photography shows and in a newspaper article where Islandport Press publisher Dean Lunt saw them. Lunt tracked Duncan down to ask whether there were any more; turns out Duncan had close to 2,000 images of Portland’s past.

One of John Duncan’s 1970s views of downtown Portland, looking north from the intersection of Middle and Temple streets toward Congress Street and the First Parish Church. (Courtesy Islandport Press)

“I had never thought of doing a book,” Duncan said. In fact, he said he had always felt as though he was not good enough to think of himself as an artist or as an author. 

“This book has fully silenced that voice,” he admitted.

For Duncan, these photographic flashbacks are about reconnecting with people and places he loved. He gets emotional when talking about old friends living and dead.

There’s Betsy Whitman, the young woman with a bottle of Wild Irish Rose between her toes on Page 53. The words she used recently to talk about their shared past have stuck with Duncan.

“She said ‘as we age out of here,’” Duncan said. “It’s such a lovely phrase. It’s like we’re drifting off. Now with this book, there’ll be something left when I check out.”

Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978. He also writes the Universal Notebook opinion column.

"Shattered Sphere" concept
A conceptual drawing of Sarah Sze’s “Shattered Sphere,” the public art piece planned for Portland’s redesigned Congress Square Park. (Courtesy city of Portland)

Safety dominates discussion about Congress Square Park art

About 50 people met at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel last month to hear artist Sarah Sze discuss her latest plans for “Shattered Sphere,” the work of public art Portland commissioned in 2016 for Congress Square Park.

Most of the members of the public who commented on Sze’s proposed artwork, which takes the form of a section of a concave sphere broken into many segments, expressed concerns about safety.

One person suggested bollards be placed in the square to keep cars driving through Congress Square from veering into the expanded park. Others asked how traffic signals would be activated, whether there would be public restrooms, if there was any danger of the sculpture’s reflective surfaces producing glare in the eyes of motorists, and how the artist planned to keep kids from climbing on “Shattered Sphere,” which will be supported by a grid of metal rods.

“The artwork looks like a jungle gym,” one person said. “Why won’t it function like one?”

“Shattered Sphere” does look as though it might invite people to sit or climb on it, a concern the artist said she had already considered.

“We may actually have to guard the piece,” Sze said. “We’re actually going to raise it up so it is not accessible to people climbing on it.”

The timeline for the reconstruction of Congress Square Park calls for the redesigned intersection of High and Congress streets being completed next year, construction of Congress Square Park and the Portland Museum of Art Plaza beginning in 2023, and “Shattered Sphere” being fabricated and installed in 2024.

The intersection redesign is budgeted at $2.5 million. The redesign of the park and plaza will cost another $2.3 million. There is another $100,000 for construction drawings. And the public art project is covered by $250,000 the Portland Public Art Committee set aside for art in Congress Square Park in 2012.

— Edgar Allen Beem