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The grind and hustle of daily news photojournalism is no joke. Some people can be a bit sniffy about news photographers. Screw them.
As much as possible I try to ignore the haters and the artificial boundaries they construct in the photoworld. True, my interests primarily lie in documentary, participatory, vernacular and some fine art photography, but in every interaction with photographers I want to explore and understand the contexts in which they make work. Therefore, it was a pleasure – for the latest Eye On PDX feature – to chat with Thomas Boyd.
The lifestyle and work-style of news photographers has always intrigued me. Unfortunately, often my discussions of news photography begins with iconic or controversial images, images’ subtexts and imagery’s distribution in our larger ad-fed visual culture; rarely do I get to ask nuts-and-bolts questions to the individuals who create the widely-circulated images we see daily.
An avowed Oregonian, Boyd is a news shooter through-and-through. He is a staffer with The Oregonian, the state’s biggest paper and as such has important insights into journalism (past, present and future). Here, Boyd talks frankly about his experience with the paper; what makes a good image; the peers he admires; and the rise of the amateur.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
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Prison Photography (PP): How long have you been in Portland? How long have you been with the Oregonian? What’s the deal with this town?
Thomas Boyd (TB): I came up from Eugene five years ago, but before that I lived in the Portland area for about 10-years. I grew up in North Bend on the Oregon Coast and Portland has always been a special place for me. I find it endlessly fascinating.
PP: Day to day, what do you shoot?
TB: I shoot assignments! I shoot between one and three assignments a day and I never know what they’re going to be until the night before or even an hour before. Yesterday, I shot a basketball game in Eugene, today, I shot a portrait of a documentary filmmaker and an overweight police horse. Tomorrow, I’ll shoot a cat show. That’s a typical random week. I also shoot a lot of Duck football, Portland Timbers and track and field.
PP: I understand the photo staff has shrunk at The Oregonian in recent years? Tell us about the changes at the the newspaper.
TB: Like all newspapers, the business is eroding. With that came layoffs three years ago and buyouts before that. We now have three less photo editors and the staff is down to 10 with two part timers from 19 full timers five years ago. They hire very few freelancers. However, in a recent meeting the we heard the paper met it’s financial goals for 2012 and merit pay raises may be possible. The paper is making money.
But, even with these changes, the way I work really hasn’t changed. I pitch story ideas and I shoot assignments.
I actually see more change with the organizations I cover. I’m seeing them keeping us out of situations so they can document it themselves and drive traffic to their own websites. I’m seeing this with all types of organizations from non-profits to professional/college sports teams. We are essentially competing with the organizations we cover.
Reporters are also being asked to do more with photos, video and social media. I’ve found myself competing with them on stories as well. It’s really awkward for the people we cover. They don’t readily understand what our roles are.
The amount of bloggers covering events is big change too. If you look at the amount of journalists just covering the Timbers, you’ll see that newspapers and television stations are drastically outnumbered. It’s really strange to me. As far as I can tell, none of them are making any real money. If there are two dozen photographers on the field, maybe only four of us are actually getting paid. They do it because they are fans and have day jobs. It’s a head-scratcher for me.
PP: Do you make images outside of work?
TB: I shoot outside of work quite a bit. I take as much commercial and editorial freelance as I can, shoot a few weddings here and there, and pick away at my personal projects.
PP: Do you have time to follow the news, blogs, discussions online, or are you too busy being a producer and filing stories?
TB: I wouldn’t say I’m too busy because I somehow find the time…but I don’t follow all that stuff as much as I used to. I probably spend as much time online reading about motorcycles and home remodeling as I spend reading about photography. I also write for a blog called ApertureExpert.com.
PP: Does a lot of the gas-bagging (I’m being self-referential there) online affect the daily life and work of photojournalists? If so, how?
TB: Good question. I suppose photojournalists are influenced by influential work. We see a trend and try to emulate that or be inspired by it to some degree. I’m probably more influenced and more interested in talk about the photography business than actual shooting. As far as my daily work, I’ve become pretty good at sticking to my approach and not preconceiving a situation. It took me a long time to get to that point. When I first started I was all over the map stylistically and how I approached a story. I’m much more methodical and disciplined now, but I do still like to try new things and experiment.
PP: How do you define a successful day/shoot/assignment/image? What brings the smiles at the end of a day?
TB: The only thing that makes me happy at the end of the day is walking away with a photo I like. And, that is a rare thing. Starting out I was more into the experience of making the photo. The results were not as important to me, probably because I couldn’t differentiate between an above average image and a great one.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy great experiences on assignment and that happens all the time, but making a great image is where it’s at. I will forget all the suffering I experienced, if I end up with something worth looking at.
I really love the rare times when I’m in the creative zone and everything falls into place. I have an idea, the circumstances are ideal, and I get lucky. The thing about photojournalism is, you never really know if what you are doing will work until it’s too late to do anything about it. It’s all about anticipating what will happen instead executing a plan. If what you are striving to create is spontaneous, real and in the moment, there’s a huge amount of luck involved. It’s all about putting your self in a situation to that favors luck. I’d compare it to hitting a home run or a hole in one. The more you do it, the luckier you get.
PP: Are photo editors important?
TB: Good photo editors are important in that they can take great work and make it better. Mediocre photo editors get in the way of good work.
I rarely sit with an editor and have them go through my work. I mostly work remotely. I’ll send in my top picks and they take it from there.
I seek out advice on projects, but I believe photo editing is as important and creative as shooting. For that reason, I like to do it myself. I like the idea that I have more authorship in the final product. We make online photo galleries for the web and that’s really what I’m shooting for these days.
PP: How do you characterize the photo scene in Portland?
TB: By my estimation, there are way too many of us. Worse yet, there are too many mediocre photographers that manage to get work by under-cutting better ones. I suspect they won’t last much longer than their trust fund, but that can’t be too soon. That sounds harsh, but I’ve stood in the rental line at Pro Photo and watched a Craigslist wedding photographer rent $400 worth of gear to shoot a $800 wedding. That’s happening in all sectors of photography on different scales.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are some great, highly accomplished Portland photographers that deserve everything they get. Dan Root, Lars Topelmann, Steve Bloch, Sol Neelman, Chris Hornbecker, Bruce Ely, Jamie Francis, Brian Lee, Leah Nash, Chris Onstott, Thomas Patterson, Jonathan Ferrey, Ray Gordon, Anthony Georgis, Craig Mitchelldyer, Andy Batt, and many more that inspire me with solid, professional work.
PP: What lies in the future for you?
TB: If I could have my way, I’d retire at The Oregonian doing what I’m doing now. I’m a newspaper shooter and have been since I started stringing for the AP and The Oregonian while I was still in college at Portland State in the late eighties. I’m a home grown Oregonian and I don’t want to live anywhere else. I’m hardwired to shoot newspaper assignments and I love it.
The future probably won’t turn out the way I want. If it doesn’t, I see myself launching a successful freelance career, starting a business and riding motorcycles.
PP: Anything else you like to add?
TB: For the first time in my career, I’m worried for the future of the photography business. There are just so many forces out there driving down the value of photography and there doesn’t seem to be a bottom. At the same time, there are so many people wanting to do it and schools are cranking out more and more photographers. I’ve always believed that with desire, hard work, a bit of talent, and a little help, a person could make a go of it. I’m not so sure anymore. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it now.
The internet has created a huge demand for photography, but it hasn’t translated into more work and money for photographers.
The challenge is to avoid thinking about all the negative stuff, and keeping my level of creative energy up. At the end of day, I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to do it this long.
PP: Thanks Thomas.
TB: Thank you, Pete.
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All images: Thomas Boyd.
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Photo: Leah Nash for The New York Times. Plates in “The Last Supper,” a show that features Julie Green’s plates depicting death-row meals.
A couple of years ago, I visited the studio of artist Julie Green. I was compelled to do so because I was convinced that her The Last Supper project was more relevant and hard-hitting than the many, many photo projects about the last meals of the executed.
Kirk Johnson has written The Last Supper for the New York Times:
The underlying and compelling theme of the work is choice. What do people who may have lived for years in prison with virtually no choices at all do with this last one they’re offered? Do they reach back for some comforting reminder of childhood? (Professor Green suspects as much in the cases of meals like macaroni and cheese or Spam.) Do they grasp for foods never tried, or luxuries remembered or imagined? (One condemned man ordered buffalo steak and sugar-free black walnut ice cream; another, fried sac-a-lait fish topped with crawfish étouffée.)
As Green says she won’t stop painting until the death penalty is abolished, there’s a long way to go with this project. It’s great to see it going from strength to strength and pressing the issue to the fore. Bravo, Julie.
Accompanying the show is a 520-page lunker of a book. The Arts Center received sponsorship assistance to publish a full color catalog of the 500 plates. The catalog will be for sale during the exhibit for an introductory price of $50 (after February 16, 2013 the price will go up). To purchase a catalog, please contact Hester Coucke and let her know a good time to contact you during the business week.
Click images for full 2000-pixel wide view.
Kirk Jones is, like many, a photographer with a wandering path. Jones has worked with newspapers, assisted at a large commercial studios, and custom printed Pulitzer Prize winning photographer David Hume Kennerly‘s photographs.
Between 1994 and 1999, Jones freelanced in South East Asia, mainly in Vietnam and Cambodia. Upon returning to the U.S., he concentrated on web design and now manipulates Gigapixel imagery as a Senior Computer Scientist at Adobe. Three years ago, he made a return as a practicing photographer.
“I have slowly been easing myself back into the photographic world,” says Jones. His independent work has been published on CNN.com and NYTimes.com, his images featured in a documentary on Jesse Bernstein. He exhibits locally.
Over the past year, Jones has photographed clearcut logging, the urban growth boundaries that exists near Portland, OR, and the migrant work force that caters to the Oregon wine industry.
Black & White images from Jones’ Clearcut series and colour images from his Farm To Table series.
Prison Photography (PP): You’ve photographed a lot of different places, but I picked these because they were recent, close to our city of Portland and about economics, industry, nature, and the region’s culture. Why the interest in clearcut logging?
Kirk Jones (KJ): Witnessing the clearcuts along the Western Oregon highways recently, I experienced the same emotions as it did when I was young and gazing from the car window. Most of us that live here, and those that visit, at some point witness these open landscapes – often behind the veil of trees left standing along the roadside.
Photography is a medium to express what I observe happening close to home. Logging is an multi-faceted issue and something that contributes to our economy here in Oregon.
I have a long history of considering nature and my place within it. I grew up in the Midwest and lived in Northern Minnesota until my junior year of high school. The area is known for lakes and forests and natural beauty, but it is also an area known for timber and for massive strip mining.
Attending college at Evergreen in Olympia, WA – around the time of the spotted owl movement – sparked my affinity with the environment. Evergreen College was, and remains, a magnet for environmentalists and environmental theory.
I recall during trips to the coast that the lumber companies left a thick row of trees along the highway to mask the reality of what was going on behind; I felt like they were trying to hide something.
Click images for full 2000-pixel wide view.
PP: This work is in the legacy of Robert Adams, Eirik Johnson, Christopher Lamarca and many others who look at the Pacific Northwest landscape with wry, open eyes. How should we be relating to our natural resources, in life and in photography?
KJ: Without a connection to your natural surroundings it is difficult to connect to feelings of being alive. We are fortunate to live not only in an area of amazing natural beauty, but in a country that (hopefully) will continue to pursue the protection and respect for nature. It’s a fight.
I’m not advocating that natural resources shouldn’t be consumed around us, but I believe there are right ways to do this and wrong ways. I don’t think strip mining and clear cutting are responsible short or long term.
If photography can help illustrate, change or illuminate crisis, then I have faith that imagery can be a catalyst for crisis management.
PP: How do you characterize the Portland photography scene?
KJ: It has been quite a while since I was more entrenched in the photo scene. During the early 1990′s I worked at a large commercial studio in Portland as well as at The Film Lab located on the NW Park (gone now).
At that time there was a lot going on and you could feel Portland growing. I traveled and worked abroad before returning to the region a few years ago so I am just now reconnecting with photography in Portland.
I’ve gone to strobist shoots, stay active on a few mailing lists for local photographers, and test equipment for the teams at Gigapan. I look at local work when I can. The Portland photography scene appears to be healthy and there are a ton of cool things happening. I’ve been working on individual projects over the last few years and look forward to connecting with others.
On September 1, 1987, while engaged in a protest against the shipping of U.S. weapons to Central America in the context of the Contra wars, S. Brian Willson and other members of a Veterans Peace Action Team blocked railroad tracks at the Concord, California Naval Weapons Station. An approaching train did not stop, and struck the veterans. Willson was hit, ultimately losing both legs below the knee while suffering a severe skull fracture with loss of his right frontal lobe. Subsequently, he discovered that he had been identified for more than a year as an FBI domestic “terrorist” suspect under President Reagan’s anti-terrorist task force provisions and that the train crew that day had been advised not to stop the train.
Mark Colman has lived in Portland, Oregon for five years. In the past 12 months, he has been working on a portrait project called Faces of Occupy. Each portrait is accompanied by words from the sitter; many of them thoughtful, loving and persuasive statements.
In addition to many original Portland Occupiers, Colman has photographed international figures including Ralph Nader, Dr. Vandana Shiva and Chris Hedges.
Please spend some time with each of the individuals upon whom he has trained his lens. As we know, Occupy touches upon many complex issues, and these are issues that deserve time. Any summary from me would be reductive. I did just have one question for Mark though. I asked what Occupy meant to him.
“Occupy is a way to spread awareness of many things that are wrong for 99% of Americans,” says Colman. “Whether it’s corporate personhood, Wall Street bailouts, illegal bank foreclosures, the government’s increasing attempts to take away our freedoms and constitutional rights with legislation such as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), police brutality, lack of a livable minimum wage. The list is long, but the sooner people wake up, the sooner we will begin to solve these problems.”
So far, Colman has made 43 portraits.
“I plan on having 99 people by year’s end,” he says.
Chris Hedges: “The Authorization to Use Military Force Act, the Patriot Act, the FISA Amendment Act, you know it’s just one piece of legislation after another to strip Americans of their most cherished constitutional rights. I mean even the Obama Administration has not found it within itself to restore habeas corpus. All of this was put in place by Bush, but it was codified by the Democrats. In some ways Obama is worse because he’s used the Espionage Act now six times to go after whistle blowers and leakers.”
“A united educated public is the biggest threat to those that seek to exploit us for power and profit. We are learning and evolving. Where Occupy is headed is up to those who take a stand and get involved. We can take care of each other and work together to improve our quality of life.”
“My first civics lesson came at five years old: I couldn’t watch any cartoons – the Watergate Hearings were on every channel.”
“We the people of Cascadia are learning – some slowly, some quickly – what it takes to live in harmony with the land; the principles of permaculture permeate. The blue, white and green stripes and symbolic doug fir of our flag acknowledge what is true wealth. Clean water, clean air, healthy ecosystems – that is what makes healthy, loving people. We say enough with greed, corruption, and exploitation.”
“Label us socialist, communist, trouble-makers, even Al Qaeda, just rest assured that we, The 99-percenters, will go away only when you, The Monopoly Capitalists, become content with being only millionaires instead of multimillionaires and when you allow some viable form of Democratic Socialism to become America’s form of government.”
Ward Shortridge makes portraits in Portland and other cities, but mainly in Portland, Oregon where he lives. Ward used to work as a psychiatric social worker. Good portraits often come from the same place as good counselling.
“The best photographs, like the best therapy, occur when I don’t talk too much, when I engage my subjects with unconditional acceptance and love, when I let go of my desire for a particular result and take my direction from the life that is presented to me,” says Ward.
This post is the second in a new series called Eye on PDX. Once a week, I’ll post some images and words by a different photographer working in Portland, the town I now call home. Think global, shoot local.
Alabama & Gracen © 2011-12 Bobby Abrahamson
North Portland Polaroids, Bobby Abrahamson
St. John’s is one of the more interesting neighbourhoods in Portland. Geographically isolated from the rest of the city, many people in St. John’s – for the longest time – considered themselves distinct from the rest of the city. That sentiment still remains, but throughout the nineties and early noughties there was an influx of youngsters looking to make home and St. Johns in the historically more blue-collar North Portland afforded the cheapest homes. This isn’t to say that gentrification has taken place – by the standards of other cities, the curious and lovable outpost of St. Johns cradles as much of it’s original modesty and allure to outsiders (me and others like me) than ever before.
Photographer, Bobby Abrahamson, bought a house in St. Johns just over a year ago, but his making of portraits using 5×7 Polaroid film preceded his move into the neighbourhood. North Portland Polaroids is a gentle homage to the photographer’s immediate surroundings and supports the theory that one needn’t travel the earth to make interesting photography.
As well as being acquainted with Bobby and really liking the work, another winning factor is the Portland-based collaborative championing of North Portland Polaroids. It is currently being shown at two stalwarts of the PDX photo-scene – Blue Sky Gallery (downtown) and Ampersand (Alberta Arts District, NE).
Abrahamson was in discussions with Myles Haselhorst at Ampersand about producing a book before a show at Blue Sky was confirmed. When Blue Sky said ‘Yes’, instead of the two venues competing against one another they coordinated their ventures. Ampersand is a bookstore with gallery space and finely curated photobooks and ephemera, whereas Blue Sky is a more traditional gallery space with programming and workshops. In terms of international exposure, Blue Sky is the place in this city, but in terms of making books with local binderies and a keen curatorial eye, Ampersand fits the bill.
Just as Weegee “took over” New York last Fall, now is Abrahamson’s moment in Portland. North Portland Polaroids is of and for this town.
I’d like to hear readers’ suggestions of other keenly local projects that have been embraced by the locals, the subjects. [Comment below, please]
I should take this opportunity to say that living in Portland has worked out very well for me; the photography community here is active but relaxed; intelligent and open. Ampersand, The Grid Project, Lightleak, NewSpace, Blue Sky and Critical Mass/Photolucida are all PDX businesses, non-profits and ragtag bunches of friends with capital in the culture of photography. I digress but perhaps those observations speak to my own fondness for photography in Portland … and as to why I write this post.
Bobby Abrahamson, Julia Dolan (Minor White Curator of Photography curator at the Portland Art Museum) and Myles Haselhorst (Owner, Ampersand) on KBOO Portland Community Radio. Here.
BOOK: NORTH PORTLAND POLAROIDS
Buy the book at the Ampersand website.
5 x 7 in.
Perfect bound soft cover
Printed on Mohawk Superfine paper
Foreword by Julia Dolan, The Minor White Curator of Photography, Portland Art Museum
Designed & published by Ampersand
Printed & bound in Portland, Oregon
Edition of 150
As you may know, I’ve recently relocated to Portland, Oregon. The Portlandia TV comedy narrative would have you believe this is a town full of loveable counter-culture stereotypes; under-employed dreamers, kombucha-swilling hippies, and coffee-obsessed yoga-rock-climbers, to name a few.
PORTLAND IS NOT PORTLANDIA
It is fair to say that on the West Coast, the tech boom of the nineties – centred on Seattle, San Francisco and Silicon Valley – bypassed Portland. And the joke is that people pursued fire-eating, tattoos and weed instead of HTML and Java-code.
But Portland is not a harmless bubble populated only by self-aware, contented contrarians. Portland has the same problems with failing schools, violence and inequality as many large U.S. cities. Furthermore, the State of Oregon as a whole has seen dwindling public funds for education as measured against its burgeoning law enforcement and corrections budgets.
As a reality check, I’d like to recommend two articles.
Firstly, Our preoccupation with incarceration costs us in education, by Naivasha Dean in Street Roots:
Oregon is one of only a handful of states in the nation that spends more money on prisons than on higher education, a statistic that is often met with dropped jaws by students struggling for financial aid. The Department of Corrections has been one of the fastest growing state agency budgets that is eating up an ever-increasing percentage of the state’s General Fund. This does not bode well for Oregon’s future and represents a deeply misplaced set of priorities and an archaic approach to addressing crime and public safety.
Why is Oregon’s prison spending so out of control? Oregon can trace the trend directly back to 1994, when voters approved Ballot Measure 11. Measure 11 established mandatory minimum sentences for approximately 20 “person-to-person” crimes, and it automatically sends youth charged with any of those crimes, aged 15 and over, directly to adult court. Mandatory minimums are a one-size-fits-all approach to criminal sentencing that prevent judges from using their discretion and prevents Oregon from using smarter approaches to accountability and crime prevention.
Shortly after the passage of Measure 11, Oregon’s governor and legislature approved plans for more than 8,000 new prison beds, including siting for six new prisons. Since then, the legislature has authorized more than $1 billion for prison construction. As anticipated, Oregon’s prison population exploded — from 6,000 inmates in 1995 to more than 14,000 today, and the Department of Corrections budget more than tripled.
Secondly, Portland, the US capital of alternative cool, takes TV parody in good humor, by Paul Harris. This Guardian article, partly, dispels the temptation to get carried away with TV’s version of PDX life:
Portlandia is not the whole picture of life in Portland. Not everyone is white, urbane, child-free and in their 20s, or acting as if they are. In fact the city is 8% black and 9% Hispanic– communities that often live in poorer neighbourhoods that are gentrifying with newcomers who push out long-established families who can no longer afford rents.
Portland also has a problem with gang violence. [...] One man who sees this side of Portland close-up is John Canda, founder of gang outreach group Connected. “I personally have been to 358 funerals,” he said of two decades working in the field. Connected, formed last year after a series of shootings, seeks to lessen violence by having volunteers walk the troubled streets, reaching out to Portland’s youth.
“Our message is talk with us. It starts with a greeting,” he said. For Canda, as a native black Portlander, the world of Portlandia and its concerns over recycling and organic food seem unreal. “It is like a parallel universe,” he said.
Graph courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative.
Cutting a chair and stool. © Gary Walrath. Taken with Pentax ME super.
Two years ago, I found Gary Walrath‘s set of photos from a 1970s Logging Show at Oregon State Prison. They are so unique they don’t really fit into any recognisable discussion … still.
I have also repeatedly tried to contact Gary about the background to the series. No luck. So, I simply provide a couple of images, a link and some bemusement at the spectacle of axes and chainsaws within prison walls.
Gary is a busy amateur photographer and a seven times chainsaw World Champion, in the Un-limited Hotsaw Class. His weapon? The Iron Horse.
‘The Iron Horse – 90 hp 500cc Husqvarna Motorcycle Engine. Running Oregon 1/2 pitch chain on a 36″ custom made guide bar. The drive sprocket is 16 tooth. Over 8,000 RPM in the cut.’ (Source)
Ronda (she drove the prisoners nuts). © Gary Walrath. Taken with Pentax ME super.