“It is not the big moments and awards that are most important in life. It is the connections with people that give life meaning.”

So said Maine artist Joyce Tenneson, one of the country’s leading contemporary portrait photographers whose images have appeared on the covers of Time, Life, Newsweek, Esquire and the New York Times Magazine.

Tenneson, who has been described as a modern-day version of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), was speaking to an audience gathered at the Portland Museum of Art, where 28 of her prints done over 23 years beginning in 1986 are on view.

Tenneson is revered as “one of America’s most interesting portrayers of the human character.”

“For me, photography is a kind of visual diary,” Tenneson said. “It allows me to explore emotions and inner realities that by their very nature are invisible, but are powerfully present in all of us nevertheless.”
Born more than 100 years apart, Cameron’s and Tenneson’s styles and techniques are different, but they share an appreciation for feminine beauty and allegorical themes.

Cameron, a pioneer in an era when both the medium of photography and women as serious artists were not readily accepted, did not start taking photographs until she was 48 and is considered one of the great photograph portrait artists of all time, said Susan Danley, PMA’s curator of photography.
About 70 images taken by Cameron are on view in an exhibit titled “For My Best Beloved Sister Mia: An Album of Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron,” up through Sept. 7.
In addition to their ability to capture the essence of their subjects, both photographers share an interest in celebrity portraits. Cameron, for example, photographed Alfred Lord Tennyson, poet Henry Taylor and painter G.F. Watts. Tenneson did portraits of actors Ben Kingsley, Jodi Foster, Salma Hayek, Demi Moore; artist Andrew Wyeth and singers Norah Jones and James Taylor.
A reflection of the Victorian Age, Cameron’s photos of people who lived between 1860 and 1875 give a visual dimension of one of history’s greatest periods when art, literature and music flourished.

Cameron’s portraits are penetrating and thought-provoking, but it is the contemporary work of Tenneson that takes your breath away.

Tenneson’s work is more sensual and exciting. Many of her works have a dreamlike feel, courtesy of soft edges that blur into muted suggestions rather than more traditional hard-edge lines. Her subjects range from young children to the elderly, and many are women.

According to the PMA, most of the images in “Joyce Tenneson: Polaroid Portraits” are from the photographer’s self-described “white period,” with powdered white models encircled with layers of translucent fabrics and gauze, reflecting the ideas of concealment and revelation, privacy and self-exposure. These photographs feature ethereal-looking women with wings, women holding spheres of light and women boldly celebrating their bodies before her lens.

“The lens becomes a mirror. The mirror is our best teacher,” Tenneson said, adding: “Beauty is learning to appreciate being comfortable in your own shoes. Many of my photographs celebrate the authenticity of women.”
Listening to Tenneson speak gave me a feeling of respect for women in pursuit of their own identity and freedom to grow.
Tenneson herself is a great role model.

She started using a Polaroid camera as a college student when hired as a model for the Polaroid Corp. in the 1970s. She was given a free camera and all the film she wanted. She became fascinated with photography as an art form and experimented with different techniques, developing her own style over a period of 20 years.

Tenneson, who has published 13 books of photographs, has received numerous awards, including the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for best applied photography. She was also named Photographer of the Year in 1990 by the international organization Women in Photography. A poll conducted by American Photo Magazine voted Tenneson among the 10 most influential women photographers in the history of photography.

She is a teacher and lecturer and has taught at the Maine Media Workshop in Camden, where she lives during the summer. She divides her time between New York and Maine.

“Joyce Tenneson: Polaroid Portraits,” displayed in galleries on the museum’s fourth floor, will be up through Oct. 4. Some important works of Tenneson’s – portraits of Natasha Richardson wrapped in a towel, Sonia and Susan, and Andrew Wyeth – are almost hidden in a small hallway near the elevators on the first floor.

Images taken by both photographers are featured in a beautiful exhibit catalog titled “Kindred Spirits,” which includes an essay by photographic historian and critic Vicki Goldberg on the close relationship between Tenneson’s and Cameron’s portraiture.

The PMA is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students with ID, $4 for youths ages 6-17 and free for children under 6. Admission is free from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday. The museum is at Seven Congress Square.

Pat Davidson Reef has a master’s degree in education and has taught art history at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland. She has written two children’s books, “Dahlov Ipcar, Artist,” and “Bernard Langlais, Sculptor.”

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