The tidewaters of the Oregon Coast are scenic, rich with history, and accessible. In other words, the ideal subject for Corvallis photographer Rich Bergeman. But Bergeman soon realized the waters were far more than a pretty picture. His studies of the waters and their surroundings revealed surprising, sometimes unsettling, stories that led to a deeper understanding of coast history and changed his way of thinking about the people who inhabited it. The 25 images he shot beginning in 1994 and spanning 10 years, along with his vintage folding field camera and a book about the platinum prints, are on exhibit through Jan. 29 at the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center in Newport.
Were you always interested in the outdoors as a subject?
Bergeman: No. I was and continue to be interested primarily in evidence of times past. The first project I undertook in the ‘80s was photographing deserted interiors of hotels, trying to evoke a sense of what used to be here. I carry that out into the landscapes.
What sparked your interest in the coastal tidewaters?
When my friend’s mom passed, he told me she had this 8-by-10 folding field camera built between 1902 and 1915 and asked if I wanted it. I jumped at it … I wanted to learn how to use it. This project was to satisfy my interest in how things look. I always loved the look of the lower ends of the rivers, the small marinas, the half-sunken ship that hasn’t decayed all the way yet. When low tide comes along, a lot of things are exposed that are reminiscent of the past. What is appealing to me is looking backwards. I would drive Highway 20 and Highway 34 and just look for pictures that appealed to me along the Alsea and Yaquina bays. The light in the Coast Range is neat for large format. It’s not harsh sun, if it’s sunny at all. It’s soft. I started stopping at little museums: Florence, Newport, Garibaldi, Astoria. I started picking up books about the old times living along the rivers. I learned things I never knew.
What did you learn that surprised you?
One thing that surprised me was Coast Indian Reservation. For a time, beginning in 1855, the entire Central Coast — over one million acres from Cape Lookout to the Oregon Dunes, from ocean to the crest of the Coast Range — was a Congressionally designated Indian reservation, but it was gradually chipped away until all that remained was the small present-day tract at Siletz. The government formed it so they had a place to shove the Native Americans out of the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon. They marched every Rogue River Tribe member from Port Orford to Siletz. Their goal was to move all the Indians out. As far as Indian agents were concerned, it was a good idea for the Native Americans; the alternative was extermination.
There is a railroad trestle that cuts across Yaquina Bay. It appears to be the remnants of Thomas Hogg’s efforts to build a railroad in Yaquina City, a town he founded just upriver from Newport. He wanted to establish a shipping center. He called it the second San Francisco. In 1885, maybe five years after starting business, he went bankrupt. Bayocean was another one that that surprised me. I hadn’t heard of it until I started researching a book.
The photos are printed in the traditional platinum process, dating to the early years of photography in the late 19th century. What is it about the platinum process that makes it particularly apt for the subject?
A couple of things. One, it’s a soft-contrast, long-tonal-range medium. The beauty in a platinum print is in the depth of the print, not the brilliance or contrast. There are not real strong blacks or whites. It kind of pulls you in. The image seems to exist within the paper as opposed to on top of it. That’s an aesthetic reason. The other is more a philosophical reason. I was using equipment that was built right around the period I was referring to in my photographs.
How do you feel about the exhibit?
I feel pretty good about it. The project was very satisfying; it seems cohesive and whole. I have to say I was just learning the platinum process and I’ve gotten a helluva lot better. It made me realize I had a lot of wrong ideas about the settlement of Oregon. The settlers didn’t just come into an area that was unpopulated. They pushed out the people who were here. You realize it was inevitable, with the onrush of western migration, that Native Americans were going to be overrun. It’s just sickening, however, that it was not done in a more humane fashion without so much lying and treaty breaking. All those kinds of things about how the Native Americans were elbowed aside make you ashamed of your people’s past sometimes. It made me really sensitive about how to talk about Native Americans. They’re not gone. Their descendants are living at Grand Ronde, Siletz. That kind of awareness for me started with the research for the Tidewaters show.
What do you hope visitors will take away?
I hope they take away a better understanding of the history of the region. My photography has always been about place and the past of that place. I hope they’ll look at an image, read the information about it, and take away that appreciation for the history of the place they are in.