Sometime during the late-summer wildfires I saw Patrick Smith’s photo for the first time. Taking time out on a September day from stuffing wet rags into the crevices of my apartment’s old casement windows (a last resort to keep the smoke out), on Facebook I came across Smith’s black and white shot of Hawthorne Boulevard in a suddenly recognizable haze, as if the horizon had disappeared. It was just like what I was seeing out my window.
Only this wasn’t a shot of the wildfire smoke that devastated Portland and the western United States in 2020. It was taken in May 1980, during one of numerous Mount St. Helens eruptions that filled the skies and ground with ash. I’d never before thought of how the volcanic eruption I lived through as an eight-year-old in McMinnville (where ashfall made the gutters fall off my parents’ house) was the closest comparison to a wildfire event so mammoth in scale that novelist Jon Raymond wrote, “we basically nuked the Cascades.”
But there was a lot more to this photo, and not just that it was taken a few blocks from where I’ve lived for the past 22 years. Without embellishment in Photoshop, it was gorgeously cinematic, dryly humorous, and exquisitely balanced.
In Smith’s vertically-framed shot, a couple is walking down Hawthorne Boulevard, the only visible sign of life on an otherwise empty street. Because of the ash-laden air, acting like a kind of dirty fog, the visibility extends only a couple blocks. It’s almost as if they’re walking into an abyss. Yet signs of everyday banality, or at least of keeping calm and carrying on, still abound. The couple is approaching a shop marquee advertising INCOME TAX PREPARATION, as if to heighten the sense of absurdity. And the man is gesturing with his left hand, suggesting they’re immersed in conversation. More subtly, the couple, though walking right next to each other, is bisected by a line in the sidewalk that transitions to the lines of a telephone pole and bisects the entire frame, and the space taken up by the sidewalk in relation to the streetscape going by follows the Golden Ratio almost exactly.
As the year draws to a close, I haven’t stopped thinking about this photograph, perhaps because it led me to others.
Once I paid attention to this Hawthorne Boulevard photo from 1980, it dawned on me that a flood of Smith’s black and white photos had been appearing in Facebook groups during the past few months, as lockdown set in. On group pages like Forgotten Oregon and Dead Memories Portland, a parade of black and white images portraying downtown and the Hawthorne district came in batches: street photography, portraits, theater scenes. I had no idea who Smith was, but he was clearly using the quarantine to upload a trove of historic Portland images.
In many pictures, a changing city was there to see. Take a shot from 1976, of an old building at Broadway and Yamhill being torn down to make way for the flagship Nordstrom department store that still overlooks Pioneer Courthouse Square today. Or a shot from 1985, when the Portlandia statue arrived at the waterfront by barge.
Much as I loved that Hawthorne Boulevard shot taken during the St. Helens eruption, Smith’s most compelling batch of shots were arguably impromptu, posed portraits. There were shots of coworkers at an office supply store, a customer service agent at the gas company. And scores of photos of street people: homeless individuals and those living in cheap SRO apartments. Forty-five years ago, this photographer had approached hundreds of people on the street and asked for a picture.
A Humble Pro When He Was Young
Finally I had to know: who was this Patrick F. Smith? Turns out he’s been a local photographer for 50 years, just not the kind of photographer used to having gallery shows: a guy who takes senior portraits and wedding photos and unglamorous product shots.
“With Covid, my photography business went away,” Smith explained recently by phone. “I had nothing to do, so I decided to get my stuff documented. I started going into more and more negatives and posting them. I’ve had these negatives around since I shot them. Some of them are even from high school. I got so much crap, I keep posting and posting.”
Smith is among the more self-deprecating photographers I’ve encountered. Though he’s only 63, temperamentally he reminds me a little of my grandmother, who filled scores of albums with amateur photography but who rejected even the slightest suggestion of artistic talent.
“I’m not a photojournalist. I’m certainly not an artist,” Smith says. A few minutes later, he reprises the disclaimer: “I don’t think I’d ever consider myself an art photographer.” As if to drive the idea home, he adds further in the conversation, “I’m not an artistic person so much as creative.
Perhaps it’s a professional photographer’s cynicism. “I know there are certain aspects of photography that people respond to. I consider it formula. I know I’m hitting those buttons,” he says. “I personally don’t have that much attachment to these photos that I post, especially old stuff. But people seem to respond. The interesting thing to me was when people liked some pictures I never paid much attention to. I post these pictures and sometimes I cringe: the dust spots, the blemishes. And there’s 250 likes.”
Born in 1957, Smith grew up in Northeast Portland’s Hollywood District, then in the 1960s his family moved further out, to Southeast 92nd Avenue and Burnside. In the late 1970s, Smith enrolled at Portland State University and rented half of a duplex in the Hawthorne district. While studying photography under longtime department head John Barna, an accomplished portraitist, Smith was both humbled and inspired. “I was young and energetic and I loved photography. I thought I was a real hotshot photographer. Then I learned how much I didn’t know about photography. There was so much I didn’t know.”
Yet Smith reminds me of the Woody Allen adage that 80 percent of success is just showing up. Simply by being present, on the streets of downtown or, say, at a Hawthorne Boulevard street fair featuring everyone from airborne gymnasts on a trampoline to Karl Marx advocates handing out fliers, Smith often got a memorable shot.
Some of his best work from the 1970s came when Smith took a job as a bicycle courier, making deliveries throughout downtown, Old Town, and the Northwest industrial area today known as the Pearl District. He took street photos along the way. In one such shot, two men—one in his Postal Service uniform—are playing horseshoes in the North Park Blocks. In another shot, taken in the earliest days of Portland Saturday Market, an elderly woman scowls at a street musician playing acoustic guitar.
The SRO Series
On his lunch break, Smith turned to more close-up posed portraiture. “I would get an hour for lunch and load up my camera, pocket full of quarters, and wander down to Old Town. I’d give a panhandler a quarter and ask if I could take their picture. Sometimes they might bargain for 50 cents.”
When I describe the subjects as homeless, Smith is quick to correct me. “These guys were not homeless,” he says. “They lived in Old Town in what we used to refer to as flophouses. They’d literally throw these guys out onto the street so they could clean them. They’d have to be out until like 3:00.” But he’s right. When I moved to Portland in 1997, I remember just such a place: the Saint Francis Hotel, one of many SRO (single-room-occupancy) residential hotels then scattered across the downtown core.
Regardless, some of these portraits are so compelling and heart-rending, they bring to mind the work of legendary street-portrait photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. I’m tempted in this regard to compare Patrick Smith to Vivian Maier, the photographer who worked anonymously as an amateur throughout her life only to see her oeuvre celebrated among the all-time greats. I can just hear Patrick cringing at such a comparison, and it’s not necessarily fair to either. Still, a few of the images he made are hard to forget.
One man portrayed in a vertical shot, turns his left to the camera with confidence, seemingly aware that he remains ruggedly handsome, despite the wrinkles and the five o’clock shadow. A trace of his paisley-patterned shirt indicates he’s still a bit of a dandy. Then I think of another shot—a man with long hair and beard like a more brunette version of Santa Claus, or perhaps some estranged member of rock band ZZ Top—thankfully minus the sunglasses. Facing the camera directly, he has a disarming openness, which makes the sadness or vulnerability visible in his eyes all the more compelling.
Taken From Behind
My favorite category of Patrick Smith photos are a blend of street photography and portraiture. He seemed over the years, in both his downtown and Hawthorne District photography, to enjoy photographing people from behind as they walked down the street. That’s the category the aforementioned Hawthorne Boulevard shot belongs to, but there’s enough of them to make it a pattern. There is usually one quasi-subject (or couple) that draws the eye. Yet they are relatively small figures within a larger frame, not close-ups. It gives the photographs a cinematic quality, turning the subjects into characters passing through the city.
In a shot taken on the Morrison Bridge, for example, the character is a one-legged man walking with crutches. A downtown shot taken from behind of a woman walking in the sunken plaza of the Standard Insurance Center projects both solitude and something threatening: a woman separated from the rhythm of the sidewalk, yet approaching a curving stairway that will presumably return her there. In a shot taken on Hawthorne looking east toward the Bagdad Theater, it’s a man walking with two clusters of balloons tied to string, one in each hand. Still another features a quartet of little girls, three of them holding hands.
In each case, it is portraiture juxtaposed with impersonality, or unknowability. They’re like establishing shots that don’t lead to close-ups, and in that way a nice complement to Smith’s impromptu posed portraits that invite wider second shots.
As it happened, the Hawthorne Boulevard photo taken after the St. Helens eruption was unique in that Smith also photographed the couple straight ahead as well. In a pair of shots taken before the couple passed him, the two are wearing masks because of the volcanic ash cloud.
At first, I was actually somewhat disappointed to see these accompanying shots, because they took from the mystery of the from-behind shot. The allure of the balloonist and the one-legged man had come in part from not even seeing their faces, and then imagining who they might be. Yet in witnessing this Hawthorne Boulevard couple from both directions, I could see their masks, re-emphasizing the 1980/2020 and Saint Helens/wildfires duality for me.
Of Test Tubes and Passing Time
This is not to say that Smith necessarily did all his best work in the 1970s and ‘80s, or only engaged in street photography. There’s a whole 1970s series, for example, behind the scenes at the long-gone Portland Civic Theater, for many years the city’s flagship theater company. And a batch of photos from the mid-1990s capture such events as a major flood and a rainy Waterfront Park concert.
And even today, Smith makes his living as a commercial photographer and family-photo archivist. On his website, a recent portrait series for hire of the Washington family is an endearing document of an increasingly diverse America. There are also countless product photos that indicate what it’s like to make one’s living in commercial photography: taking shots of compression socks and children’s scooters, test tubes and dietary-supplement capsules. These are very capably done pictures, and some of them have an odd beauty, objects removed from their mundane context and scrutinized under the spotlight.
Yet as for so many of us, there is something special about the pictures Smith took in his youth. He’s made peace with the fact that often the hundreds of Facebook likes he receives are not necessarily about artistic merit so much as the fact that his work acts like a time capsule. It doesn’t matter if the framing is perfect when you’re documenting a building that will soon disappear or people in clothes that will go out of style. Smith as a young photographer brought the most essential ingredient to photography after simply being there: a palpable sense of curiosity.
Especially since Smith would have still been a teenager in the 1970s, I think his photos from this period also remind me of my own days as a young enthusiastic amateur photographer. In my senior year of high school, I took a photography class that really set in motion the shutterbug inside me. I also set out on foot downtown in my hometown, McMinnville, hoping to make good pictures. My style was different from Smith’s: I instinctively waited for people to move out of the frame before I photographed a building or street scene. Yet the youthful curiosity feels similar.
In taking so many pictures of his world in the 1970s and ’80s in particular, Smith was acting as a kind of social-media photographer decades before social media. The volume is part of the power of these photographs. It’s enough to immerse one in the black and white world of downtown and Southeast in the time of Nixon and Reagan, bell bottoms and Rubik’s cubes, when various high-quality individual historic shots become forgotten. Especially given how close-in Portland has lost much of its grit in recent decades, Facebook users tend to look at these pictures with nostalgia.
When the trove is this large, though, it becomes not simply disposable social-media gratification but something deeper and more meaningful. Even if Smith isn’t Vivian Maier (who is?), these photos—of panhandlers and postal workers, pedestrians and performers—are a kind of imperfect epic of a time and place. And as Smith has learned as a commercial photographer, often it’s the imperfections that can make an otherwise well-composed shot into a work of art.
This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.