The Portland Art Museum (PAM) photography department has been a puzzling entity for at least the last six years that I've followed it. Part-time curator Terry Toedtemeier has a refreshingly unconventional eye for photographs that serve the worlds of history, science, and art alike—PAM's holding of the first scanned photo is a perfect example—but actual photo exhibitions are all too infrequent and largely uninspired. (The Edward Weston and Elliott Erwitt shows, for example, were painfully unnecessary and revealed zilch about the widely known, long-canonized masters.) The Mark Building's dedicated photography gallery boasts a serviceable mix of relatively strong holdings and assorted curios, but baffling curatorial decisions (such as the inclusion of multiple works by artists of dubious merit) undermine the collection's low-budget charm. As much as I enjoyed Toedtemeier's wonderful 2003 exhibition of historic eccentricities, In Varied and Particular Ways, I find myself frequently wondering what, exactly, is going on in that photography department. New on the Wall, a sizable showcase highlighting PAM's photo acquisitions from 2001 to the present, provides a partial answer to that question.
On the most casual level, New on the Wall is a totally fine, non-thematic grab bag that hits the baseline "something for everyone" mark. It includes a handful of major bragging points (iconic pieces from Walker Evans and Arnold Newman stand out); welcome representation of a few hardworking locals (Shawn Records, Ann Kendellen); a smattering of historical treasures (including a sublime 1903 platinum print of Mosquito Island by Lily E. White); a few quirky Toedtemeier specialties (NASA Mars-scapes; an obscure candid of Adolf Hitler); and plenty of miscellaneous odds and ends, which probably would have been a more fitting name for the exhibition.
Aside from there being no thematic underpinning to the exhibition, it also suffers a complete absence of wall text, so viewers are on their own in every way. (There is a self-congratulatory, typo-riddled pamphlet about PAM's photography collection, but absolutely nothing to contextualize any of New on the Wall's 64 individual images. Curating this show must have been about as difficult as creating an iTunes playlist.)
The most significant advance in PAM's photo-acquisition method is a standing arrangement with patron Jim Winkler and Blue Sky Gallery, which finds Winkler buying one print from every Blue Sky show for the museum, and the respective artist matching the donation with a second photograph. This allows for a steady accumulation of contemporary pieces, while recognizing Blue Sky's invaluable contribution to Portland's photography scene, but it also essentially gives the Blue Sky programming committee honorary-curator status at PAM. If the Blue Sky collection is just a small part of a more aggressive acquisition strategy, fine. But "I'll take whatever you've got" is hardly a recipe for curatorial success. That being said, many of New on the Wall's stronger pieces arrived at the museum through this arrangement.
As the museum's permanent photography gallery demonstrates, there has long been a focus on acquiring images specific to the Pacific Northwest, which makes a lot of sense, given PAM's limited resources (e.g., they're not going to be buying any Fox Talbots or Andreas Gurskys in the near future). This thread is touched upon in New on the Wall, but not to an inspiring degree. The 1890s ship-channel cyanotype and contemporary Shawn Records piece are welcome additions, but can't even begin to scratch the surface. Justine Kurland's definitive portraits of our 21st century forests, as well as Martin Parr's Boring Photographs from Boring, Oregon, would be cornerstones of contemporary views of the region from outsiders. Mark Hooper's re-imaginings of Lewis and Clark's expedition and Melia Donovan's faux-Cannon Beach/hoodie fake-outs cleverly deconstruct the local iconography from within. Additionally, selections from Harrell Fletcher's earlier photo-centric projects and Matt McCormick's still images would begin to balance the thudding insistence that photography in Portland ends with the old-guard crew that includes Stu Levy, Chris Rauschenberg, and Toedtemeier himself. Their invaluable contributions will be neither lessened nor forgotten by acknowledging photographers who have either emerged or moved here in the past 15 years.
While the rest of the Portland art world, including PAM at large and Blue Sky, have sprung into action with remarkable vigor over the past several years, the museum's photography department acts as if it's waiting for a hand-written invitation to the big dance. They've accumulated some fine prints over the past seven years, as New on the Wall demonstrates, but as far as laurels go, those are hardly substantial enough for languid rest.