Artist’s Statement, 2010 


The support of Anne d’Harnoncourt and Joseph Rishel helped bring my work to the attention of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where I was included in the exhibition Common Ground in 2009.

In 1971, when I taught at Swarthmore College, Anne and Joe attended a show of mine and were the first to purchase my work. In 1973 I exhibited at the Peale House Galleries of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, largely due to Anne’s influence. They purchased my work there as well.

In April of 2008, they donated those photographs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I couldn’t have been more pleased. That fall I met the newly appointed curator of photography, Peter Barberie, who was planning an exhibition about Philadelphia photographers of the 1960s and 70s. He visited my studio and chose additional works for the show.

I’m especially indebted to my mentor and friend, the photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt. I first heard about Rudy when I was a student at Skowhegan and he was looking for extras for a film he was shooting. Later I was a student of his at Penn. After we became friends, I assisted him on shoots of Philip Johnson’s Glass House and of collectors and artists such as the choreographer Paul Taylor. Rudy seemed to know everyone in the art world. He told wonderful stories, and we ended up summering in Maine near each other. He was a generous artist and friend.

Looking at the work

Because of the interest in my work inspired by Common Ground, I have looked again at my photographs of that time.

I spent time in those years wandering my neighborhood in South Philadelphia, which was desolate and crumbling. I was interested in the play of light and shadow but also in what the neighborhood had once been, in who had lived and worked there.

I took pictures in the early morning, preferably on Sundays when the streets were less crowded. Winter mornings were especially captivating because of the quiet and cold clear air. Sometimes a wrecked car sat marooned on the sidewalk from the night before, leaking fluid.

I’ve long since moved from the neighborhood but return periodically to mark the changes. The area has become more gentrified and its character smoothed over. Vulgar renovations were made, and a mega mansion or two have appeared — something I never would have imagined.

Philadelphia Museum of Art's Curator of Photography, Peter Barberie, wrote this text as a wall label for Will Brown's work in the exhibition "Common Ground":

Around 1967 Brown began photographing down-trodden patches of city, particularly his neighborhood in Philadelphia's Queen Village. Figures occasionally appear in this work (typically they are neighbors and acquaintances), but most of the pictures settle on empty storefronts and street corners. The prints are marked by subtle attention to the way light falls at different times of day and in different settings, and moreover by how daylight mixes with the artificial lights of neon, fluorescent, and incandescent bulbs.

Brown's photographs are close to those of his friend and mentor Rudy Burckhardt, who also photographed un-exalted urban places and who had a canny ability to activate every part of a given pictorial field. Burckhardt often arranged his photographs in sequences to build an oblique narrative about a place. By contrast, Brown's photographs offer no narrative. They don't add up to a portrait of Queen Village or the broader city, but stand as discrete, momentary records of interstitial places. In 1974 he identified his subjects as the "little pieces of our life," evidently meaning the moments and spaces we experience yet disregard in the course of any day, because they seem marginal to our notions of who we are and what we do.

From The Philadelphia Museum of Art's press release for "Common Ground"

"Of the artists in the exhibition, Brown was the only one to engage in street photography, the dominant mode of the period. His portraits of sparse or empty storefronts and street corners in his Queen Village neighborhood are subtle and evocative. Rather than composing a narrative his images form a body of discrete, momentary records of the city around him."

Artist’s Statement for the Peale House show at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1973

The photographs in this show are mostly taken from the area in which we live. It's a neighborhood, neither unique or unusual, touched by the problems of our times. It has its developers and speculators, its aging and marginal merchants whose children have forgotten them, its crime, its own impulse toward redevelopment, its threatening and promising new highways.

It seems that we're all busy putting our mark on our own corner of the world-just for the sake of doing it. Some do it politely, comfortably, in socially acceptable ways; some, simply destructively. Most pay no attention to the way these little pieces of our life fit into the whole. I don't think all my photographs reflect this, but some do. And I didn't plan to illustrate the point: it's the way the work turned out.