The Bowdoin College Museum of Art is poised to offer new insight into Winslow Homer’s life through the lens of his camera. Maine resident Neal Paulsen recently donated the legendary artist’s camera to the Museum to add to its collection of Homer’s works. It will be on display starting in 2015. 

Winslow Homer is commonly hailed as one of the greatest painters of the second half of the 19th century. His work spans from commercial illustrations in Harper’s Weekly Magazine to landscapes.

“It’s not just simply that he was out looking for pretty, dramatic landscapes. He was interested in the more elemental forces at the root of the natural world,” said Frank Goodyear, co-director of the Museum.

Paulsen inherited the camera from his grandfather. He claims that his grandfather, an electrician, received the camera from Homer in exchange for electric services.

After a lengthy investigation, the Museum has confirmed that the camera in fact belonged to Homer.

The first proof of its authenticity was Winslow’s documented awareness of the new phenomenon of photography. 

“At the very least he was well aware of photography as a new visual technology because he himself was pictured through photography many times,” said Goodyear. “He was aware of photography as a recording device.” 

Another clue was the negative plate holder inside the camera, which bears the date August, 1882 and the initials “W.H.” 

Additionally, the model was manufactured and sold in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, which was very close to the fishing village where Homer lived at that time.

The Museum also used its current Homer collection to identify the camera. In the Homer family papers, there are photographs of Maine that match the period and the size specifications of the camera.

“Photographic enlarging equipment wasn’t really popularly introduced until the early 20th Century. If you wanted a big photograph, you needed a big camera with a big glass plate,” said Goodyear. “Your negative would have been put up against a piece of photographic paper and contact printed. The resulting image would be the same size as your negative.”

Museum officials found that the photos and the negative plate are in fact both three by four inches.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the camera was on display at Scarborough High School in Scarborough, Maine, but Paulsen thought the best place for the artifact was Bowdoin, considering the large number of Homer works and artifacts in the Museum’s collection, including a set of his watercolor brushes.

The donation has curricular benefits as well as cultural ones.

“It’s a wonderful gift from the donor. It’s terrific that he had faith in Bowdoin in its ability to use it both in coursework and in the Museum,” said art history professor Dana Byrd. “I’m teaching a history of photography class next spring, so I’ll certainly introduce Winslow Homer’s camera.”

The resurfacing of the camera has yielded inquiries from several art historians who have expressed interest in conducting research on Homer’s work as a photographer, a skill he hasn’t previously been recognized for.

“The $100,000 question here is did Homer have an extensive interest in photography once he acquired a camera in the 1880s? Was he using photography throughout the 30 years that remained in his artistic career? Did he take photographs that served as the source material for paintings he might have done? We do not know,” he said. 

At the time Homer used this camera, the art of photography was not as accessible to the general population as it is today.

“The birth of amateur photography doesn’t really start until 1888 when the George Eastman Company introduces the Kodak camera,” said Goodyear. “Why this is interesting is because the camera that we have acquired comes from before the introduction of the Kodak camera and would have required some knowledge of optics and chemistry.”

Photography in Homer’s time required a deeper understanding of how a photograph is produced—more for the “serious amateur” than the lay person. 

Some of the photographs in the collection, which the museum can now be more certain were taken by Homer, are similar to the paintings he did. 

“There are a couple of pictures in our collection that do seem to show the coastline, the sea, waves breaking on the coast that kind of look a lot like Winslow Homer paintings,” Goodyear said. “We haven’t done enough research yet to say that photography might have been a source material, but that’s what these exhibitions are meant to do—to pose some questions that can be the basis for dialogue.”

The fact that Homer owned this camera might also just be an interesting new element to what historians know about his daily life.

“The pictures that we have here—there are plenty of family pictures, so he might have just seen photography as a recreational pastime—and these are in a sense early snapshots,” he said.
The Museum plans to put the camera on exhibition during summer 2015 along with its collection of Homer’s personal artifacts.