Hat Dance

It's a bold new age for heads in hat-happy Portland. Photographer K.B. Dixon's street portraits show off the evidence.


Fashion is a language. A fashion choice—voluntary or not—is a statement. These statements can be true, false, revelatory, misleading, ambiguous—whatever they may be, they all tell us something about the person making them. The hat, by virtue of its privileged perch, occupies a special place in fashion’s vocabulary. It is the final piece of the sartorial puzzle, the concluding point in a proclamation of identity, the star placed atop the Christmas tree that is you.

In his book The Ongoing Moment (a stream-of-consciousness amble through the history of photography) Geoff Dyer takes up the subject of the hat—a thing he sees as closely associated with the documentary photography of the 1930s. The hat, which had been essentially a status identifier, was transformed by a decimating depression into an existential emblem of hardship and despair—especially as it appeared in the work of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. “By the 1950s,” however, Dyer writes, “the great era of the hat in photography had passed. Wearing a hat was optional where once it had been almost obligatory, and it was no longer a reliable indicator of the ravages inflicted on men by economic forces beyond their control or understanding. The hat became just a hat.”

This is not a sentiment I have a lot of sympathy for. Sometimes perhaps a hat is just a hat—just as Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar—but most often it is something more. Some are weighed down with more meaning than others, of course, but they are all to one degree or another symbolic things. Sometimes their significations are clear and simple, but more often they are not—they are complex, encrypted, obscure. Properly decoded, they are invariably clues to character. If one era of the hat in photography passed in the 1950s when the hat ceased to be an obligatory accoutrement, a new era began when it became an object of choice. In the 1960s it re-emerged as a character and/or cultural indicator, and it continues as such today.

The hat has long been a source of fascination to me—a fascination born in part out of envy because I cannot wear one myself. (I have some sort of oddly-shaped head and tend to look idiotic in most.) It has made both planned and unplanned appearances in several of my novels (usually in what the professors would call an objective correlativish role) and in my photography as well. This new age of the hat is very much in evidence here in hat-happy Portland and has been for a while, as this handful of street portraits will attest.



The eyes have it: Art of the camera

ArtsWatch Weekly: Photography gets (beyond) real, the art museum reshuffles the deck, true tales of equity, Ashland's indie film fest, more

“IF ONLY I HAD THOUGHT OF A KODAK!” H.G. Wells’s vexed and haunted Time Traveller exclaims in the classic science-fiction novel The Time Machine. “I could have flashed that glimpse of the Under-world in a second, and examined it at leisure.” Ah, to create in a moment and examine at leisure. Photography, in the popular imagination, is the utilitarian art, the engineer of art forms, a documenter of what already exists: As Sgt. Joe Friday is supposed to have said laconically on the radio and television series Dragnet, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” In fact, though, while documentation is a crucial element of the photographic art form, it is rarely “mere” documentation. A photo has a frame, and a frame provides, quite literally, a point of view. What’s more, that “perfect accident” of a shot might have taken hours of preparation and years of experience to achieve. In the 180-plus years since the introduction of the daguerrotype in 1839, photography has developed into a full-fledged art form, with rich and varied approaches that include but are far from limited to literal description of the physical world. A photographer’s limits are roughly the same as any other artist’s: How far can her skills and imagination take her?

Left: “Falling Apart” (self-portrait), Laura Kurtenbach. Right: “House of Atlas” (from the series “Short Stories/Tall Tales”), Grace Weston.


A year of hope and resilience

Music Today Festival celebrates imagination and determination

It has been a year of hope and resilience for the University of Oregon Composers Forum (OCF) whose members first met one another online in September and have continued to meet virtually. This cadre of undergraduate, master and doctoral composition majors are engaged in planning and producing the 2020-2021 Music Today Festival, a biannual event celebrating contemporary composers and musicians. Most every concert since the festival’s founding in 1993 has been held in the UO School of Music and Dance’s venerable Beall Hall. This year, because of the pandemic, all performances have been pre-recorded and webcast to audiences around the world.

Wyatt True, Eric Alterman and Kimberlee Uwate,of the Delgani String Quartet, rehearse new music for string trio by OCF composers. Photo by Gary Ferrington.
Wyatt True, Eric Alterman and Kimberlee Uwate,of the Delgani String Quartet, rehearse new music for string trio by OCF composers. Photo by Gary Ferrington.


Women of Art ~ A Visual Life, 3

A profile of three of Portland’s most creative photographers. Part 3: The iPhone art of Susan Bein.

This is the final part of a three-part series profiling the visual lives of three exceptionally creative photographers based in Portland. Part One introduces the series and covers Grace Weston. Part Two is devoted to Laura Kurtenbach. The following profile of Susan Bein comprises Part Three of the series.



Susan Bein grew up in Los Angeles, and although her parents were not artistic themselves, they always encouraged creativity in their three children. As a child Susan already had a vivid imagination, and she used drawing and painting to interpret her world and give form to what she pictured in her mind. She was considered an “art kid” at a very early age. However, by the time she became a young teen she had grown discouraged by her inability to accurately depict her imaginings with a pencil or a paintbrush, so she tried her hand at photography as a way to capture her vision of the world.

It was a perfect fit. With her camera she now had a creative partner that allowed her to visually describe what she imagined in a way that more perfectly expressed her inner world. While still in high school, Susan took classes from Edmund Teske, the eccentric American photographer famous for his experimental photographic techniques. Throughout her teens she also took classes from some of the great photographers of their day, including Ansel Adams, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, and Paul Caponigro.

After high school she enrolled in Goddard College in Vermont, a progressive “hippie” school with no required curricula, allowing her to take all the photography courses she wanted. At Goddard Susan fell under the tutelage of Jeff Weiss, an excellent, but demanding, instructor who required his students to wear their cameras at all times, make fifty new prints every week, and subject their work to rigorous critique sessions. She was pushed hard, but she learned important critical thinking skills and developed a work ethic that she practices to this day.


Ashland Film Festival celebrates the power of young people

Streamers: The indie festival rolls out a virtual and live-event 20th season, opening Thursday with a lineup strong on documentaries

In a sign of the halfway-hopeful place in which we find ourselves these days, the Ashland Independent Film Festival is returning this year in a hybrid format for its 20th anniversary. A virtual, online version of the fest kicks off Thursday, April 15, and runs through April 30, followed by five evenings of outdoor, socially distanced screenings in late June, by which point both vaccination rates and summer weather should make such events more feasible.

The online portion of AIFF kicks off with a screening of The Water Man, the directorial debut of actor David Oyelowo (Selma). It’s a family-friendly drama about a boy (Lonnie Chavis) who seeks out a forest-dwelling supernatural being that he believes can help his ailing mother (Rosario Dawson). Oyelowo, who also appears in the film, will participate in an online talk on April 16. Ashland has always been a festival that punches above its weight, and that continues this year, especially in regard to the documentary offerings.

A scene from the documentary “Youth v. Gov”

Those range from the outrageous to the inspiring, and from the sublime to the ridiculous. One common thread is the power of youth. Of both local and global interest is Youth v. Gov, a thoroughly engaging look at the groundbreaking, potentially lifesaving lawsuit filed by a group of 21 children against the United States government, alleging that the continuing support of fossil fuel technology amounts to a deprivation of their constitutional rights to life and liberty. Led by attorney Julia Olson of the Eugene nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust, the case made news back in 2016 when an Oregon District Court judge ruled that the plaintiffs had standing to sue. This led to a barrage of attempts by the Trump Administration to get the case thrown out, a process that Youth v. Gov chronicles in a way that provides clarity on the legal maneuverings and insight into the impressive cast of kids and their formidable lawyer.


Dennis Cunningham: The last catch

Dennis Cunningham, the master linocut artist and fishing celebrant, has died, leaving behind a string of idyllic images


Editor’s Note: Artist Dennis Cunningham, born in Medford, Oregon, on July 5, 1949, died on April 3 after a long illness, according to his niece, Marianne Love-Day. He raised the profile of block printing in the state both through his work and his teaching at Marylhurst University. He is survived by his sister Carol Baldridge, daughter Selena Cunningham-Delano, and nieces Love-Day and Amy Love-Bichsel.

“You can identify the artist through his work.” So Dennis Cunningham posted on his website, and though it may not always hold true, it was at least true for him as a committed regionalist. A native of the Northwest, he was born in Medford and—like that other Oregon original, Terry Toedtemeier, whose photographs celebrate the state’s unique geology—Cunningham married his art to the place he loved.

Dennis L. Cunningham (American, born 1949), Sauvies Island, 1970/1991, linocut on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, © Courtesy of the artist and Froelick Gallery, 91.84.641

His chosen medium was relief printing; more than the obdurate wood block, he preferred softer linoleum, into which he could easily inscribe the irregular curvilinear forms he saw in nature. His landscapes, such as Sauvies Island (1970/91) and Clackamas II (1975/95), are remarkable for the convincing spatial depth he achieved through the very limited means available in linocut. Relying only on the contrast of black ink on white paper and on the quality and direction of incised line, he created an inviting, fully three-dimensional, sylvan world of tranquil lakes and streams. More often than not, these scenes include solitary figures engaged in Cunningham’s favorite recreational activity: fishing. 

Dennis L. Cunningham (American, born 1949), Clackamas II, before 2016, linocut on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, 2016.115.121

A witty print from 1983, Pesca Cabeza #7, depicts a profile head in the spirit of the sixteenth-century mannerist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose strange personifications of the times of year are composed of seasonal fruits and vegetables—a cucumber nose, a pear for the chin, pea pods for eyelids. Cunningham’s hilarious head is made up entirely of fish. It could be a self-portrait. Indeed, fishing seems to have been a veritable obsession for him. One of his happy creative collaborations was the children’s book he illustrated for Geraldine Pope, The Empty Creel (1995), in which a girl goes fishing with grandpa and comes home disappointed by the big one that got away. In the book, Cunningham’s bold pictures command the whole of every page, with Pope’s economic descriptions and dialogue inserted within small cartouches, reversing the expected relationship of image and text.

Dennis L. Cunningham, Pesca Cabeza #7, 1983, linocut on paper, gift of Esther Podemski and Melvin Hess, Portland Art Museum, 88.24.1

The story is a reminder of how instructive fishing can be, how much it encapsulates aspects of life—the excitement of embarking, the anticipation of success, the waiting, wondering, communing, the sometimes dashed expectations and the necessity of accepting the let down. There is much wisdom to be gained from such experiences. For this reason, fishermen tend to be philosophers and, occasionally, vice versa. 

Cunningham developed an effective device for signaling the thoughts of his fishermen. In Sauvies Island, for instance, we’re given insight into the hopeful reflections of the back-turned figure with rod and creel by means of several small panels that run along the bottom of the print, including an area map with Highway 30 skirting the island, assorted fishing flies, a frying pan with a fish all a’sizzle. The single inset panel in Clackamas II serves a different purpose. It contains a map of Oregon’s rivers, locating the idyllic scene with lone fisherman in a specific geographical space.

Dennis L. Cunningham (American, born 1949), End of the Line, 1990, linocut on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, © Courtesy of the artist and Froelick Gallery, 1998.46.188

Cunningham’s insets often turn static vignettes into narratives, suggesting memories of or hopes for the past or future respectively, complicating time. In End of the Line (1990), where a boating couple fish alongside a shallow terrace waterfall, three insets expand the timeless image into an anticipatory dream. One schematic inset appears to illustrate the direction to a different fishing spot or perhaps the ideal distance of boat from shore; another shows a fly floating on the water’s surface with a fish approaching from below; a third depicts the prized salmon, the otherwise unseen goal of the day’s enterprise. The title of the print describes the climactic point at which the fly attracts the fish, as seen in the second inset panel; the phrase also evokes a destination or terminus. Rendered poignant by Cunningham’s recent demise, End of the Line offers, at least for this admiring viewer, a consoling fantasy of the artist arriving in his own fisherman’s paradise.

Women of Art ~ A Visual Life, 2

A profile of three of Portland’s most creative photographers. Part 2: Laura Kurtenbach.

This is Part Two of a three-part series profiling the visual lives of three exceptionally creative photographers based in Portland. Part One introduces the series and features Grace Weston. Part Three is devoted to Susan Bein. The following profile of Laura Kurtenbach comprises Part Two of the series.


Lured (from the series Femme Noir)

Laura Kurtenbach began her journey with fine art photography as a young girl growing up in Central Illinois, where she enjoyed an early exposure to the visual arts, gaining an understanding of both the creative and technical aspects of image-making. In school she grew to love the arts through drawing, painting, sculpture and photography, and by her senior year in high school she was well-acquainted with the dark room, spending countless hours processing photographic film and acquiring strong technical skills along the way.  After high school she attended Columbia College in Chicago, earning a BA in photography and fine art. She went on to do graduate work at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where she received her MFA in photography.

In her professional career, Laura worked for almost fifteen years for a major international publication as a photo technician and printer, finely honing her photography and post-processing skills on the job and in her free time. Her job allowed for much travel time, during which Laura photographed mostly documentary subjects. Later she began a new career in academia, teaching photography in a variety of educational institutions, including Northwestern Illinois University at Evanston, the Wright City College of Chicago, Columbia College in Chicago, and the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland. She is currently an adjunct professor of photography at the Academy of Art University and Portland State University. Laura now has over two decades of professional experience as a practitioner in the photography industry and an educator in fine art and documentary photography.