Laura Kurtenbach

Women of Art ~ A Visual Life, 2

A profile of three of Portland’s most creative photographers. Part 2: Laura Kurtenbach.

This is Part Two of a three-part series profiling the visual lives of three exceptionally creative photographers based in Portland. Part One introduces the series and features Grace Weston. Part Three is devoted to Susan Bein. The following profile of Laura Kurtenbach comprises Part Two of the series.


Lured (from the series Femme Noir)

Laura Kurtenbach began her journey with fine art photography as a young girl growing up in Central Illinois, where she enjoyed an early exposure to the visual arts, gaining an understanding of both the creative and technical aspects of image-making. In school she grew to love the arts through drawing, painting, sculpture and photography, and by her senior year in high school she was well-acquainted with the dark room, spending countless hours processing photographic film and acquiring strong technical skills along the way.  After high school she attended Columbia College in Chicago, earning a BA in photography and fine art. She went on to do graduate work at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where she received her MFA in photography.

In her professional career, Laura worked for almost fifteen years for a major international publication as a photo technician and printer, finely honing her photography and post-processing skills on the job and in her free time. Her job allowed for much travel time, during which Laura photographed mostly documentary subjects. Later she began a new career in academia, teaching photography in a variety of educational institutions, including Northwestern Illinois University at Evanston, the Wright City College of Chicago, Columbia College in Chicago, and the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland. She is currently an adjunct professor of photography at the Academy of Art University and Portland State University. Laura now has over two decades of professional experience as a practitioner in the photography industry and an educator in fine art and documentary photography.


Women of Art ~ A Visual Life, 1

A profile of three of Portland’s most creative photographers, Part 1: Grace Weston

“The visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable,” the renowned American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange once said. “I have only touched it, just touched it.” As she chronicled some of the most consequential events of the twentieth century, Lange amassed an enormous body of work that places her squarely in the pantheon of the most influential photographers in history. In the final year of her life, she devoted her time to curating a retrospective exhibition of her work to be held at the Museum of Modern Art. Sadly, she died before the exhibition opened. Though it was the museum’s first retrospective solo exhibition of work by a female photographer, it is uncertain whether Lange considered it her crowning achievement. We can only hope that she appreciated her legacy and felt satisfied that she had lived a visual life to her fullest potential.

Like Dorothea Lange, many visual artists feel the enormity of the covenant they have undertaken to create their work. The burden they bear is to fill an essential need for creativity that presses them onward to the next project. For some artists the burden is a torment, but for the many lucky ones it brings pleasure and fulfillment. These happy warriors fight the good fight and make their art with a passion that nourishes their creative souls. To them the visual life is a blessing.

In Portland we are blessed with an embarrassment of riches. Our town is a veritable Mecca for visual artists who have moved from other locations to join a thriving community of fellow creatives and share in a life of art. Oregon ArtsWatch recently caught up with three visual artists from other regions who have relocated to Portland to create their work. Besides having made Portland their adoptive home, these three artists have other commonalities, including an early exposure to the arts as children, a lifetime spent creating art in many forms, and a personal commitment to achieving their highest creative potential. Still, each of these remarkable women has developed a distinctive style of artistic expression all her own.

Grace Weston, originally from New Jersey, is internationally recognized for a unique style of narrative photography for which she builds meticulously crafted miniature scenes that address a variety of human psychological themes.

Laura Kurtenbach, born and raised in Central Illinois, is an artist, photographer and educator whose work tackles important social issues, such as the depiction of women in the media and the human relationship with the natural environment.

Susan Bein, a California native, creates ethereal, often whimsical, photo-based art captured almost exclusively with her iPhone and transformed into wonderfully evocative images that stir the imagination of the viewer.

The following is the first in a three-part series profiling the visual lives of these exceptionally creative photographers. In this three-part series, we’ll concentrate on one of these artists each day, beginning with Weston.


House of Atlas (from the series Short Stories/Tall Tales)

Grace Weston cannot recall a time when art was not an integral part of her life. Growing up in New Jersey, she was the bright child of working-class parents who made a point of teaching their daughter an appreciation for the arts. As a youngster she often accompanied her father on visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, learning early on the importance of art in enriching our lives. In addition to the visual arts, Grace was exposed to music at a young age and learned to play violin and guitar, even trying her hand at the bagpipe chanter for a while after she attended the Scottish Games in New Jersey with her parents.

She started making her own photographs as a kid when she received a Polaroid Swinger, and later in high school she owned a Kodak Instamatic camera, which she used to document the escapades of her circle of artist friends. With a desire to pursue art after graduating high school, she enrolled in Mercer County College in New Jersey, which had a brand new campus with a sizable art department. In addition to the standard art classes, she took courses in black and white photography and film processing, and she later became a darkroom assistant in the excellent facilities provided on campus. In college she became serious about photography as a form of art, and she purchased her first consequential film camera, a Nikkormat 35mm single-lens reflex.

After college, she pursued other forms of art, including dance, singing and acting, but she eventually returned to photography. She studied studio lighting at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, and later became assistant to the studio photographer Mark Hooper when she moved to Portland in the late 1980s. It was then that Grace finally settled on studio photography as the mainstay of her work as an artist.


Tumbling statues, voices heard

ArtsWatch Weekly: A culture in crisis clashes over the past; a museum reopens; photos & films; singing amid the vines; a bookstore steps out

THE BIG NEWS IN PORTLAND THIS WEEK has been Sunday night’s downtown rumble through the cultural district, a highly focused and rigorously carried out protest – declared by its organizers to be an Indigenous People’s Day of Rage – in which activists toppled public statues of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, vandalized the Oregon Historical Society to the tune of an estimated $25,000 or more, did lesser damage outside the Portland Art Museum and at Portland State University, smashed store windows, and shot bullets inside an empty restaurant. Police declared the protest a riot, but took no action until after the damage was done. And the story was immediately picked up by President Donald Trump, who tweeted his desire to rush federal officers into the Portland fray. “Put these animals in jail, now,” he tweeted, referring to the protesters, and quickly followed up: “Law & Order! Portland, call in the Feds!”

David Manuel’s “The Promised Land” was controversial when it was installed in 1993 and is even more controversial now after months of racial and political unrest. It was removed for safekeeping from downtown Portland’s Chapman Square in July.

ArtsWatch’s Laurel Reed Pavic was working on a story about the issue of politically and mythologically charged public monuments and how to deal with them when cultural values and understandings of history shift. She quickly updated her analysis after Lincoln and Roosevelt – not the most obvious of targets, although each had specific issues about Indigenous rights – came tumbling down. The symbolic overthrow of monuments, she notes in her essay After the Statues Come Down, is nothing new: “Defacing or damaging public art has always gone hand-in-hand with putting it up in the first place. It happened in the city-states of ancient Mesopotamia and continues to happen today. The visual impact of a former leader face-down on the pavement hasn’t lessened over the past 5,000 years.”


Chasing the Light

Astoria's LightBox Photographic Gallery is a Bright Beacon in Dark Times

The great German portrait photographer August Sander wrote, “In photography there are no shadows that cannot be illuminated.” Best known for his documentary-style portraits of working class Germans in the early twentieth century, Sander practiced his craft during a dark and transformative period in world history, and he suffered great personal and professional adversity in his lifetime. He lost his son and his home to war, and tens of thousands of his photographic negatives were later destroyed by fire. Still, he persevered, and much of his art survives.

Perhaps the story of Sander can teach us something about resilience in our own dark time. The coronavirus pandemic has brought both personal and professional loss to many over the last several months, and across the world people have had to adapt quickly to the crisis in order to survive. Many businesses and organizations have also been affected, and art galleries have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. At a time when we may look to the arts to help us through difficult times, many galleries have been forced to shut their doors to the public. And with their closure we also lose a vital connection with our communities.

LightBox Photographic Gallery in Astoria has not escaped the hardships that art galleries have faced during the pandemic. A beloved institution among photographic artists and patrons of the arts, LightBox has grown into a premier gallery for photo-based art since its opening just over a decade ago. The gallery’s stellar reputation is a testament to the vision, commitment and professionalism of its owners, Michael and Chelsea Granger, as they have continued to build their photography center. Both acknowledge that they could not have fulfilled their dream without the support and devotion of the gallery’s members, many of whom have stood by them since the beginning. This is the story of how LightBox has grown, how it has withstood the pandemic, and what it has meant to many of its members over the years.

Logo, LightBox Photographic Gallery


LightBox Photographic Gallery opened in June 2009 with the first in a long succession of monthly exhibitions celebrating the work of photographic artists. Since its grand opening LightBox has become a Mecca for fine art photographers, particularly those who embrace the use of film, traditional photographic methods, and historical alternative printing techniques, but also for those who practice their craft using the finest in contemporary digital processes. With a guiding mission dedicated to the promotion of creative photography, the gallery has long been a venue for photographic artists to exhibit their work, share their vision, and inspire fellow photographers wishing to further develop their creative and technical skills. LightBox has served as a cherished community gathering place for photographers and patrons of the photographic arts, as well as a center for educating the public in current practices in fine art photography.

LightBox Photographic Gallery, Astoria