Hampden gallery pays tribute to life and works of local photographer

At display, family recalls whimsical, helpful man

May 15, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Strolling through an exhibit of her son's photographs, Margaret McGovern's blue eyes filled with tears when she was asked which one she would take home.

She pointed out a picture of her son Mike kayaking in Alaska in August, the friendly expression on his bearded face framed against the seemingly serene backdrop of Blackstone Bay.

Titled "Before the Storm," the image haunts her because Mike McGovern, an up-and-coming local photographer, was found drowned the next day in that bay, his cameras still around his neck. The last roll of film he shot survived the tragedy.

"He was never without a camera," said brother Jim McGovern of Baltimore.

An eclectic collection of his work, "A Retrospective," is now on display in a Hampden gallery, Photo Works, where bright white walls have replaced the musty interior of an old post office in the 3500 block of Chestnut Ave.

Margaret McGovern and her youngest son, Jim, 36, went Friday to see the work and talk about the artist of their Towson family.

"He was known as a gentle giant," said his mother, noting that Mike McGovern, who died at age 38, stood 6 feet 6 inches.

"He went to go take pictures of Alaska, kayaking through bays and channels," said Jim McGovern, an engineer who traveled to Alaska to try to reconstruct the accident that killed his brother. Noting the sheer cliffs all around, he surmised, "He was challenging the storm at some level."

McGovern's pictures reveal a keen eye and a restless spirit. He took pictures camping or traveling here and abroad, capturing city denizens such as "Frank of Fells Point" in a pub. He also shot the simple beauty of children or of Ireland's green landscape. Even a piece of farm equipment looks "ethereal" in his photo, said his mother.

The 33 pictures on display, mostly in black and white, range from a still life of tiddlywinks game pieces to a graceful arch over a Jones Falls ravine taken in 1999 for the Jones Falls Festival. The collection also includes his beloved Patterson Park in a shot simply called "The Neighborhood."

Mike McGovern, his mother and brother explained, lived in a rowhouse near the Patterson Park tennis courts and was well-known as a block captain, especially among the young and elderly.

"He never turned down a request for help," said Margaret McGovern.

"He had more friends than most people. He was always ready to do something," said Jim, adding that they went to most of the city's street festivals together. That's where Mike sought inspiration.

But he was not a self-promoter, they said. Once, at Artscape in Bolton Hill, Jim asked his brother if he had work on display. "[He said] yes, but he didn't talk about it. Himself was not a topic."

His mother characterized him as "whimsical and quiet."

The last kayak shot cherished by his mother was an unusual self-portrait.

His modesty belied a blossoming career, with assignments coming in from the United Way, Time, Newsweek, the Greater Baltimore Committee and Johns Hopkins Hospital, his mother said. The hospital's giant statue of Jesus Christ is pictured in the exhibit.

Part of the proceeds from the exhibit, on display through May 31, will go to the Hampden Family Center. Photo Works owner Martha Welsh said the contribution would be in keeping with McGovern's community volunteerism.

"It was the best way we could think of to honor him," she said.

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