When you meet people at a party they typically ask the following questions. First, they ask “what do you do?” This is my least favorite question because I have a hard time explaining what it is I do. This question is a blackhole that is unanswerable; I default and say I am a photographer, and the next thing you know they’re iPhone is out and they’re showing me how to make selective color photos with this app they have. “It draws your attention right to the flower,” they tell me before asking what I like to take pictures of. I respond by telling them I like shooting in the streets and that I’m interested in a lot of different subjects and they ask me if I have heard of Humans of New York. I smile politely.
The next most frequently asked question seems to be “where are you from?” This too is a difficult question for me to answer, but for different reasons. I was born in California, a fact I have only recently come to accept, but spent my childhood and adolescent years in Oregon. I started to figure myself out in my late 20’s in the state of Tennessee, and did most of my growth from that point on. People are likely as disappointed in my answer as I am in them for having asked. For a moment we achieve this perfect harmony of feelings as we stand awkwardly at a party wondering where the conversation goes from here.
Setting the small talk aside for a moment I have to give credit where it is due. Though the real maturing in my life has taken place all across the country I owe to Oregon and the people I knew there a debt of gratitude. I learned photography in Oregon and now, having lived elsewhere, can say that I took for granted all of the opportunity that was afforded to me by living in a place as creative and inspiring as Portland.
Before I tell you how about the beauty of Portland I need to mention some of the painful stuff. In Oregon I watched my parents rise up to the middle class, and selflessly give to others as they went without. When my Uncle died in 1999 my mom and dad leveraged all of their credit to ensure that my cousin went to college. They took only one vacation as a couple, frequently went without so that I could have whatever bullshit skate shoes I needed, and were the glue that held my extended family together. When my mom died suddenly, at the age of 47, it sent a shockwave through my family and left a void that nothing could fill.
For a long time I tried to fill the void with alcohol, an issue that would last until I left Portland. When alcohol no longer numbed the pain I turned to cars, and dumped all of my time, money, and efforts into the garage. When I had finally reached my plateau (read, credit limit) with cars I couldn’t figure out where to turn. I’m the shy quiet type, a man of few words if you will, and for someone like me to receive the blow of such a loss left me speechless as if I had no voice.
Be it fate, divine intervention, or through sheer chance, one day I picked up a camera to take a photo of my car and it changed my life. The camera was a Canon Powershot A610, and with it I started to take photos of every car and motorcycle I touched. It went with me everywhere and soon became an everyday essential. Soon after I started to take a lot of photos that didn’t have cars in them. A lot of them were clichés; photos of graveyards and other stuff that today gives me a good laugh, but at the time it was important for me. It gave me the chance to say, “hey, I am here and I am in pain.” With that gift of a voice I was hooked on photography, and had to learn more.
I attended college near Portland at a facility with relatively limited photography facilities. There was no darkroom, we shot no film, and though the instructors were supportive they were also insistent that further education in photography was not a wise choice. By this time I had a better camera, but was likely still taking silly photos, and so I hold no grudge.
My college had no darkroom anyway when I attended, so to supplement my education I went to Newspace Center for Photography to immerse myself in as much photography as possible. This is probably the single greatest thing I miss about having lived in Portland and something I wish that I had used far more often than I did. I’ve lived in cities since that have had darkrooms. I’ve lived in cities that have had workshops. I’ve never lived in another city that offers world class facility in which to print your work, and the opportunity to learn in a small, personal environment, since living in Portland.
When I last lived in Portland I lived in the neighborhood of St. Johns with my then fiancée. Late in our relationship, when things weren’t going well, I’d step out of the house late at night for a breath of fresh air and to smoosh my face against the windows of Blue Moon Camera. More than once, I am sure, the staff has had to clean a greasy nose smudge from the glass and more often than not it was probably mine. While I don’t think that gear can necessarily improve your photography I do think that having a knowledgable staff, in a specialty store like Blue Moon, can help you to hone in on what it is you’re trying to achieve.
Some nights on the walk home from Blue Moon I’d stand in Cathedral Park and think about Minor White doing the same as he photographed the St. Johns Bridge. I’d walk the span of the bridge taking in the night air, snap a couple of photos, and head home.
I didn’t really think about it, but if you’d asked me at the time I probably would have assumed every city had something comparable to Blue Moon. Every city has a St. Johns Bridge, a Newspace, and every city will inspire you and help you grow. Having been a few places other than Portland I can tell you now that I was incorrect in that assumption.
This week I’ll pass the Siskiyou mountains on my left, Redding will mark the half way point, and I will arrive at my destination, the place I grew up, Oregon. I’m revisiting these places and some of the people that helped make me who I am. I’m going to the places that made me the photographer I am, and most importantly I am going home.