Imagined narratives for past lives

Rich Bergeman has been photographing abandoned settlements in Oregon and Washington for 30 years. What has he learned?

Rich Bergeman is a photographer, journalist, curator, and teacher based in Corvallis. His current show The Vanishing West features pictures of early settlements in eastern Oregon and Washington, photographed over a 30-year period. I recently asked Bergeman about relics, process, and the dangers of cliche.

BA: What attracts you to old relics as subject matter?

RB: I get this question a lot, so you’d think I’d have developed a clear pat answer by now. But no, I’m still unsure about the why part — could be a childhood hell bent on getting out of a dysfunctional family, so maybe now I’m overly curious about how others may have lived their lives? 

Rich Bergeman. Goodnoe Hills, Washington. Image courtesy of the artist.

But it could be more simple (see question #2). Anyway, ruins have been an attraction for me since the first years of picking up a 4×5 in the 1980s, that and cemeteries — I think it was for two reasons: First, those two venues allowed me to work uninterrupted, as no one else was around; and secondly, those two venues gave me a disquieting, unsettling feeling that seemed to translate into more visceral and emotionally charged images. Over time, as I recognized what was going on, I consciously sought out more significant ruins, like the Anasazi ruins in the Southwest, and even dragged my 4×5 to Europe in the ‘90s to shoot Roman ruins in Croatia and Cromwell-destroyed abbeys in Ireland. While I was fascinated with these places, I think now that the images were more sterile, more consciously composed than the earlier work, and thus less emotionally infused.

BA: In an interview with Paul Carter you said “Abandoned buildings are the ‘crack cocaine of photography’.” Can you expound on that thought?

RB: Actually, what I said was “Abandoned buildings were the crack-cocaine of b+w photographers”. Wouldn’t you agree? Seems b+w photogs can’t pass by a dilapidated building without stopping to see if there’s a picture there. Maybe ruins look especially good in b+w, though I see color photogs doing similar things. Basically, I guess I’m saying that abandoned buildings are a cliche of b+w photography …. and I don’t take credit for inventing that phrase. I heard or read it somewhere long ago, and have used it in talks ever since because it never fails to raise a chuckle from the audience.

BA: As you say, abandoned buildings can veer into cliche as subject matter. Do you find this possibility intimidating? How do you avoid cliche in your photographic approach?

RB: Not sure how I avoid cliche, or if I do — maybe I don’t, but all I can do is follow my instincts, and they unfailingly lead me to these evidences or memorials of past lives. You know the old saying— “if you think about what you’re going to photograph ahead of time, you’re done for”— i.e., just follow your gut, a classic example being what I described in my answer to question #1.

BA: I believe in following your gut. But surely you must have wondered why your instinct pulls you in certain directions. The comparison to crack seems to infer that it’s out of your control. Why abandoned buildings? 

Rich Bergeman. Shirk Ranch, Guano Valley, Oregon. Image courtesy of the artist.

RB: Well, look, it’s not like that’s all I photograph. The Vanishing West show has several images without a falling down building. And it’s not about the buildings anyway. It’s about the feeling of loss and melancholy. It’s about a suggested narrative of past lives, curiosity about time gone by — ruins, cemeteries, abandoned buildings and the like are just stand-ins for that feeling.  In my early years I was instinctively drawn to such things, but in the past decade or more I’ve more consciously pursued projects about episodes in the history of the Northwest, and of course, the remnants left from those times are often relics of man-made things, like homesteads, etc. 

BA: What are the ethical issues of entering old abandoned buildings?

RB: I guess not having permission is part of the thrill — but I have to admit I don’t enter deserted buildings much anymore (most recent exception being the answer to the next question, which was some years ago). My first exploration of deserted interiors (in the late ‘80s) was to shoot the empty upstairs rooms of old historic hotels in Albany, Baker City, Lebanon, etc — and I asked permission from the shops on the ground floor to get access. Nowadays they probably wouldn’t allow it, but back then I almost always got a positive response, even though the upstairs rooms (former offices or apartments) could be pretty decrepit.

Rich Bergeman, Attic no. 2, Frenchglen, Oregon. Image courtesy of the artist.

BA: My favorite photo in the show is Attic no. 2, Frenchglen, Oregon. What can you tell me about that picture? 

RB: I forget the exact year I shot that, but it was maybe 10 years ago. This was in an empty building next door to the Frenchglen Hotel out in eastern Oregon, where I was staying with some photog friends from Corvallis on a three or four day shooting trip to the Steens and environs. We had just returned from an outing and I was waiting for dinner to start so I wandered out with my 5×7, shot the web-covered French door to that building and realized it was open, so I stepped inside (with only minor ethical hesitations) and poked around — I saw stairs leading up so I went up and poked my head through at the top and saw this low attic, with interestingly dark scenes both to the right and to the left of the stairs. So I stayed on the stairs, set up my tripod without extending the legs and shot a 5×7 neg to the right, where I thought the most eerie image was (no window on that side), then switched sides and shot the one you saw at White Lotus, the one with the window and hangers. After one exposure I heard the call for dinner, and scrambled down. Over time the image with the window became my favorite of the two, though it took a while to grow on me. I think at the time I was such a purist to the Zone System that I couldn’t accept the blank white in the window, with no detail …. but I got over being a purist.

Rick Bergeman. Self Portrait. Image courtesy of the artist.

BA: What is your shooting process? 

RB: I explore mostly by car — as SW photographer Jay Dusard is famous for saying, “If you can’t drive to it, it’s not a photograph”.  It’s kind of a joke among large-format photographers, especially older ones not given to long hikes with heavy equipment anymore.

BA: Do you dedicate specific trips to photography? 

RB: For the past decade or more, my shooting process has been to focus on a specific project for a year or two, create a body of work, then move on to another project. These have been history related projects, like the lost homesteads of the Fort Rock valley, landscapes of the Rogue River Indian wars, early settlements in the Oregon Coast Range, Baker County historical sites—stuff like that. You can see the range of them by searching my name on blurb, where I have created books each time I’ve finished a project. My m.o. for doing the projects is to research a lesser known episode in Northwest history, then go looking for remnants of that past that I can turn into interesting photos that help tell the story of what happened. I do the projects on my own, staying at an artist residency in the area or just moteling it over several visits till I feel I’ve got enough work to do an exhibit and show. 

Rich Bergeman. Family Roundup, Summer Lake, Oregon. Image courtesy of the artist.

BA: Do you consider your role to be a documentarian?

RB: Actually, I purposely avoid trying to be a documentarian or to describe my work that way — maybe it’s splitting hairs, but what I’m trying to do is make art out of history, if that makes sense. Pursuing these historically related projects is kind of an excuse to go exploring in new territory, and what I look for are images that are expressive, rather than simply descriptive. I’m looking for pictures that please me and at the same time fit the historical narrative. As documentary records, my projects are admittedly incomplete — no images of people affected by the history in question, or descended from it, or who can add to the story, for instance, no bland pics whose only reason for existence is to illustrate  (such as a picture of an historical marker in front of a bush, for example). 

Rich Bergeman. Abandoned Church, Grass Valley, Oregon. Image courtesy of the artist.

The Vanishing West show is more broad — it contains images from two or three of these historical projects, plus many stand alone images I found along the way, or on trips out east with friends. Actually, I’d been chasing ghost towns in eastern Oregon for years before starting on the history projects (since the ‘90s), and I still do like to get out there with a couple of fellow photogs to explore different corners of the east side of the state—and eastern Washington too. We pick places based on whether we’ve been there before, though we do revisit favorite locations a lot, like Frenchglen in particular, and Summer Lake — we’ve been to just about every corner of Oregon, but only a couple of corners of Washington. We’re laying plans now to get back east this fall, while at the same time I’m working on a history project involving Kalapuya landscapes here in the valley.

BA: Is it difficult to isolate older relics, showing no signs of modernity?

RB: Sometimes it is, though isolation is easier in the High Desert than it is here in the valley. I definitely make an effort to eschew evidence of modernity, but live with them if I have to. 


The Vanishing West can be seen at White Lotus Gallery in Eugene through June 12, 2021. 767 Willamette Street, Open Tues-Sat, 10 am – 4 pm

About the author

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, where he lives with his wife and teen sons near Spencer Butte. In addition to his own blog, B, an irreverent view of the photo world which he has maintained since 2007, he is a regular book reviewer for Collector Daily and PhotoEye, and the photography critic for Eugene Weekly. As a photographer he has been consistently engaged in one project or another since 1993, including Portland Grid Project, Eugene Grid Project, UP Photographers, and numerous shows internationally. But mostly he shoots for himself. He received a B.A. in Environmental Studies from Brown University in 1992, a discipline which comes in handy behind a camera.

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