For Eugene old timers, photographer Paul Neevel needs no introduction. His “Happening People” column has been a local staple since 1989, appearing regularly in the local alt-newspaper Eugene Weekly. The simple format hasn’t changed much since the beginning. Neevel chooses a good samaritan to profile. He writes a short capsule biography of a few hundred words, accompanied by a recent portrait shot by Neevel. To date he’s covered over a thousand Lane County residents (past profiles are archived chronologically on his website). Taken as a whole they serve as a long-term biography of the region, and a running window into the lives of its unsung heroes.
After more than three decades focusing attention on others, it seems fitting that Neevel would take a turn himself in the spotlight. His current retrospective 60 Years of Photography at Springfield’s Emerald Art Center does just the trick. It features twenty-eight black and white photographs from 1962 to the present, plus an early portrait by his grandfather Ed Neevel capturing Paul as a sharply dressed 3-year old in 1943. The matted prints are arranged chronologically in the gallery from left to right, starting on the far north wall (visitors should enter by the back stairs to get situated at the beginning).
The challenge for any retrospective is to funnel a life’s work into a finite space. Choices must be made. Inevitably some materials are included and some left out. Entire decades might be left on the cutting room floor, depending on space and interest. In this case the curator’s ax fell on Neevel’s color work, which comprises the bulk of his recent photos including his Country Fair coverage, local events, and Western expeditions. Fortuitously a small sniff of these projects sneaks into the show anyway in monochrome. So there’s that. But the focus is monochrome, steered generally toward past decades. Although much of the work was shot originally on film, only two of the pieces are vintage darkroom prints. The rest are archival inkjet prints made from contemporary scans.
Let’s give Neevel the “Happening People” treatment in brief: Photography was in his bloodline from birth. His grandfather Ed Neevel ran a photo studio in Baldwin, Wisconsin for several decades of the early 1900s. Paul started making photos as a kid in Madison, printing them in his home darkroom. He later came to Eugene in 1970 to study journalism and art with Bernie Freemesser at the University of Oregon. A 1974 photo from Goldfield, Nevada shows Freemesser holding forth in an outdoor class setting, thumbing through a stack of photographs near three young students. It’s a great image which captures the zeitgeist of the freewheeling seventies, while pointing a finger to the future (Freemesser’s modernist aesthetic continues to cast a long shadow over the Eugene photo scene).
At this point the show’s timeline hits a prolonged gap while Neevel was consumed with family duties. He began to shoot portraits toward the end of this period, some of which were collected in a 1988 show at Eugene’s Jacobs Gallery. But it’s not until 1991 that the current retrospective picks up the trail again with an edenic portrait of mask maker Maureen Culligan crouching in a creek. The deep tonality of this vintage silver gelatin print easily outclasses the nearby inkjets. Better yet, Neevel (or a friend?) has overpainted a colorful angel in the upper corner, creating the show’s pièce de résistance. Unlike most others in the exhibition, this unique print is NFS (not for sale).
The Culligan print is followed by a series of portraits, many adapted from Neevel’s Happening People columns. Displayed here devoid of original texts, the weight of attention falls to the photographs, and they’re up to the task. Eugene muralist Kari Johnson is shown looking young and spry in 1996 with a hand-painted contraption called “The Revolutionary Oracle,” while bassist Edwin Coleman II lets his bow tie unwind during a 1997 set break. The strongest portrait might be the late Eugene artist Tom Blodgett, who glares back at Neevel’s camera with studied intensity. A sketch pad is open on his lap and he’s holding a pencil. Perhaps he was also making a portrait of the moment? This period is spiced in one more hand-colored gelatin print, an undated photo of Victoria Moses draped in stars and stripes. Understandably, given the handmade factor, this is the show’s other NFS work.
Landscapes bust up the portraiture party beginning in 2003 with a Yosemite study of tree and granite wall. Other natural scenes follow this one into the breach, sampling from the Grand Canyon, Utah, Santiam Pass, and other splendors, reaching a crescendo with the 2006 picture “Nested Stone” from the Rogue River. With a simple white oval hollowed into a dark mass, this picture recalls the glory days of post-war modernism popularized by Paul Capinigro, Brett Weston, and Eugene’s own Bernie Freemesser. The photo has a stylistic counterpart in one of the show’s first images, a 1971 picture called Puddle Ice. If Neevel has circled back to origins, that’s the octogenarian’s prerogative. Who says you can’t get photo blood from a river stone?
A sampling of recent work rounds out the show, including one photo from each of the past four years, a hint of Neevel’s continued productivity into his early 80s. The Kesey bus is here, along with a cat named Pipkin, a floral still life, cloud study, and an obligatory photo from Oregon Country Fair (Neevel has shot OCF every year since 1999). This final flurry hammers home the point that the exhibition has hinted at all along, of a photographer with wide-ranging interests and visual dexterity. He might shoot a friend one day, a garden fence the next one, and a street scene week later. The subjects shift depending on whim or opportunity, but Neevel’s still going strong. He’s had numerous exhibitions along the way, and there may be more to come. This 60-year retrospective offers a good chance to push pause and take in the career to date.
Paul Neevel Photographer: 60 Years is at Emerald Arts Center, 500 Main St. Springfield, OR, 97477, November 4 – 26, 2022. Opening Reception November 11th, 5-7 p.m. Walk-through Tour of the show with the artist and a pot-luck reception on Sunday, November 20th, 2:30 p.m.