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.