It was about halfway up the Maine coast, in Bucksport, not far from Acadia National Park. “I bought 50 acres, 48 of which were forested and 2 of which were cleared. On the property was an 1807 house, fully furnished. It had linens, it had silverware, it had a toaster, it had a refrigerator. There was also a cabin — one room, with bunk beds, screened-in porch, wood stove. And the whole thing was $6500,” which he says he paid in four years with money he got from photographic portraiture work. “And all my neighbors in Maine thought I had paid way too much. I was a fool. It had been on the market for years for half that price and nobody had touched it.”
The population of the commune varied. “In the summers we would swell to about 30. In the winters we would shrink back. There were 5 of us who stayed for the full four and a half years.”
He says there are still a few pictures around that show him with long hair — “down to there, or actually up to there, since it never went down.” He touches his stiff crop of tightly curled gray that’s brushed well back from his temples.
The commune did not have a name but did have an organic produce business, which was named Bright Eye Organic Gardens. “Actually, calling it a business is a little bit grandiose,” Ollman says. “We had a very old pickup truck that we would use to make the rounds to a number of organic restaurants and stores in New England. We used to draw straws to see who would do the trip to Boston, because we were all opposed to going to big cities. We were country folk. We would load up the pickup truck with whatever produce we could muster and go down and haggle already low prices and sell them to the markets directly. Then the truck’s transmission would fall out, and we’d pay twice what we had made to get it fixed and back home. The next week the front end would be wobbling so badly that the engine struts would break, and we would have to get those fixed and the wheels aligned again, and that would take up the entire profit from that trip. And we would end up sleeping in the back of the truck on the way home from Boston, on the roadside somewhere. And we’d say, ‘We’re never gonna do that again!’ ‘Business’ was not exactly the right term for it.”
A bit wistfully Ollman recalls the derivation of the name. “It was from that look that you would give someone on the street when you assumed that they were a kindred spirit, that sort of knowing glance, that you would save only for people who you thought resembled you in some way. I think if I could re-create that energy…” His voice fades away.
And yet it would seem to most of the museum’s 70,000 or more yearly visitors that he has re-created at least some of that energy here in San Diego. Many of the artists whose work he shows would agree. San Diego–based Philipp Scholz Rittermann is one. “As a curator he takes on some pretty difficult tasks,” Rittermann says by phone from his studio on Market Street one day. “In much the way that artists handle subject matter in radically different ways, curators do too. I think Arthur would probably love to do much more taking and making of images than he is able to do now, but the museum is a many-headed monster. It’s a huge job and doesn’t allow him much time for anything else. So the passion gets poured into curation, from which we all benefit.”
In the late 1970s, in San Francisco, by the time he was 30 years old, Arthur Ollman had become famous for making photographs at night, in color. The very work that he had presented in fulfillment of his master of fine arts degree at San Francisco’s Lone Mountain College was subsequently purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and exhibited there, in a major show, and elsewhere. “It created a bit of a reputation for me,” Ollman says. “There were a few years of great excitement on the gallery side.”
In those years, he was also president of the board of directors of San Francisco Camerawork, the nonprofit artists’ collective that he had helped to found, whose mission is to exhibit the work of emerging photographers. And he taught photography at various places, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Ollman left Maine and went to San Francisco in the first place, in 1974, because, “of course, to people who lived on communes, San Francisco was a sacred name. It was one of the sacred places that one should go, Boston being another.” But San Francisco, he says, was “one of the most seductive.”
Part of the thinking of those who started San Francisco Camerawork, including Ollman, was that photography was too “New York–centric” for its own good. “There was the [Museum of] Modern [Art], with a powerful, eloquent spokesperson [department of photography director John Szarkowski], who was in the judgment seat of photography, the most powerful character in the field. There was also the International Center of Photography, Cornell Capa being the director of it.” Those were the major venues and were acknowledged to be so by the whole country. “The galleries, the big ones, were also in New York, with only a couple of others scattered around. And a number of us theorized that, if the photo scene was going to be totally centered in New York, its chances of growing in interesting ways would be compromised, because it would be ruled by a handful of people whose issues were ‘New York.’ ”
Ollman often speaks in cadences that might seem more appropriate to a politician, complete with rhythmic triads; he does so, at length, on this subject — and others — that are obviously near to his heart.