Patrick F. Smith

Patrick F. Smith: Recovering Old Portland

A trove of 1970s and ‘80s photographs floods social media, putting a worthy spotlight on a humble veteran photographer

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. 

Ashen skies along Southeast Hawthorne Blvd in Portland, 1980/Photo by Patrick F. Smith

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.