Focusing in Isolation

Portland photographers reflect on their work during the pandemic: Part One

When I think about how the world has changed so fundamentally over the past few months, I find it hard to accept that I won’t suddenly recover from some crazy Alice in Wonderland Syndrome and come out from behind the looking glass. Time and space seem so distorted right now that navigating my way through each day is like moving through a perceptual minefield. And as more recent events seem to have supplanted the pandemic scare, my feelings of fear, sadness and loneliness have lately given way to feelings of anger, outrage and disbelief. 


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


But unlike so many others, I am fortunate. As I remain vigilant about practicing self-isolation, all that is happening now has affected me more emotionally than practically. As a photographer I can still create work, even though the nature of that work has changed since the start of the pandemic. As I continue my photography safely at home, I’ve been wondering how the lockdown has affected other photographers in the community. So I caught up with a few fellow photographers and asked them how the current crisis has influenced their own creative work. The following is the first 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 Ray Bidegain, Jamila Clarke, Jim Fitzgerald, Heidi Kirkpatrick and Angel O’Brien.


RAY BIDEGAIN


Ray Bidegain, “Becoming Invisible”

Ray Bidegain trained as a commercial photographer at The Brooks Institute of Photography, and started his career in photography as a retail studio and wedding photographer in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona. He later moved to Portland, where he continued his work as a studio portrait photographer for many years before turning his attention to fine art photography.  Although Ray’s career in photography has spanned four decades through a very transformative period in photography technology, his current work harkens back to the more traditional era of large-format film photography and focuses almost exclusively on fine art themes, including portraiture, landscape and the still life.  Most of his photographs are made with 8×10 or 4×5 large-format cameras.  Also passionate about printmaking, Ray is self-taught in the art of platinum palladium and wet plate collodion printing. His work has been exhibited in group and solo shows in galleries and museums across the United States, and in France, Germany and Scotland.  Ray is also an educator, and has taught many workshops throughout the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the country, instructing students in photography theory and alternative photographic processes. In addition, he has hosted a print review salon once a month at the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, although these print-sharing events have been exclusively online during the pandemic.

Ray Bidegain, “Portrait of Shea”

How has the pandemic changed what you photograph?

Bidegain: I have been making more still life images and self portraits during the stay-at-home times. Additionally, I have spent this time going through my archives of prints and negatives to find work I have overlooked over the years.

How has the pandemic changed the way you work?

Bidegain: I have been reaching out to the community with virtual meetings and discussion groups.  I am currently working on an online version of my most popular workshops that I hope to launch in the coming month.

How do you motivate yourself to be creative these days?

Bidegain: I am lucky to have felt motivated during this time, in part because I have been working from my home studio now for years.  In fact, for the last two decades I have been a stay-at-home parent, a role I have cherished.  I have always been able to balance my family life with my photography business successfully.

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

Bidegain: I question the relevance of my work often.  Also the pandemic makes me wonder how our culture will view art and artists in the future. I have the idea that artists may discover an increase in the emotional value people find in our work.

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

Bidegain: My workshop business has closed, so that has been a financial hit.  However, everyone in my household has done well in that we are all still working and continue to support each other in many ways.

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

Bidegain: I am looking forward to reaching a larger, more diverse audience with my online workshops.  And that feels like a positive for me.

Ray Bidegain, “Roses Past”

See more of Ray Bidegain’s work at his website:  www.raybidegain.com


JAMILA CLARKE


Jamila Clarke, “She Wrote Nothing At All”

Jamila Clarke makes photographs that tell a story.  Her brand of photography is conceptual in nature and narrative in application, and her photographs are inspired by the imagery of the cinema and the language of folktales.  She seeks to create surreal and whimsical narratives in her photographs that she describes as “impossible moments that add a little magic to everyday life.”  Jamila has been wielding a camera since she was an eleven-year-old child, when she got her hands on an old Minolta given to her by her father. Since then she has never lost her desire to explore the medium of photography as a way to channel the power of her imagination to create a fantasy world all her own. An early interest in theater, cinema and costume design also greatly influenced the direction she would take with her art.  Indeed, she later studied theater, as well as studio art, at Oberlin College with a concentration in fine art photography and digital video.  In college she focused primarily on making and processing color and b&w film photographs using a variety of film cameras, but when she discovered digital photography, she found the means to bring her imagination to life.  These days she shoots digitally most of the time, and she uses her Pentax K-5 DSLR camera to tell her visual stories.  Jamila’s work has been shown in many group and solo exhibitions, as well as in various publications around the country.

Jamila Clarke, “The Flood”

How has the pandemic affected your work?

Clarke: Since I often use costuming and sets to transform myself and other models into fictional characters in unique settings, it has meant that I cannot arrange for any of those meetings.  Most of my photoshoots have been postponed or cancelled. Some models are on quarantine or inaccessible, so it’s meant changing my plans.  However, it has not changed my self-portrait work.

How do you motivate yourself to be creative these days?

Clarke:  It has become very hard to be motivated these days. I try to focus on planning and prepping for future photoshoots or at least to seek out inspiration until I can next create work.  And I’ve been exploring other ideas so I can at least find ways to be creative, even if it wasn’t my intended work.

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

Clarke: It has not changed much about the subject of my work, but it has altered the way I create it. I cannot easily go shoot outdoors like I would before or work with models, so I’ve been forced to work with what I have at home and in my immediate surroundings.

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

Clarke:  Emotionally it has been incredibly draining, and financially it has caused some complications due to client work having to be put on hold. It’s not been the easiest time to be creative.

Are you working on any projects during the lockdown? 

Clarke: I have not been at the moment. My original plans were so different, so I have to shift gears and that takes a bit of planning. I have found giving myself small goals can help. Finding ways to be creative, even if it’s not the usual outlet, can be a good way to get myself motivated again. 

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

Clarke: Not particularly. My day job is as a graphic designer and freelance costumer, which is actually very handy for my work as I often do a lot of post production and often gather or create the costumes worn in my photoshoots. That will not change. However, it will probably affect how I work with my models in the future.

Jamila Clarke, “Something To Cling To”

See more of Jamila Clarke’s work at her website:  www.jamilaclarke.com/photo/


JIM FITZGERALD


Jim Fitzgerald, “Eye of the Oak”

Jim Fitzgerald has been photographing nature for close to five decades.  He is a landscape photographer known especially for his images of iconic trees of the West, particularly the black oaks of Yosemite Valley and the coastal redwoods. Jim is a self-educated photographer and camera builder specializing in traditional large-format and ultra large-format photography, using his own hand-crafted 8×10, 8×20, 11×14 and 14×17 walnut cameras to capture his images. He is also a specialist in the historic printmaking process known as carbon transfer contact printing, a labor-intensive process using camera negatives with no digital interface at all. It is a method that requires several days of work to produce a single high-quality monochrome print.  Widely recognized as an expert in carbon transfer printmaking, Jim is also an educator who teaches workshops on this complex printing process in his home studio, at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, The Weston Collective in Seaside, California, and other places.  He is the author of two fine-art books of original carbon transfer images, including Survivors I, the first book ever printed entirely in carbon transfer.  Jim’s work is held in private collections around the world, and many of his carbon transfer prints are on permanent exhibit at the LightBox Photographic Gallery in Astoria.

Jim Fitzgerald, “Tranquil Passage”

How has the pandemic affected your work?

Fitzgerald: I still work the same way but with different subject matter. Now I do more still life work in my studio. Currently, I’m working on a botanical series that has really taken off since I’ve been at home during the pandemic.

How do you motivate yourself to be creative these days?

Fitzgerald: It is very easy for me to keep creating. My long-term book projects, photographic studio work, woodworking projects, and online mentoring work have been keeping me very busy. 

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

Fitzgerald:  I see the world the same way I did before but with much more sadness. I have not seen it affect my art in any way yet. I continue to produce archival images using the carbon transfer printing process. Every image I create is a distinctive handmade work of art. This is still how I express my feelings in my photography work.

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

Fitzgerald: I am fortunate to not have to go to work anymore … to a day job if you will. My wife and I are fine being alone, because we enjoy each other’s company and have a hell of a lot of fun together. I have been a large format and ultra-large format photographer for many years, so I have become accustomed to working alone. Using these kinds of cameras is a solo adventure, though from time to time my wife will come with me and photograph as well. She is a fine photographer and carbon printer too. 

Are you working on any projects during the lockdown?

Fitzgerald: Currently I’m working on a botanical series that will eventually be presented in a fine art book. I have begun to print and publish my own work in collector editions through Carbon Art Studios. I recently developed a new “relief printing technique” for my editions. These collector editions include either 8×10 or 8×20 images bound into a special handmade cover.

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

Fitzgerald: I see no changes in the nature of my work. I’m still fascinated with the carbon transfer process and I learn something new all the time. But hopefully I will soon have access to the outdoor areas I love to photograph. I do miss the gallery experience and talking to people about the work I do, and I hope to be able to return to that in the future.  In the meantime, I’m staying positive by staying creative … and not watching too much news! 

Jim Fitzgerald, “Calming Coleus”

See more of Jim Fitzgerald’s work at his website:  www.jimscarbonartphotography.com


HEIDI KIRKPATRICK


Heidi Kirkpatrick, “Fern”

Heidi Kirkpatrick came to photography relatively late in life, when she was given her first camera at the age of 32. After she and her husband moved to Portland in the early 1990s, she immersed herself in an intensive study program by taking a variety of photography classes at Portland State University, Pacific Northwest College of Art and Oregon College of Art and Craft, studying with some of the finest photography instructors in the city.  Heidi soon found herself spending 30 hours a week in the darkroom, learning to process and print b&w film, and eventually working as a darkroom lab tech and teaching assistant for several of her instructors. Soon enough the gifted student became the master, and Heidi took on the position of photography instructor at the Northwest Academy, where she would teach b&w darkroom practices to high school students for over a decade. Throughout her photography career, Heidi’s work has explored the female form, the family and contemporary issues of being a woman. Her art involves combining film positives with various found objects to create unique photo-based pieces that examine themes of family, history, love and loss. She is particularly well-known for the cyanotypes she creates in her backyard studio during the summer months, working with vintage fabrics, personal possessions and specimens from her garden. Heidi’s work has been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions, and her artwork is held in many private and public collections around the country.  She has received numerous awards, including the Photolucida Critical Mass Top 50 for several years running, and the LensCulture Emerging Talent Award Top 50 in 2014.

Heidi Kirkpatrick, “Storyteller”

How has the pandemic affected your work?

Kirkpatrick: Honestly, I haven’t made any new photographs during the last three months. I have created work, but it has been with imagery, both silver and cyanotype, I had made previously. Most days I find it challenging to work, which is quite different from my normal prolific way of creating. I think “paralyzing” is a good descriptor for the pandemic.

How do you motivate yourself to be creative these days?

Kirkpatrick: I am trying to be gentle with myself and not apply too much pressure to produce a certain amount of work in any given time frame. I work when the mood strikes me, and I find myself doing more cooking, gardening and sewing these days.

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

Kirkpatrick: I find the whole thing terrifying. I have experienced great fatigue from worry about the planet, my country, my city and my family. How it has affected the way I see my work still remains to be seen. 

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

Kirkpatrick: While in the midst of the pandemic I have experienced brain fog, major fatigue and the feeling of being disconnected. It takes me an immense amount of time to do anything. The smallest tasks are overwhelming. I feel very far away from my family, so the first trip I am taking is to see my mother in Ohio.

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

Kirkpatrick: My most recent pre-pandemic work is titled “Family Service,” which addresses the themes of love and loss. In this work I created unique ceramic pieces on vintage plates and platters using family imagery of those who came before me.  These days I am working on creating cyanotype face masks.  This is a new aspect of my “Garments of Light” series of cyanotype articles of clothing.  Having something new to focus on and figure out has been a gift.  The hand stitching is calming because it is slow, meticulous and methodical.

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

Kirkpatrick: Here is what I have been saying again and again:  “We will see.”

Heidi Kirkpatrick, “Snake in the Grass”

See more of Heidi Kirkpatrick’s work at her website:  www.heidikirkpatrick.com  


ANGEL O’BRIEN


Angel O’Brien, “My Shoes Worn Thin”

Angel O’Brien began her explorations into photography when she was still in high school. Her first camera was a Cambo 5×7. Her high school didn’t offer a photography class, so she figured out on her own how to develop and print film based on the directions for the Kodak chemicals she was using. She has now been making images for well over two decades, shooting with a variety of film cameras, including 35mm, large format, twin-lens reflex, and pinhole. In the last few years she has been concentrating on making intricately layered collages and montages, usually incorporating self-portraiture into her compositions. Much of her collage work also integrates images from trips she has taken, sometimes blending fragments of paintings, sculptures and other artwork into her pieces, as well as images of handwriting from artists and writers she has come across during her travels.  She prints all of her images using alternative process methods, such as platinum-palladium, gum-bichromate, cyanotype, silver-gelatin and even a bit of salt printing.  Angel’s work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in a variety of venues, and she has won many awards for her photography.  Her solo show The Distance of Forgetting will be on exhibit at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery in October.  

Angel O’Brien, “450F at 4:30 am”

How has the pandemic affected your work?

O’Brien: I was sick with the virus for most of February/March, quarantining myself for weeks after I felt better. I’ve only shot about half a roll of film in the last 4 months, but I’ve got about a hundred rolls of film I still need to develop from the last 5 years, so I’ve got plenty of “new” images to work with even though it was all shot in January or before.

How has the pandemic changed the way you work?

O’Brien: Since self-portraiture allows me to work entirely alone, in some ways nothing has changed. Now that my 9-year-old daughter is often home with me instead of at school, the quiet solitude that I am used to is interrupted by requests for lunch, help with school work or another game of Scrabble. Mostly I am finding the time and mental space to be creative after my daughter is asleep, but sometimes she likes to work with me and we draw, paint or even work on making images together.

How do you motivate yourself to be creative these days?

O’Brien: Motivation is such a finicky companion. Sometimes it wakes me early in the morning with an idea that I just can’t let go of.  It’s this magical thing that just happens. Mostly though it’s avoidance and distraction that actually gets me to create work lately. If I’m supposed to be working on one thing it makes working on a different project that much more appealing. I need to have lots of things going on, otherwise I find it’s just too easy to fall prey to the lure of the couch.

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

O’Brien: I have mostly folded myself into my shell in the last few months. Making art and being creative have always been non-negotiable for me, but there’s always been a bit of a devil on my shoulder telling me that I should be doing something “more important” with my time, contributing to the world in more practical ways. With the current state of the world, it has become a more consistent conversation.

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

O’Brien: I have become much more reflective and have slowed down while looking at things, at the world. I sometimes find myself drawn to getting my hands dirty in the garden. There are also the days that I don’t get out of bed until noon, and the days when all I do is sit on the couch and watch TV, eating things that far more often fall into the junk-food category than the healthy-food category. My dishes pile up. Some days, I just don’t have the emotional or physical energy to deal with anything. I’m not sure how much involves my recovery from being sick and how much is a result of malaise from the state of the world.

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

O’Brien: I’ve always avoided making any work that involves angels or anything that is religious, as it just feels too cliché for someone with my name. In the past few months though, I have serendipitously found myself spending a lot of time looking at Renaissance paintings of saints and also reading a lot poetry about religious figures. Pair this with my trip last year to Spain and its cathedrals, and I now find myself making images that are not dissimilar to iconography, some even with gilded halos. So far I’ve made a handful of these “saints” and I’m rather enjoying it. There is something much more contemplative for me in these new pieces. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me.

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

O’Brien: How can we all not be changed by this? The whole world has been upended, and any sense of stability has been erased. We don’t know when or if we will ever get back to anything resembling normal. The world is already in crisis because of climate change, the rising oceans and the catastrophe that is the refugee crisis, as if we needed anything else to worry about, or to weigh down our already emotionally burdened psyches. Now we are all having to deal with these innumerable humanitarian crises, but without hugs, without the closeness of friends and family.

Angel O’Brien, “That’s Amore!”

See more of Angel O’Brien’s work at her website: www.5x7angel.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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