A portfolio is a group of photographs that have been gathered for some determining reason. They're all by the same photographer, say, or on the same theme. The photographs aren't bound, as in a book, but kept together in a box or other sort of casing.
In 1982, the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University published a portfolio called "New Works." It consisted of one photograph each from 10 local photographers. Twenty-six years later, as a fund-raiser, the PRC has published "The PRC Portfolio." An exhibition of the 16 photographs it contains - along with the 10 from "New Works" - opened Thursday and runs through Sunday.
Which means one of the year's best shows has what must be the year's shortest run.
"New Works" had some very good photographers in it: Roswell Angier, Olivia Parker, Eugene Richards, to name just three. "The PRC Portfolio" roster is, if anything, even more impressive.
The 17 contributing photographers (Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison work as a team) all have connections to the PRC. They've exhibited there, lectured there, or both. Many are local: Laura McPhee, Abelardo Morell, Barbara Bosworth, Henry Horenstein, David Hilliard, Jim Dow, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Sage Sohier. Among those from elsewhere are several with national, or even international, reputations: Emmet Gowin, Frank Gohlke, Susan Meiselas.
The most famous contributor of all isn't famous as a photographer. That would be Patti Smith. In 1998, the PRC mounted a joint show of the singer's drawings and photographs of her by REM's Michael Stipe. Smith's photograph from the portfolio, "The River Ouse, East Sussex, England," shows the site where Virginia Woolf committed suicide, in 1941. Its austere, even chaste, handsomeness is enhanced by Smith's penciled description of the scene on the four sides of the matte. Who knew that Patti Smith had such elegant handwriting?
More often the photographs are characteristic of the artists' work. Morell plays with perspective in "Metropolitan Opera: Romeo and Juliet." Gohlke exalts perpendicularity, in this case arboreal, in "Playground of Crockett Elementary School, where I attended grades 1-7." Merging body art and photography, Minkkinen renders his back as a kind of porcelain steppingstone in "Waiting for the Snake." Gowin's "Subsidence Craters on Yucca Flat, Nevada" imbues even the most degraded landscape with a mystic sense. Bosworth's "Carlisle," from her "Meadow" series, has a ravishing delicacy of detail.
Bosworth's picture is in color, as are seven of the others. Only two of the 10 in "New Works" were - and one almost doesn't count (the narrow scarlet strip, hand-dyed, in Christopher James's otherwise black-and-white "Temple/Red Line - Thailand").
The nicest bit of hanging in the exhibition plays off of color. Ralph Gibson's "Bahia" shows a window through which we glimpse a rectangular slice of impossibly blue tropical sky. It's so elemental it could be a Barnett Newman abstraction. Across the room, at an angle (like the window), is McPhee's "Irrigator's Tarp Directing Water, Fourth of July Creek Ranch, Custer County, Idaho." Phenomenally gray and threatening clouds dominate the image, but what jumps out is the tarpaulin. It's a darker but no less vivid blue than Gibson's Brazilian sky. Samba meets C&W in a duet of blueness.
Sussex, Brazil, Idaho (Carlisle, too): many roads lead to the PRC's space on Comm. Ave., at least photographically. There's an easy balance between elsewhere and here. Lalla Essaydi goes to North Africa for "Les Femmes du Maroc #45" and Dow ventures below the Rio Grande for "All Night Taco Stand, Av. Gustavo Baz Prada, El Country, Naucalpan, Estado de Mexico" (its lighting conjures up a south-of-the-border version of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks"). Conversely, Sohier, the one photographer with a picture in both portfolios, offers "British Redcoat re-enactor, Battle of Concord and Lexington, Lexington, MA." It amusingly - and disorientingly - joins past to present. An alternate title could have been "Musket Meets Subdivision."
"The PRC Portfolio" has a price of $25,000. Of the 35 copies available for sale, 19 are spoken for. The quality of the pictures being what they are - not to mention the shakiness of investment opportunities today - expect those 16 copies to go before Sunday.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.