On the Northwest tip of the city of Portland, beyond a majestic bridge built like a cathedral, lies a funny little neighborhood called St. Johns. It’s charming and neighborly while still being a little rough around the edges, like a snapshot of the 1950s with one too many meth heads. It’s the kind of place where people value having all of their essentials in a one mile square radius: you can walk out your front door to get your hair cut, drop off a roll of film, pick up some treats for your dog, grab a quick coffee, and pick up groceries all without venturing more than a mile. Chances are you’ll run into your friends and coworkers on your journey as they complete their own similar circuit. I’m not from here and soon I will no longer live here, but being here during this time in its history and my own personal journey has left a significant impact on me and my photography.
While I’d taken classes and workshops in photography before moving to Portland, St. Johns is where I became a photographer. My identity transformation wasn’t due to the neighborhood alone. On the main drag of St. Johns is a shop called Blue Moon Camera and Machine, which I consider to be the origin for my photographic career. I starting working for Blue Moon, a dedicated film lab and camera store, in 2012, and over the years I have learned more about photography, community, and being in the company of other artists than I had from any of my previous photographic classes, trips, or experiences. Nearly all of my coworkers also live in St. Johns, which breeds a feeling of connection and belonging that could only come out of walking from home to work to the bar to a coworker’s house, then back home—just to repeat the whole process the next day. From the first day it felt natural, as if we had rediscovered some kind of primordial culture: one that measures the day’s travels in foot falls rather than miles or gallons of gasoline.
The relationship between Blue Moon Camera and St. Johns has always fascinated me, and that symbiotic and unique marriage of the two has resulted in a collection of images over several years that I can now see as individual synapses in a collective memory and thought. At the time I was just making photos of my friends and neighborhood, but now as I’m packing away my things for a move up north and reflecting on my time here, I can see the bigger composite formed by the individual frames.
I first became aware of Blue Moon Camera during my initial drive through St. Johns. I had just finished a gap year in Chicago and was visiting Aleks—a hopeful new romance that has since blossomed into a happy new marriage—in Portland for “the summer” of 2011. At the time he had a condo in St. Johns which looked out on the incredible St. Johns Bridge, and which my coworkers and I later turned into a camera obscura. Shortly after my arrival, Aleks drove me down the main drag in town to show off this weird stretch of America. My first impression upon passing the old gas station-turned- pizzeria, dedicated men’s tailor shop, striped barber poles, Americana diner, and marquee theater was that this was a town seemingly frozen in time and happily going about its pre-Cold War existence with no mind paid to what the rest of the country was up to. (After five years here I can say that that’s overall proven to be true, though St. Johns, like the rest of Portland, is now slowly being pulled into the folds of the 21 st century, kicking and screaming.)
As we passed Blue Moon Camera, that sense of timelessness was only further solidified: large format cameras dominated the storefront windows and flashes of guys in ties relayed the feeling of bankers and admen running a hobby shop during their lunch breaks on Main Street, America. Several days later we finally stopped into the store and I was awed, as many people are on their first visit. “This place is like a museum” is a statement we often hear on the floor, and it was probably on my lips, as well. Old cameras and typewriters line the walls and on that first visit I was immediately entranced. Jake, Blue Moon Camera’s proprietor and now dear friend, Jake Shivery, walked up to help us. I shook his hand and immediately asked for a job, and he just as quickly turned me down. At the time there were simply no openings.
So I went about my time in Portland doing other things. My “summer” visit with Aleks stayed on through the fall, then winter, then was accepted as an indefinite stay. I worked a job taking school portraits and another in a mall department store portrait studio (Christmas season was brutal). I got to know the neighborhood in all its small-town- in-a- big-city glory. We experienced a series of more annoying than threatening crime events with the local druggies, met friends both new and old every time we stepped into a bar, and had our hearts broken by the opening and closing of a fair number of beloved restaurants. Blue Moon had almost fallen off my radar entirely, except for when I needed to drop off film.
My desire to work for Blue Moon was reignited one day during a stress break from studio work in a St. Johns café. Hanging on the walls were black matte boards covered in gorgeous film photographs. The boards took up most of the café and the artists’ statement identified it as Blue Moon Camera’s customer show: in which the year’s favorite customer photos from printing and scanning are democratically selected and hung in venues across St. Johns. At the time I had no way of knowing that a year later I would be working the Customer Show, and running it another year after that. I’ve now written the artists’ statements for every Customer Show since I started at Blue Moon. Believe me when I say that I could gush about this event for ages and pages. I was instantly inspired by the display to not only increase the amount of photography I produce for myself, but also reconnect with my desires to join this community of film lovers. I know now that that’s what the show is all about, and at the heart of the show is its community: the community of customers who are honored with a featured photo; the community of their friends and family who flood St. Johns for an evening to walk the streets, see all the photos, discuss favorites, and patronize the local establishments, no matter how cold and/or wet it is outside; the community of my coworkers dressed to the nines, ready to walk and dance the streets all night long.
Inspired, I started watching Blue Moon for hiring updates. A few months after my café rediscovery, Blue Moon was ready to hire one or two more people. I was happy to be one of those people, and began scanning and processing film right away. I expected the job to be fun, creative and give me a foot into the Portland photography scene. It certainly was those things, but what I didn’t expect was to inherit a store full of big brothers, sisters, and mentors. Being a member of the Blue Moon Crew got me into all the best photo-nerd parties, and I was immediately welcomed as a member of an offbeat but genuine and generous group of artists and friends. Every lunch I had at work was prepared in the shop’s kitchen by a coworker and eaten family style in turns; every Saturday we stayed after closing for a round or two of whiskey basketball (which is exactly what it sounds like); every staff meeting came with beer and the better ones ended with a party. I met people, saw art, and created photographs that I never imagined I would.
My coworkers specialize in film with a dedication and a passion that converted me, a previously overall ambivalent film shooter, into a true believer. I learned processes I never thought I would and not only touched but operated cameras I never imagined I’d have access to. I was invited into home studios and drank home whiskeys while learning about how to handle equipment that, if they didn’t work so well, could very well be in a museum. Blue Moon operates what might be the last apprenticeship-inspired training model in the country, and it has turned me into a far more educated and dedicated photographer than I might’ve ever been otherwise.
One thing I realize as I look through my photographs from my five years of living in St. Johns is that I’ll miss being able to walk out my front door and into the Blue Moon back lot or a coworker’s living room minutes later. Some people say our world has gotten smaller in this digital age, but it hasn’t, really. It’s made us more accessible, perhaps, but the world itself is the same size it always was. A mile takes the same amount of time to walk now as it did a hundred years ago. I can Facebook and text my coworkers for years to come, but I won’t be able to walk to a back lot beer, round of whiskey basketball, or gathering around a coworker’s fire pit after a long day of developing film anymore. There will likely be other porch beers and close coworkers in my future, but St. Johns and Blue Moon have a one-of- a-kind thing going for them. While I’m anticipating our upcoming move with much excitement, it’ll certainly be bittersweet to watch the climbing cathedral spires of the St. Johns Bridge shrink away in the rearview mirror.
Katt Janson Merilo currently lives in the Portland area and works for Blue Moon Camera and Machine, an all-film shop and lab. Her interest in photography began in middle school after developing the first roll from her first personal camera, an Olympus Stylus. Her appreciation for correct post processing began on that roll, too, as a cyan tinting left uncorrected by the lab discouraged her from shooting with that camera again until she learned it wasn't her, or the camera's, doing. She has studied photography in Virginia and the Czech Republic, and hung shows in Chicago and Portland. She is currently attending grad school at Portland State University to earn a license and Master's in Special Education. See more or her work on her website!