Focusing in Isolation: Part 2

Portland photographers reflect on their work during the pandemic

Desmond Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” These words were spoken by the celebrated human rights activist in a very different place and time, but they seem very apt in the present moment.  I can think of no more fitting words to cling to at this point in time. Still, it feels like a tall order. With the ongoing unrest surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent uptick in coronavirus infections worldwide, it’s hard to see any light in these very dark times.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


Although everyone has no doubt been affected by all that’s happening now, each of us will react in our own way. Some of us will experience a kind of paralysis and fall victim to anxiety and depression. Others may experience a newfound freedom to explore new possibilities in their lives. No matter the reaction, it is an important time for self-reflection for many. As I consider my own reactions to the current crises, I’ve been wondering how these events have affected some of my fellow photographers in the community. So I caught up with a few of these artists and asked them how the pandemic and other events have influenced their own creative work. The following is the second in a two-part series based on my interviews with ten of Portland’s finest photographers.  Today’s report features the work and voices of Zeb Andrews, Susan de Witt, Julie Moore, Motoya Nakamura and Deb Stoner.


ZEB ANDREWS


Zeb Andrews, “Multnomah Falls”

Zeb Andrews views his photography as a way of life, and practicing his craft fits well with a fundamental personal philosophy of being here now, compelling him to slow down, pay attention to the world and live more in the moment. He began his journey with photography about twenty years ago when he borrowed a 35mm Pentax K1000 to pack along on a hike in the Columbia River Gorge. He made his first analog photograph that day of Multnomah Falls, and he never looked back.  Not long afterward he made his way to Blue Moon Camera and Machine, then a fledgling camera store devoted exclusively to film cameras that had just opened its doors in late 2001. Not only did he purchase his first camera at the shop, he soon started working there and would remain for the next two decades, eventually managing the store himself.  Over the years he has owned a number of different types of cameras, each of which he feels serves a particular purpose and has its own place in his photography. His preference is unquestionably for film cameras, and he has owned a variety of analog brands, including Hasselblad, Holga, Pentax and Nikon. He also makes many of his images with pinhole cameras, some of which he has built himself.  Zeb also teaches photography. He was a longtime instructor at the Newspace Center for Photography before it closed its doors in 2017, and he takes great pride in a volunteer stint teaching pinhole photography to refugee children on the Syrian/Turkish border in 2014. Zeb is a strong advocate for doing good with his photography, and he has performed other volunteer work, such as making studio portraits of homeless people and organizing a print auction with a group of photographers in a fundraising effort for victims of the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Zeb Andrews, “Island”

How has the pandemic affected your work?

Andrews:  The pandemic has actually been a bit of a reprieve for me. Even though I still work full-time at my day job, my hours have been cut back from about fifty to forty a week. I have really enjoyed the extra time I’ve been able to put back into my own work. The new schedule has given me more time to catch up and get reacquainted with old images that were sitting on hard drives. I’ve also been able to get back to doing some long-exposure work. The slower pace and more meditative aspect of waiting on a five-minute exposure is a nice way to decompress and relax a bit. And the wonderful skies we get this time of year have been great for that kind of photography.        

How has the pandemic altered the way you see the world and your own art?

Andrews:  That is a good question. The pandemic has been a perspective check in some ways. First off I’m pretty aware that even doing photography right now is a luxury and a privilege, and I try to appreciate that. All things considered, I am very fortunate. I still have a job, and I’m healthy. For many out there the more immediate task of finding work and surviving makes it impossible to find time to pursue art. So right now I really try not to take my opportunities as a photographer for granted, and I try to make the most of them.  

How do you motivate yourself to be creative these days?

Andrews:  A couple different ways. Several years ago I suffered a back injury that limited me physically, so I was housebound for some time. It was a situation where I felt I could either lie around and be miserable or think of ways to be creative at home. So I started shooting all the mundane things I do every day, like cooking dinner, doing dishes, taking a nap and so on. The big thing it taught me was that there are always creative opportunities around, and it’s up to me to be imaginative enough to find them. I still remind myself of that lesson to this day. Another way I get motivated is by giving myself assignments. Having a self-imposed project helps spur me on. Right now I’m putting together a photo book, which is a project I’m really enjoying. 

How has the pandemic affected you emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and/or financially vis-à-vis your work?

Andrews: Again, strangely enough, I feel like I have experienced a lot of benefit during this time.  The slowing down of things has been a boon of sorts. That isn’t to say there are no stresses that I experience. I still have to help manage a small business of nearly twenty employees who rely on that business for their own livelihoods. However, I try to keep my own stresses in perspective. Over 100,000 people have died in this country during the pandemic. That is a staggering, mind-boggling figure. Now we also have protests in the streets, and the future is uncertain for so many people. By comparison, the day-to-day stresses I encounter seem less important.   

Do you foresee any permanent changes in your work, positive or negative, once the lockdown is behind us?

Andrews:  I really don’t think so. Photography is such a vital part of my life that it isn’t going anywhere, and I think it will keep growing and evolving anyway. But being creative with a camera has always been about more than the pictures I make.  It’s about the frame of mind it puts me in, and it’s a way to maintain a bit of control in a world that sometimes feels chaotic. I also believe photography can be used to inspire. It can be a way of telling the stories of people who otherwise wouldn’t have their stories told. So it can be a way to stay connected—even during these times of social isolation.

Zeb Andrews, “Southern Oregon Coast”

See more of Zeb Andrews’s work at his website:  www.zebandrews.photos


SUSAN DE WITT


Susan de Witt, “The Power To Heal”

Susan de Witt moved from her native Canada to the U.S. in the early 1970s, eventually settling in Portland, where she now maintains her photography and printmaking practice. After raising her family, Susan turned her natural artistic talents toward an exploration of analog photography as a new avenue for self-expression. In 2000 she attended the Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle to study the technical aspects of photography, and she honed her craft by taking many courses and workshops over the next several years. As her photography evolved, Susan soon developed an interest in printmaking, and became intrigued by the alternative photographic process of making lith prints. For the next sixteen years she devoted herself to mastering lith printing, spending countless hours in her darkroom to become proficient in the technique. Susan is now well-known for her masterful lith printing work, and the signature quality of her often ghostly, dreamlike images has become quite recognizable in the art world. Sadly, the decline in popularity of analog photography and printing processes has made it more difficult for her to procure the kind of darkroom papers that gave her lith prints their unique characteristics. With the decline in availability of her favorite papers, Susan has turned her attention to another alternative printing process known as intaglio, a technique that involves etching a design into a metal printing surface to create the image. Over the years Susan has primarily photographed the female form, producing fine art images that often blend fashion, facial expression, body movement and gesture to bring her creative vision to life.  Susan has taught many workshops in printmaking, and her work has been collected and shown in group and solo exhibitions around the world.

Susan de Witt, “Ode to a Mouse”

How has the pandemic affected your work?

de Witt: Since my main interest is photographing the female form, the new rules of social distancing have completely put a stop to my normal way of working. So I have abandoned all photography for the time being. I do worry that this will continue to be an issue for me, at least until an effective vaccine for COVID-19 is developed.          

How do you motivate yourself to be creative these days?

de Witt: Since the pandemic came into our lives, many things have changed for me. I have found myself unable to capture a feeling for art at this time. I just don’t have the drive for creating work that is usually there for me, even for my love of printmaking. So I’ve been keeping myself busy doing other things, like baking lots of bread, trying new recipes, gardening, going for walks, and keeping in touch with friends and family via online chat forums. But I just can’t bring myself to get into the studio.    

How has the pandemic altered the way you see the world and your own art?

de Witt: So much of what is happening now has made me feel that my art is the least important thing in my life right now. The severity of the pandemic, the fear the coronavirus has created throughout the world, the toll of COVID-19, and the horrendous economic losses for so many have made me feel a tremendous sadness for the most hard-hit individuals. This is such a life-altering event that I can’t believe we will ever return to what we once thought was normal.      

How has the pandemic affected you emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and/or financially vis-à-vis your work?

de Witt: I have both good and bad days. I don’t sleep well now, and I have many concerns and “what-ifs” about the future. Thankfully though, I live in a comfortable home with my husband, and I’m able to visit with my grown children, my grandchild and a few friends at a safe distance. 

Are you working on any projects during the lockdown?

de Witt: I have just begun trying my hand at platinum-palladium printing. It’s a beautiful printing technique I dabbled in a number of years ago, and I’m starting to feel some energy and a new sense of excitement to be giving it a try again.  

Do you foresee any permanent changes in your work, positive or negative, once the lockdown is behind us?

de Witt: I expect there will be permanent changes in my work as a result of what’s happening now. However, until an effective vaccine is developed, I have no idea how things will shake out for me. My hope is that things will improve for all of us after the lockdown is behind us, and that we can all return to a life of our choosing, albeit a slower and more thoughtful one.

Susan de Witt, “Seduction”

See more of Susan de Witt’s work at her website:  www.susandewitt.net


JULIE MOORE


Julie Moore, “Rapture”

Julie Moore has been creating her evocative style of art for just shy of a decade.  Though she has no formal training in photography, Julie has felt captivated by the visual arts throughout her life. She was first inspired to pick up a camera many years ago while visiting Ireland in the company of a shaman, and she has been photographing the beauty of her world ever since. Perhaps surprisingly, she creates her captivating art primarily with her iPhone, visualizing, capturing and processing her images with the camera she carries in her pocket. She also creates some of her images with her Holga, a medium-format film camera. Julie makes many of her prints using the polymer-photogravure process. Drawn to this alternative method of printmaking, she also employs other complementary techniques during the intaglio printing process, such as chine-collé and à la poupée. About her work, Julie has said: “My images share the way I see the world, its soft tenderness and extravagant beauty, its agonizing loss and exquisite aging. I see the overlooked aspects of life and nature. There is small and precious beauty in the unseen, a part of everyday life that can go missing because it is not prominent, yet has much to teach us.” Julie’s work has been shown in a number of juried exhibitions in various galleries across the country. 

Julie Moore, “Visions of Astoria”

How has the pandemic affected your work?

Moore: Prior to the pandemic my images were printed primarily in the poly-photogravure medium. Because my studio is in the home of another artist, that medium is not currently available to me. During the pandemic I have turned to lumen printing on the few sunny Portland days we have. For this work I am using small flowers and other plant life to create my images.   

How do you motivate yourself to be creative these days?

Moore: Boy, some days have been really tough, especially in the beginning of the pandemic. I found myself rotating between days of high energy and days of no energy. Since my previous routine had disappeared, it took a while to create another one that made sense to my body. Now that I am relying on the sun with my lumen printing, I feel somewhat at the mercy of my limited environment.

How has the pandemic altered the way you see the world and your own art?

Moore: I have been relearning the importance of flexibility and resilience. It seems unlikely that we will ever return to the way things were before, so finding a new way to express my creativity that is satisfying to me is very important. I am aware that I need to give myself time to grieve the loss of photogravure as I search for a new love in my art. In the big picture of the world I see the need for new systems that bring more equality to people. I don’t have the answers, but it is obvious to me that the way we have been living is not sustainable. I hope that the upcoming changes will help people focus more on human to human kindness.  

How has the pandemic affected you emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and/or financially vis-à-vis your work?

Moore: I have been running the spectrum of emotions. Although I have always loved and needed quiet time, I’ve come to realize how very important “in person” human interaction is to my well being. Zoom just doesn’t cut it. Socially distanced tea and wine meetups with friends have been a lifeline for me, so I now schedule time every week with a friend. 

The other realization during this time is a brutal awareness of the inequities of our past “normal.” In many ways I now see that very little has improved since the ’60s and ’70s in terms of social change. I spend a lot more time pondering what can finally help us became the kinder, more compassionate world that I believe we are capable of.

Do you foresee any permanent changes in your work, positive or negative, once the lockdown is behind us?

Moore:  I am still waiting to see what life will look like on the other side of this pandemic. Now the galleries are closed and art is “online.” I don’t have the same satisfaction of sharing that I had in person in the galleries. It feels like an in-between time. So for now I often think about a favorite quote by Alice Walker:  “Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.”

Julie Moore, “Bitten”

See more of Julie Moore’s work at her website:  www.julie-moore.com


MOTOYA NAKAMURA


Motoya Nakamura, John Murakami, from the series “Images of the 442nd” 

Motoya Nakamura has been a professional photojournalist for almost three decades. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and an MFA in contemporary art practice from Portland State University. Much of Motoya’s work is a blend of photojournalism and fine art photography, integrating his observations of real-life events in the world with the expression of his internal landscape. Indeed, his personal work is largely autobiographical in nature. As an Issei, a first-generation Japanese immigrant, he has resided about as long in this country as he did in his native Japan. While assimilating into American culture, Motoya has often struggled with issues of identity and belonging, and this personal struggle has had a tremendous impact on his art. His photography has explored the notions of the self, childhood memory, the past and present, as well as aspects of Asian American history, including the legacy of Japanese American WWII veterans and Japanese internment camps during the war. Motoya’s photographs exploring Japanese American history have been exhibited in the Oregon Governor’s Office and the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center. His work has also been shown in many museums, galleries and other venues in Oregon. Motoya has taught photography at several academic institutions, including Portland Community College, the Art Institute of Portland and Portland State University. He was a staff photographer at The Oregonian for over a decade, and he currently serves as the staff photographer for the Multnomah County Communications Office. He has won many awards for his photography, including the Pulitzer Prize for Public Services as part of a team of journalists at The Oregonian, the Society of Professional Journalists award for his coverage of the tsunami disaster in Japan, and Pictures of the Year International awards, among others.

Motoya Nakamura, Untitled, from the series “Being Pulled”

How has the pandemic affected your work?

Nakamura:  As the Multnomah County photographer and videographer, I was redeployed as part of the county’s emergency response effort, and I have been embedded with the Health Department to document the current public health crisis. I am very grateful to have a job as an essential worker. Since the county leads the region’s public health authority, I get to work as part of a team to inform the public about how to stay safe and heathy during the pandemic. I also get an inside look at how the county is working to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The images and videos I create on a daily basis are shared with local media as part of the county’s effort to contain COVID-19.     

How has the pandemic changed the way you work?

Nakamura: I usually prefer photographing my subjects from a close range, but social distancing requirements make that impossible. These days I go to work every day wearing my face covering and using a long lens when I photograph people. Working while staying at least six feet away from my subjects is not my usual style.

How do you motivate yourself to be creative these days?

Nakamura: As part of my job for the county during the current health crisis I get to meet and photograph many of the essential workers who serve vulnerable populations in the community. This kind of work gives me the energy to keep going.  I also meditate every morning.  

How has the pandemic altered the way you see the world and your own art?

Nakamura: I can’t really answer that question now, as I am still processing that part. But the core of the way I see the world—finding the humanity in it—hasn’t changed. Still, I hope I will be able to find new ways to explore and express my internal landscape in my photography.

How has the pandemic affected you emotionally and spiritually vis-à-vis your photography?

Nakamura: I was scheduled to visit my family in Japan in April, but I lost the opportunity to travel there this year due to the pandemic. I have photographed my aging parents for many years as an important way to find myself and to learn more about where I came from. This has been my everlasting project. Because I lost my father several years ago, I hope I will be able to photograph my mother again. 

Are you working on any projects during the lockdown?  How do they differ from your pre-pandemic work?

Nakamura: Much of my current work involves photographing and videotaping many of the unsung heroes who serve the community. Although this project is part of my job at the moment, it also feels very much like a personal calling. However, thinking about the safety of my subjects, as well as myself, has made my work much more mentally exhausting and technically challenging than before. But it’s worth it. 

Do you foresee any permanent changes in your work, positive or negative, once the lockdown is behind us?

Nakamura: I’m not sure, but I will very much appreciate being able to get physically close to my subjects again!

Motoya Nakamura, Untitled, from the series “Sakura Sakura”

See more of Motoya Nakamura’s work at his website:  www.motoyanakamura.com


DEB STONER


Deb Stoner, “Fourth of July”

Deb Stoner has been an artist for over four decades. In addition to her work in fine art photography, she holds an undergraduate degree in geology and an MFA in jewelry and applied design. Much of her early jewelry design work and her still-life photography reveal a fascination for the detailed structures, textures and forms found in plants, bugs and other insects. Deb began her explorations into photography using a variety of film cameras to capture images. Although she feels fortunate to have learned about photography using film-based analog processes, she has made a full transition to digital photography, giving her different freedoms in her work. Her camera of choice for the past decade is a flatbed scanner, on which she composes intriguing high-resolution still life work. Her ultra-detailed images of flora and various garden creatures are elaborate studies of the intricacies of the botanical world, and this work has caught the imagination of her viewers, as well as the attention of various galleries and private collections around the country.  Her most ambitious project to date came when she won a competition to wrap her still-life images printed on billboard-sized vinyl sheets around the exterior of the Palos Verdes Art Center in southern California.  Her artwork will cover the building through the end of 2020.  

Deb Stoner, Palos Verdes Art Center Building Wrap

How has the pandemic affected your work?

Stoner: Since the lockdown began, the concept of making art has been fairly far from my mind. This has been especially true this week with the intersection of fear of the pandemic mixed with the current state of the union. And as my physical boundaries have closed in, my photography has been limited to daily events captured with my cell phone. Mostly I’ve been photographing ordinary stuff meant to be shared with friends and family, such as our cats, a beautifully baked loaf of bread worth bragging about, garden pests needing identification, and that sort of thing. The work I’ve become known for, the still life photographs of flora and tiny fauna, will still be waiting for me in due time.            

How do you motivate yourself to be creative these days?

Stoner: I give myself a break when it comes to motivation. Creativity comes in so many different forms. These days I’ve been more engaged in things like working in the garden, cooking every single meal we eat, and attempting to stay connected with family and friends.

How has the pandemic altered the way you see the world and your own art?

Stoner: For the past few years I’ve been so busy making new artwork that I’ve rarely stepped back to take the time to understand how my work affects others. Lately I’ve had time to reflect on the importance a simple concept like beauty has in other people’s lives, and I now allow myself to think of my work as being useful.  

How has the pandemic affected you emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and/or financially vis-à-vis your work?

Stoner: The current crises have made me ask myself essential questions about what is truly important. I’m certainly more aware of my mortality than ever before, and I’ve also become more aware of how fragile the art economy is in a more personal way. I’ve made some print sales during this time, and I’ve been grateful to collectors who understand how crucial their support is right now. I have also been thankful to have a home that is warm and dry, a yard to wander around in, and electronic media to allow me to stay informed. Still, I am often overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness. 

Are you working on any projects during the lockdown? 

Stoner: These days my craft practice is taken up with learning calligraphy, and practicing this new skill has been meditative for me. As I work, I notice things like the simple beauty of the changing thickness of an inked line, and I have faith that this written art form will have an impact on my future work. Otherwise, I’m using this time to clean, declutter and rearrange my studio and my art-making stuff. The process of sorting through boxes of thousands of slides in random order, negatives and proof sheets, and prints hidden in boxes or rolled up without labels has been a massive project. So I’ve been attempting to put my mind at ease by putting order to physical objects that I keep tripping over and doing the emotional work it takes to get there.   

Do you foresee any permanent changes in your work, positive or negative, once the lockdown is behind us?

Stoner: Some ideas have come to mind.  Perhaps collaborations?  Making some composited pieces? Creating smaller work that merges photography with jewelry?  I have always embraced change as a motivation to discover new things in my work, so feeling that things will be different in the future is not an unfamiliar concept.

Deb Stoner, “Summer Harvest”

See more of Deb Stoner’s work at her website:  www.debstoner.com

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  • Pat Rose is a Portland-based photographer whose work includes landscape, street and portrait photography, and botanical scanography.  She is a retired ESL teacher who has taught in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as in Austin, Texas, and most recently at Portland State University. Her website is www.patrosephotography.com

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