While living in Queen Village, Will Brown had a show at Swarthmore College in 1971. In addition to being an instructor there, he worked as a freelance photographer for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and many of his colleagues came to the exhibit, including its then-director, the late Anne d’Harnoncourt.
“Every time there was a show there no one ever sold anything, but she wanted to buy one of my photos. So she asked the director of the gallery, ‘so what do you do?’ and the director said, ‘I don’t know. No one ever buys any,’” Brown, formerly of the 400 block of Catharine Street, said with a laugh.
That transaction led to Brown — almost four decades later — becoming one of eight photographers on display though the end of the month at the museum’s “Common Ground: Eight Philadelphia Photographers in the 1960s and 1970s,” which explores the designated decades through experimental works.
Brown and d’Harnoncourt soon became friends and she bought a few more of Brown’s pieces. In spring 2008, d’Harnoncourt informed Brown she and husband Joe Rishel were going to donate the works to the museum. It sparked a conversation between Brown and the museum’s curator of photography that same year.
“This is all exciting for me because it’s been a long time since anyone paid attention to any of my photographs,” he said of that initial conversation.
Time passed and he never heard anything concrete from the curator, but learned the latter had left the museum.
“They were very positive about the photographs, but I thought this was going to be the end of it,” he said about the curator’s departure.
Current curator Peter Barberie saw the prints and was blown away.
“I think he’s one of the finest street photographers to work in Philadelphia and his work is very little known, which added to the appeal of showing it now,” Barberie said.
After an exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in ’73, Brown continued taking photos and freelancing for museums and galleries, but his work didn’t get a public showing until “Common Ground” launched in September with about 20 of his photographs taken from ’67 to ’73, including “Store Front House (South Philadelphia);” “Catharine Street, Near Leithgow;” “Floyd & Friend-Fulton Street;” “South Street Fish Market;” and “Bainbridge & Orianna Streets (2).” “Common Ground” also includes works by Sol Mednick, who founded the photography department at the Philadelphia College of Art, now The University of the Arts; Ray K. Metzker; William Larson, who established the photography department at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art; Emmet Gowin; David Lebe; Catherine Jansen; and Carol Taback.
Now 72, Brown might reignite his career and come out of retirement.
“They just liked it, which was pretty exciting for me, so it’s got me interested in getting busy and doing some more,” he said.
The Lansdowne native attended Gettysburg College as a biology major before entering the Army, where he worked for two years in a Baltimore research lab prior to the Vietnam War, but science was not his calling.
“I just didn’t like it,” Brown recalled. “I didn’t like working with animals. I just wanted to be an artist. I wanted to paint. I wanted to be Michelangelo.”
He shifted his focus to painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and then the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a bachelor’s in fine arts.
At Penn, Brown met his mentor, Rudy Burckhardt, who was a guest lecturer there. Brown followed in the filmmaker and photographer’s footsteps to a certain extent, but maintained his own identity.
“I did my own thing,” Brown said. “He would see my work and criticize it. He wasn’t offhand about things. It was just the fact that he was there and I admired him so much.”
And at Penn Brown met his future wife, Emily, a painter, in the same class.
“She was a student at the Academy, too,” he said of his wife of 43 years, who is currently showing in “Very Very Large Drawings” at Gallery Joe in Old City through Jan. 30. “I noticed her, but never talked to her.”
The couple has a daughter, Eliza, who resides in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is expecting the couple’s first grandchild.
While working in conservation at the museum, a curator asked Brown to take some photographs. While he was unprepared for the role at the time, he agreed and soon began to taking shots of installations and exhibits for the Fairmount institution.
During the ’70s, when he resided in Queen Village, he often photographed the neighborhood since he liked its historic look.
“I was interested in creating an interesting, beautiful photograph, but it also had to have content — where it was and also where the light was on whatever I was photographing. Just some sort of record,” Brown said. “I knew it wasn’t going to last. It was going to change.”
Although most of his work consisted of storefronts and rarely included people, he occasionally captured neighbors, such as the kids that lived on Fulton Street near his home.
“I was very interested in the kids that played around there because they were really sweet — just very nice kids playing games and not getting into trouble at all,” he said. “Before we moved into our house, they used our house as a clubhouse.”
Saturday mornings, he would help the local kids by fixing flat tires or broken chains on bikes for a quarter before venturing through the neighborhood with his camera.
“I would just go out,” he said. “I use to go out early morning on Sunday when no one was around and photograph the neighborhood things that appealed to me — the light and the changing neighborhood, things in flux.”
At the current exhibit at the museum, he hopes visitors appreciate his vision and relate to it in their own way.
“I hope they just look at them and try to see something,” he said of the photos. “When you look at a work of art, you bring a lot to it as well. You’re bringing your experiences trying to relate to what the art is and ideally I’d like them to try to experience the things I saw — the light and the way it looks.”