Austin Granger’s commonplace miracles

When things go right, "I have the uncanny sense that the photographs were already there, just waiting for me. They feel predestined."

STORY by ANGELA ALLEN

PHOTOGRAPHS by AUSTIN GRANGER

Portland photographer Austin Granger, who grew up in northern California and studied philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, prefers to load film into his Fuji GF670 or Deardorff 5 by 7 instead of pushing a card into a digital camera. Sticking to the old rituals, he’d also rather shoot in black and white than in color. Sixty of his images are on display through April 10 at LightBox Photographic Gallery in Astoria.

Granger calls photography “at once commonplace and utterly miraculous.” Among his landscape and nature images, the influence of Group f/64 photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston is apparent, Granger readily acknowledges. Adams is one of his heroes, and sharp-focused, meticulously framed photos are among his images’ hallmarks, as they are of his mid-century California predecessors.

“Self, Alvord Desert, Oregon,” self-portrait, 2016.

The 76-page catalog for Granger’s LightBox exhibition is titled Correspondence. “When I’m photographing well, I have the most uncanny feeling that the pictures are predestined,” Granger said. “I recognize them. They echo the feelings inside myself. They correspond.”

Granger and West Linn photographer Paul Cunningham created luminous platinum palladium prints that bring a range of tones and depth to the paper’s surface.

Below, Granger speaks to some of his ideas about his photographic process and practice, responding to questions via email:

Why do you have so few people in your photos?

To quote Ansel Adams, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” In a very real way, they’re all pictures of your head! Another answer to that question: I am a shy person who enjoys solitude.

Tell me about the platinum process in this show—without being too technical.

The prints in this show are a collaboration between me and platinum printer Paul Cunningham of  The Cunningham Press. I made the pictures using various film cameras and then scanned the negatives into my computer and Photoshopped them, then gave the digital files to Paul, along with some guide prints. For the final prints, Paul created enlarged negatives using transparency film. These negatives were then placed together with a sheets of high-quality rag paper coated with a light-sensitive mixture of platinum/palladium, and then this “sandwich” was exposed to UV light for 2 to 18 minutes. The exposed prints were developed with a chemical solution and then washed. Platinum prints are renowned for their tonal range, their depth and luminosity, and their longevity. It’s an involved process, but the results are something to see, especially in person.

“Telephone Pole with Birds,” 16″ x 16″, 2016.

Why do you shoot only film?

I use film because it gives me the results I’m after, and also because I enjoy the old rituals. I like going out with a limited number of exposures and try to make them all count. I enjoy trying to pre-visualize what my pictures will look like, not quite knowing the results before I see them. I like the delayed gratification. When I have a roll of undeveloped film, and I almost always do, I feel as giddy as a kid before Christmas. Finally, I like not looking at a screen! I think we all, myself included, would do well to take a break from screens once in a while.

What subjects do you like to photograph, or is it the wandering that spurs you on?

The wandering, mostly. I don’t really know what I’m looking for when I’m photographing, but I know it when I see it. When I’m photographing well, I have the uncanny sense that the photographs were already there, just waiting for me. They feel predestined. I quiet myself and they appear. Photography for me is passive like that. I put up my antennae and wait. I recognize pictures right away. I recognize how they feel. When it’s going well, it’s easy. And I don’t have any doubt, about either the subject or how it should look. My pictures are like pieces of a puzzle. I may not know quite what the puzzle is, but I know which pieces belong to it. Good pictures feel charged. They feel significant. They have a certain ache.

Which are your favorite photos in the show?

The girl on the porch (my daughter) would be disappointed if I didn’t choose that one. But they’re all important to me. The one of the Point Reyes boat is sentimental. I’ve photographed that boat so many times that it’s become almost a living person. I’m making a record of the winter of its life. I’m interested in how things change. I’m interested in time. What is photography about if not time? Plus, that picture is on the cover of my book, Elegy from the Edge of the Continent: Photographing Point Reyes (Goff Book, 2016).

“The Point Reyes, Tomales Bay,” 16″ x 20″, 2003.

You don’t make a living by your photography but you spend a lot of time at it. Could you talk about that … being an artist, doing what you love. Is that a tough balance for the family, etc.?

Although photography is my life’s passion, it’s true that I can’t claim to support myself with it. It is something I’m working on, though. In 2016, I published my first book, Elegy from the Edge of a Continent: Photographing Point Reyes. While this event has not really changed my financial situation, I am hoping to use it as a stepping stone to publish some other book projects and then, well, who knows? I can tell you that I’m giving it my all.

As far as balancing my photography with my other life as a husband and a father, yes, it can be difficult. I’m reminded of the story of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads in return for mastering his guitar. I’ve always thought of that story as a metaphor: If you give yourself completely to something, if you let it take you over, you will gain power, but at a price. I’m no master, but I have put a lot of myself into my photography. It dominates my life. I am thankful that my family understands that it is like oxygen for me, something I need to do to keep going, and to be fully myself.

“Hope, Portland,” 8″ x 8″, 2014.

Why did you move to Portland and when?

My wife and I and our three children came to Oregon in 2006. We lived in Astoria for two years before moving to Portland. We were part of the Great Northward Migration from California. Now that we’ve been here over a decade, I feel secure in admitting that. We love it here and aren’t planning on going back.

(The next answer comes from a Feb. 14, 2016 PhotoArtMag interview with Granger.) What photographers have influenced you?

Aside from Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, and Edward Weston. Brassai is in my pantheon of photographer saints, as well as Bill Brandt and Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank and Aaron Siskind, Frederick Sommer and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Wynn Bullock, Josef Koudelka and Diane Arbus.

“Portland (Sunlight Reflected from a Building Downtown),” 8″ x 8″, 2015.

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Granger will talk about his work from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, March 19,  at the Portland Photographer’s Forum in Room 30 at the Multnomah Arts Center.

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Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  

 

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