If there was a bird’s eye view of Portsmouth’s sea change in the 1970s, it was from Grace Casey’s peacock chair at the River House on Bow Street.
The work of the photographer she chose to document the decade is featured in a free exhibit opening Aug. 4 at the Portsmouth Athenaeum — “Peace, Love, & Portsmouth: Celebrating the City’s Cultural Renaissance through the Lens of J.D. Lincoln.”
In his 1982 book of photos, Lincoln reflects on the city’s shift from an 18th-century watering hole to a happening place for artists, tourists, restaurants and residents.
Lincoln met Casey in the late 1960s. An antiques dealer, she had recently revived the New Hampshire Art Association. She is also credited with conceiving the idea of the first Prescott Park Arts Festival in 1974.
In his book, “People of Portsmouth, and some who came to town,” Lincoln wrote: “If a stranger came to the city in the 1970s in search of a place to meet artists, actors, craftspeople, politicians, and bon vivants, and wished to enjoy the flavor of what might, in earlier years have been called a salon, that stranger would have discovered the opportunity for such ambience at Grace Casey’s River House.”
In tribute to Casey (1917-2007), a peacock chair is part of the exhibit in the Athenaeum’s Randall Gallery.
“I’m trying to create an atmosphere of celebration,” said Athenaeum photographic collections manager James Smith, the exhibit’s curator. “Everything that happened in that time has led to the Portsmouth of today. The question is, where do we go from here?”
Hundreds of Lincoln’s negatives and images were scanned to create the multimedia exhibit.
“The North End was torn down by the early 1970s,” Smith said of the neighborhood he profiled in a 2016 Athenaeum exhibit. “It created these big, deep scars in the city and led to a cultural shift. In some ways the city healed through the arts, and then prospered through the arts.”
Lincoln’s images depict many signature moments in Portsmouth’s history — the city’s 350th anniversary parade in 1973, the first Market Square Day in 1978, performances at Theater by the Sea, Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaigns, and arts czar Casey’s River House.
According to a bio in the Athenaeum archives, Lincoln grew up in Wentworth, N.H., and took up photography at 11. By 15, a White Mountains resort hotel had hired him to take pictures.
He attended the University of New Hampshire and served in the U.S. Air Force in the Korean War. His decision to make a living as a photographer came in his late 20s; he began taking photographs in the Seacoast in 1970, working as a stringer for the Boston Globe.
He also got assignments from Grace Casey.
She asked Lincoln to teach photography to young people as part of the Prescott Park Arts Festival’s arts class curriculum.
Lincoln’s axioms were: “Cameras don’t take pictures, people do; photographers don’t take pictures, they make them; and no one in the world will make a picture the way you can.”
He set his students loose in Portsmouth with Polaroid cameras and black-and-white film.
Photographer and publisher Peter E. Randall, who published Lincoln’s “People of Portsmouth,” was instrumental in securing the donation of Lincoln’s work to the Athenaeum.
“J.D. had never had a one-man show of his photography work, and I think the book project allowed him to do that in a different manner,” Randall said.
Lincoln’s wife, Rosemary, wrote most of the text for the book.
In a 1983 letter in the Athenaeum archives, she describes how her partner did not start out to “make a documentary of the social change of a city.”
“About halfway through the decade it occurred to him that something had, indeed, been going on, and the city was by no means the same as it had been five years previously. From that time on, he shot with a more purposeful eye,” she wrote.
The Lincolns left Portsmouth for Santa Fe in 1984, but returned to Portsmouth 18 years later. She died in 2020; he died last October.
The career photographer appeared in several movies, loved jazz and according to his obituary, “enjoyed spirited discussions with his friends and family about food, art, music, and world events.”
The exhibit runs through November and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 to 4 p.m. The opening reception is 5 to 8 p.m. on Aug. 4.
Exhibit At A Glance
Friday, August 4, 2023
5 – 8 p.m.
Randall Gallery, Third Floor, Portsmouth Athenaeum
Written by Sherry Wood. Originally published on www.seacoastonline.com.
TOP IMAGE: In 1974, volunteers raise the red, white, and blue tent during the first Prescott Park Arts Festival. The tent would become the symbol for the festival. Photo by J. D. Lincoln.