The debate about whether photography is art had been raging for well over a half-a-century when Bill Rhoades was a boy taking pictures with a point-and-shoot Kodak camera his aunt gave him and reading Time Life books about photography.
For Rhoades, it was never really a question.
“From very early on,” he said, “I thought cameras played in capable hands guided by a keen vision would produce results worthy of consideration as a work of fine art.”
Rhoades has taken thousands of pictures in his life. The earliest were shot on the Kodak and also on a Nikon he bought for $400 from Meier & Frank in Portland, where his mother worked. Many more were shot during his 15-year career at the Madras Pioneer newspaper in Jefferson County. (After leaving the paper in 1995, Rhoades worked another 18 years for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs before retiring.)
While he says he is a “decent photographer,” Rhoades doesn’t consider himself an artist. But he does collect art, and since the late 1990s, he has been on a mission to promote Northwest art created from 1930 to the present, a mission that’s been made easier by the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.
“Since the museum opened, he has donated close to 1,000 objects,” said Jonathan Bucci, the museum’s curator of collections and exhibitions. In recent years, Rhoades has focused almost exclusively on Pacific Northwest photography, so it seemed to Bucci that the time was ripe for an exhibition that took advantage of that abundance of materials.
The 38 images in Depth of Field: Selections from the Bill Rhoades Collection of Northwest Photography fill two of the museum’s smaller spaces: The Study Gallery on the ground floor and the Print Study Center upstairs. The exhibition runs through April 23, and on March 10, Bucci will moderate a live Zoom discussion with Rhoades, art historian Prudence Roberts, and two photographers whose work appears in the show, Stu Levy and Craig Hickman.
Roger Hull, Willamette University art professor emeritus, underscores the show’s significance by noting that photography (as opposed to other media) continues to be “underrepresented in regional collections.”
“I think it has to do with the general status of photography relative to other art media,” Hull told me. “There may be a lingering, perhaps unacknowledged, bias against the ‘mechanical’ nature of photography and issues of authenticity. Is a given print ‘original,’ and if not, does it matter? These issues have been addressed within the photo community for over a century, beginning at least with Alfred Stieglitz‘s impassioned defense of photography as a fine art, but doubts may linger.”
Depth of Field is a powerful response to any doubts. The exhibition is an enjoyable miscellany of sensual black-and-white images that capture beauty not only in Pacific Northwest geography, but also in people and architecture.
And, with its reach back to New Deal photography, it’s also something of a snapshot of the evolution of photography as an art form as practiced by some of Oregon’s most famous photographers. Spend some time with the notes, and you can also trace the arc of a movement: from New Deal photographs in the 1930s, through the Advanced Interim Workshop led by Minor White during Oregon’s Centennial in 1959, to the establishment of Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery in the mid-70s and the Portland Photographic Workshop in 1982.
For example, the gelatin silver print Bridal Veil Creek, clearly a time-lapse shot, was taken by Stu Levy, who worked for a time as an assistant to Ansel Adams in California. Hull relates the story of Levy driving back to Oregon with a friend, Stewart Harvey, determined “to keep this energy going.” They went on to organize the Portland Photographic Workshop, which brought workshops to the Oregon Coast.
The show’s striking signature shot, found on the program cover and used to illustrate the exhibition on the Hallie Ford website, is by Terry Toedtemeier, one of the founders of Blue Sky Gallery. Lost Boy Cave, a 22-year-old gelatin silver print, is an astonishing image shot from a coastal cave’s interior, with the rocky ceiling and walls and the uneven sandy floor, pockmarked by tidepools, illuminated by a hazy light.
The fact that Rhoades was able to chase down gems like these is a testament to the power of simply daring to ask artists if they’d be willing to part with a piece in trade for something else. “I wanted to prove that you can build a serious collection without a fortune,” he writes in the program notes. “I decided early on for a collecting model different from elite, wealthy collectors. So I had to be an opportunist.”
Rhoades’ well-intentioned “opportunism” has enabled him to donate pieces to the Hallie Ford every year for the past quarter-century, and not just photographs; his gifts include paintings, sculpture, and basketry. He also helped establish the Pacific Northwest Photographers Archive at the University of Washington.
“I have a lot of artist friends in the Willamette Valley and quite a few in northern Washington,” he said. “So the past 40-plus years, we made lots of trips over the mountain to visit friends, museums, and the local junk shops in search of treasure.”
Hallie Ford Museum of Art is on the Willamette University campus, 700 State St., Salem. Hours: noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Last entry of the day is 4 p.m. Timed entry reservations may be made through the website, which also has information about COVID protocols; the museum requires masks and proof of vaccination.