Good to Look At

In the first three years at its Norumbega Hall location in downtown Bangor, the University of Maine Museum of Art has become one of the state’s premier venues for viewing photography. This reputation owes a great deal to museum director Wally Mason, an accomplished photographer himself who understands both the aesthetics and the appeal of the art of the shutter and lens.

“A Maritime Album: 100 Photographs and Their Stories,” the latest in a string of notable offerings, is a traveling show that originated at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Curated by photography historian John Szarkowski, this “album” was drawn from the Mariners’ Museum’s collection of a half million prints and covers roughly a century of photography, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. Another historian, Richard Benson, contributes an inspired mini-essay for each image.

In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue (really a book published by Yale University Press), Szarkowski explains that no “measured scientific inquiry” guided the selection. These black-and-white photographs were chosen, he states, “because they are, in a variety of ways, good to look at.”

They are, indeed, a striking lot, from a pair of photos of the research vessel BEAR in the arctic (with caribou in the foreground of one shot) to a dramatic, official Navy photo of the destruction of the USS WEST VIRGINIA at Pearl Harbor. A poetic image of letters salvaged from the EMPRESS OF IRELAND, which sank in the St. Lawrence River in May 1914 (Benson tells us 1,024 lives were lost), brings to mind the sometimes-elegiac work of contemporary Maine camera artist Rose Marasco.

Superb people shots abound. A vintage photograph taken by Edwin Levick and Sons (active 1909-1940) shows a New England fisherman posing with a huge halibut — what Benson refers to as “the steroidal cousin to the flounder.” A. Aubrey Bodine’s “Cleaning Fish,” a portrait of five black workers harvesting alewife roe in Havre de Grace, Maryland, in May 1943, displays the gritty documentary style of a Walker Evans.

Some photos are historic. “Ely’s First Flight” by Keville Graham records the first flight ever made by an airplane from the deck of a ship, on November 14, 1910. The see-through one-seater flying machine, shown just clearing the prow of the USS BIRMINGHAM, looks like it’s headed for the drink. Quite a leap to go from that photo to P.D. Tiffany’s undated aerial view of the carrier USS CONSTELLATION, its deck (roughly shaped like an Absolut vodka bottle) replete with jet aircraft.

Not all is maritime here. Szarkowski includes John Loch-head’s photograph of the ill-fated dirigible HINDENBURG hovering over a nearly deserted St. John, New Brunswick, in 1936, swastikas visible on its rear fins. “First Wing Panel Made by Girls” shows three female Philadelphia factory workers posing with the frame of an airfoil — one of those staged industrial shots with historical and visual resonance.

This is as fine a photography show as you’re likely to see, masterfully presented and documented. Make a point of going. “A Maritime Album” runs through April 2. Call 561-3351 for museum hours.

Carl Little’s latest book is The Art of Monhegan Island. He will be speaking in the Kennebec Land Trust’s lyceum lecture series on March 31.