Born in Yonkers, New York in 1911, George Daniell began making black-and-white photographs using a folding Kodak camera he received on his 12th birthday (on a trip to Europe in 1933 he switched to a more versatile Leica). In his teens he attended the Grand Central Art School in New York City where he drew from the cast. He later earned a BA degree at Yale, with a concentration in drawing.

While at Yale, Daniell offered his photographic services to fellow students and professors, some of whom paid him. By the time he graduated in 1934, he had enough experience with a camera to become a freelance photographer, setting up a portrait studio in New York City. He also took classes at the Art Students League and studied with Carl Nelson at the American People’s School in the Bronx.

Daniell first came to Maine in the summer of 1936. He stopped at Ogunquit, where he sat in on one of painter Bernard Karfiol’s art classes, and then moved to Monhegan, seeking to escape a bad case of hay fever. He rented “The Lobster Pot,” a fisherman’s shack, for the month of August for $7 (washroom facilities were at the nearby Monhegan House).

“George Daniell: Picturing Monhegan Island” features eight gelatin silver print photographs and 11 lithographic crayon drawings, all small in size, inspired by that visit. The photographs document goings-on in the village: visitors walking down “Main Street,” the dirt road that serves as the island’s central artery; people at the wharf waiting for the ferry; two men seated on a ledge looking out at Manana, guardian isle of Monhegan’s harbor.

Daniell’s drawings also document place, but they have a modernist feel to them—a bit of the Cubist aesthetic of his teacher Carl Nelson. Delicately drawn, they resemble rubbings, with the wove paper giving them a pleasing texture. 

This show might have been called “The Ramps of Monhegan, Maine.” More than half the pieces feature those sloping entrances to the fish houses, up and down, which the fishermen wheel barrows filled with traps and fishing supplies. These diagonals lend dynamism to the images, as in the photograph “Fish Houses and Sea,” which seems to contain the glow of another era. 

Daniell went on to become a well-known documentary photographer. His 1938 series of Grand Manan fishermen was syndicated and appeared in papers across the country. He also photographed Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren and other celebrities, as well as artists George O’Keeffe, John Marin and Berenice Abbott. His photographs appeared in Life, Time, Scribner’s and Coronet, and in exhibitions curated by Edward Steichen, head of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art.

Daniell settled with his partner, painter Stephen Mortland, in Trenton, Maine, in 1960, where he became a fixture in the local art scene (he makes several cameo appearances in Sanford Phippen’s new book, Sturge, a memoir of sailor and bon vivant Sturgis Haskins). He contributed photographs to Down East and continued to paint. For many years he wintered in Key West (where he photographed Tennessee Williams in 1973). He died in 2002.

This finely focused exhibition presents an artist at a formative stage, developing an eye for place and people. It is also a reminder of Daniell’s modest but memorable contribution to our appreciation of a special island in Maine.

“George Daniell: Picturing Monhegan Island” is on view at the Portland Museum of Art through Aug. 3.

Carl Little has contributed a feature on Monhegan at 400 for the forthcoming Island Journal.