August 02, 2020

Visible Man> Photographer brings Portland’s black community to light

Magda Adrien has the kind of face that ought to be carved in ebony, marble or granite. Whatever stone takes the shape of nobility best.

In a portrait by Portland photographer Sean Alonzo Harris, Adrien’s beauty is anything but passive. Bronzed by light, her face is still, centered, but vigorously brilliant. Her energy is electric, though her gaze is distant.

It’s a fitting picture of a proud black businesswoman, inventor of the She-Bra and president of her own company in Portland.

The portrait is one of a dozen now hanging at Hinge, a gallery that opened four months ago on Congress Street in Portland. Harris, the photographer, is part owner with his wife, Elizabeth, also an artist, and her two sisters.

The faces against the white walls of Hinge are various shades of gold, amber, caramel and sienna. These are African-Americans of Portland, in profile and in reflection, in church and in the kitchen, their photos infused with stunning power and magnetism.

The show, “VanDerZee On My Mind,” is Sean Harris’ tribute to black American photographer James VanDerZee. VanDerZee achieved national recognition in 1969 with “Harlem On My Mind,” an exhibition of portraits at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Harris is no copycat, however, and his portraits exist in their own charged-up atmosphere. Their textures swim from milky blurs to keen cat’s eyes of focus, and their feeling of purposeful forward motion is consistent.

He has captured a performance artist spinning on the floor, a 14-year-old poet with her shirt wrapped dramatically into a turban on her head, a museum director half-overshadowed by an aggressive-looking tribal mask.

His subjects include a woman pastor, a professor of African studies, a single mom who started a food co-op, and the first black elected to the Maine state Legislature.

“The goal is that everyone sees it,” said Harris, a lighthearted, self-effacing young man of 30. “These people are around you every day. We had an opening, and there were tons of African-Americans here. There are definitely more than you probably think of.”

The northernmost New England state, Maine is better known for its geographic than its cultural diversity. Here, where 1.22 million of the 1.24 million people are white, “minority” is more likely to mean French-Canadian than black.

What the VanDerZee show does is simple and important: Look, it says, here we are — Mainers of color — with our own rich tradition.

“Slowly but surely, Portland is becoming a very diverse community,” said longtime Portland photographer Peter Macomber. “Sean is very aware of being an African-American in Portland, of fitting into the community. This is part of learning how he fits in.”

After they met in a Portland bar and talked about photography, Macomber hired Harris as a freelance assistant at his Macomber Inc. studio. The older man soon recognized Harris’ talent and, after two years, effectively pushed him out the door to pursue his own projects.

“When the time came, he agreed it was time to go,” Macomber said.

Macomber supplied film and other materials for the VanDerZee series and let Harris use his darkroom for developing and printing. “I wanted to make sure he could do it the right way,” said Macomber, who is buying three of the portraits.

A grateful Harris said his mentor even spent $200 to make sure Hinge had good champagne on hand for the show’s opening. “Anyone who believes in you makes you believe in yourself,” Harris said.

“The work is very sensitive,” said Macomber. “He doesn’t come in with an idea and impose it on the people he photographs. He spends long hours and gets really close to them.”

Subjects are treated as collaborators, part of a group effort.

“We sit and talk for a while,” Harris said. “I put the camera down, then I go back to it. It becomes a conversation with the camera involved. The camera’s like a note taker, and the relationship comes out in the film.”

During his session with Portland High School poet Tiffany Edwards, the young woman started reading her poetry to Harris. He kept looking through his lens, but he also listened. “As it started to come out, I changed the lighting around her,” he said. “Sometimes things tell you what to do.”

Other times, simple patience is what’s needed. Harris spent four hours with multimedia artist Kwabena AnaPilsquehSis before packing up his equipment, feeling he hadn’t made a connection.

“As I was getting ready to leave, he started leaning over a chair, talking to me, and that was it,” Harris said.

The result, an intense, wild-haired profile that suggests a sprinter at the starting gate, is one of the best portraits in the show.

Some shoots were easy, like the one with Dennis Ross, young grandson of Maine’s first black legislator, Gerald Talbot.

“I gave him a cookie,” Harris said.

The depth and polish of the portraits suggest a body of work made over years. In fact, “VanDerZee On My Mind” was begun less than four months before the show’s opening date of Feb. 2.

“I woke up at 3 in the morning thinking about it, and I started the next day,” Harris said. “I would wake up at 6 a.m., leave the house at 6:45 and go until 3 a.m. I started the day printing and ended it printing. It was all adrenaline.”

He had a deadline looming — Black History Month. In between photo shoots, he successfully applied for a grant from the Maine Humanities Council and found a project scholar in Marcus Bruce, a religion professor at Bates College who did graduate work on VanDerZee at Yale.

Bruce’s essay on the show describes it as “a call and a response. It summons us to respond to a heritage and a people unknown to us. It shows us how to claim that heritage and people as our own.”

“Like Ralph Ellison’s `Invisible Man’ who, standing in a subway in Harlem, notices, as if for the first time, the black people moving around him, people who had `been there all along’ but whom he had overlooked, Harris’ photographs of Maine’s black residents compel us to look again in wonder on these `bearers of something precious,”‘ Bruce wrote.

“His work is just exquisite,” said the Bates professor, who has been busily introducing the young artist to Mainers who might help or inspire him. “It not only makes black folks visible; it’s a mirror. If you think of Maine as just white, you’re missing something that’s here.”

Bruce plans to send some of Harris’ work to Henry Louis Gates Jr., the celebrated black writer, critic and scholar at Harvard University.

A nod from Harvard would bring Harris full circle, in a sense. He grew up in Cambridge, Mass., where his grandmother gave him his first camera.

Summers, after the baseball season ended, he would go to Washington, D.C., to visit his father, a teacher at a community center where city kids learned photography, painting and sculpture.

In high school at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, a teacher entered his photographs in a college-level contest without telling him.

The Lowell University competition was a tribute to James VanDerZee, and Harris took first place for a portrait of his infant half-sister. It’s an image he still sells on note cards at the gallery, and an unexpected development that changed his life.

“Most of the artists I had been introduced to had been white and rooted in Western European culture,” he said. “For the first time, I saw an African-American man who was a self-supporting commercial photographer. … It enabled me to visualize myself as an artist and photographer.”

He honed his vision at the Art Institute of Boston, where he earned a fine arts degree, and at photography workshops in Maine and Italy. After living and working in New York for several years, he sought a less hectic life in Maine when his daughter was born.

Within a week of moving, Harris met every photographer in town, and he said he has been busy for three years straight. It’s been harder stepping out on his own, without the security of being someone else’s assistant.

His portfolio, sent out to rave reviews in Boston, also earns praise in Maine, but with a disclaimer: “We wish we were doing work like this here.”

“It’s scary, but then something breaks for you and keeps you going,” he said.

The VanDerZee show has the potential to be a big break. Harris would like to add more portraits, possibly expanding the series to include all of Maine or even the nation.

A beautifully designed show catalog will include written contributions from the subjects: a poem, a prayer, a hymn, an essay on grandchildren.

Harris himself is just beginning to see what he has created. Preparing to pop some vintage jazz in the gallery’s CD player, he thoughtfully surveyed the faces in the custom-made cherry frames.

“I worked so hard I could barely see it,” he said. “Things tend to grow on me. It’s like a present, when you say, `I didn’t notice that.’ Things start to come out, and then I fall in love with them.”

“VanDerZee on my Mind” will be shown through Feb. 28 at Hinge, 576A Congress Street, Portland. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and noon to 6:45 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Call 761-9552 for information.

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