Photography review: A close encounter with history at Zena Zezza

Zena Zezza presents historic work by Minor White and work about history by Stan Douglas in the historic Hallock and McMillan Building


For its third season,  Zena Zezza is presenting photographs by Minor White (1908-1976) and a project with Vancouver B.C.-based artist Stan Douglas in the  historic Hallock and McMillan Building, built in 1857, Portland’s oldest brick commercial building. This historic context is a striking contrast to Zena Zezza’s minimal approach to the exhibition.

The majority of the space—exposed brick walls with more functional drywall—is dedicated to the exhibitions at-hand. A simple desk at the entrance invites viewers to learn about the exhibitions with leaflets containing essays followed by a floor plan and list of works. Otherwise, no other texts about the exhibitions adorn the walls, an arrangement that invites viewers to see the work first before delving into the informative handout.

Minor White (American, 1908-1976), Untitled (Grain Elevators), ca. 1939, gelatin silver print, Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration, no known copyright restrictions, L42.2.5

Minor White, Lumber Dock, ca. 1939. Courtesy Portland Art Museum.

Sourced from the collections of the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Historical Society—the images come from WPA photographs at the Museum and original negatives of the historic buildings White had the foresight to leave to the Oregon Historical Society before being drafted into the United States Army. It is a body of work and more than 75 images that have never been shown collectively in this context, as Zena Zezza director Sandra Percival points out. Sectioned into three segments, these early photographs show White’s remarkable perspective on architecture, urban and rural landscapes and his ability to create images in varied poetic yet casual moments. They are the beginning point for White’s trajectory as a master in modernist photography, and the occasion to see these works in one space illuminates the opening arc of White’s diverse career.

In 1938, The Federal Art Project in Oregon (FAP), funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), hired White to document the historic cast-iron buildings in downtown Portland before they were demolished for new development and wider streets. White gravitated towards the nearby waterfront and captured scenes along the Willamette. His photograph Lumber Dock from around 1939 portrays a moment at the end of the Great Depression and on the cusp of World War II when the lumber industry was thriving. The striking modernist photograph captures the lumber splayed in the foreground, though the calm waters fill up the entire upper portion of the image. Steam from a boat adds to the calm order on the dock.

Other photographs capture candid moments of adults and children in art classes and participating in community events in the WPA art centers of Portland, Salem and La Grande. Assigned by the WPA to teach photography at the center in La Grande in 1940, White developed his artistic practice and critical thinking about photography while teaching and exploring the landscapes of Eastern Oregon in his own time.


Just as Minor White came to see that photography could speak to larger issues,  Stan Douglas, whose work is on the upper level of the Hallock and McMillan Building, uses it as a tool to freeze time and present itself for drawing out meaning. Douglas’s Nootka Sound photographs from 1996 use photography as a way to research a place in its present state and its historical context, an approach kindred to White’s, based on curiosity about the locale and what the land might reveal over time.

Stan Douglas, "Head Bay-Tlupana Inlet"/Courtesy Zena Zezza

Stan Douglas, “Head Bay-Tlupana Inlet”/Courtesy Zena Zezza

Nootka Sound is on the west coast of Vancouver Island in the Pacific Ocean. It’s a complex inlet: for example, Head Bay—Tlupana Inlet shows a heavy, gray sky, dense forest, and haunting bleakness.

The rugged land- and seascapes also appear in Douglas’s film Nu•tka•, which is given its own room at Zena Zezza. In the film, Douglas takes inspiration from the land’s crucial historical moment— the late 1700s when European explorers came into contact with the indigenous Mowachaht. The film, six minutes that loop seamlessly, pans across the landscape of one site from two different places on Nootka Sound.

Stan Douglas, still from his film "Nu•tka•"/Courtesy Zena Zezza

Stan Douglas, still from his film “Nu•tka•”/Courtesy Zena Zezza

Foundationally influenced by the work of Samuel Beckett, Douglas spoke in an interview with curator Jen Budney about the use of looping film in his work. “Yes, the looping that is everywhere in my work comes from Beckett,” he said, “but the primary difference is that in his work structures of words repeat while their utterance changes, and in mine the looping utterance stays the same, by way of mechanical means, while perception of it changes.”

Two distinct narrations occur simultaneously on a four-channel soundtrack, the monologues are from historical texts by an English Captain and another from a Spanish commander. Their simultaneity creates a confusion of sound, but when the narrative of the two monologues is spoken in unison, the words are from Edgar Allen Poe, Captain James Cook, Miguel de Cervantes, and the Marquis de Sade. These two texts or scripts function as a double reading of history. In some ways, the perspectives of the characters will never meet, however, they share profound moments of doubt as they are faced with their own repression of primitive impulses. There are two realities that exist together facing a failed utopianism.

Echoing the confusion of the simultaneous narration, the imagery of the landscape bisects at moments, weaving the two different views, appearing out of focus, and coming together as a clear, singular image when the narration does the same. Adding to the confusion, when the film bisects, it looks like an old television screen with scan lines. That creates a confluence of the displacement of viewing the contemporary landscape, historical voices from the 18th century, and moments of the screen that conjures up a not too distance past. This sense of confusion and loss sensed in the two narrators spreads to the viewers, relaying feelings of hesitation placed onto the landscape.

Zena Zezza’s space and these two exhibitions transport the viewer to various points in history. The tactile history of the building and space, and White’s documentation of it over eighty years ago, placed in this fresh context—in the midst of an ever-changing urban area—reveals a place in constant flux. Douglas’s project on the upper level transports us to an even earlier and further disorienting moment, leaving us to find our footing as we step back outside onto Naito Parkway confronted by darting cars while glimpsing the Willamette River.

Zena Zezza’s Minor White and Stan Douglas exhibitions will be on display at 235 SW Naito Parkway (at SW Oak Street), through August 22. It’s open to the public 1-5 pm Fridays-Sundays and by appointment:

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