Oregon Cultural Trust

Terry Toedtemeier’s many forms

Blake Andrews interviews Prudence Roberts about the photographer and curator's work, approach, and legacy. Toedtemeier's photographs are featured in shows at JSMA in Eugene and PDX Contemporary Art in Portland.

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Terry Toedtemeier (1947-2008) was an Oregon-based photographer and curator. His work is the subject of two shows this spring: Terry Toedtemeier: Photographer at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon (open through August 11th) and Arches (and apertures) at PDX Contemporary Art in Portland (open through June 1st).

Prudence Roberts is a curator, writer, and art historian based in Portland, Oregon. She and Toedtemeier met while working at the Portland Art Museum and married in 1995. Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene. This conversation was conducted via text-chat on May 23rd, and then edited for clarity.


Blake Andrews: I got a chance to see the PDX Contemporary Art show a few days ago, and also the current JSMA show, and its panel discussion. I think I have a good sense of Terry’s photos. But I’m hoping you can help me get a feel for him as a person. 

Prudence Roberts: I would be happy to try—I do not know a lot about his Blue Sky years and earlier, as he pretty much lived in the present and we didn’t talk too much about the past. For example, I had never really seen any of his infrared photos until after he died.

Photograph of Terry Toedtemeier by Craig Hickman, c. 1977

Do you remember how you met? What were your first impressions?

We met at the Portland Art Museum when he was giving a talk. Actually, we didn’t meet then. I just was fascinated by his humor and his brilliance. We formally met when I joined the museum staff as a curatorial assistant and was also working in the education department.

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Do you think his humor comes through in his photographs?

Yes—maybe not so much in the ones in these particular shows. But his humor was often based in a sense of amazement about the world, so I think for instance the aerial one that is hard to read—is that a shadow or is it a solid form—has a bit of his humor, if that makes sense. 

The one at JSMA? I know the photo you’re referring to. It doesn’t strike me as humorous. What am I missing?

Just the deliberate playing around with positive and negatives, teasing the viewer’s eyes. And there are others that are more overtly funny, like a duck decoy attached to a power line in a bird viewing sanctuary, and of course a lot of his infrared images—the kitten for example and Chris and the bubbles.

black-and-white photograph of a bearded man with his hands clasped in front of him
Terry Toedtemeier, Chris and the Bubbles, 1976. Gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum

Yes, maybe witty is a better word than humorous? Humor can mean a lot of things. There are some other aerial photos in the Tacoma catalog, and I love that series. But they don’t seem humorous to me. But they are amazingly keen observations, great formal vision. Was he a pilot?

He was not a pilot (formally) but he often took the controls of his friend’s plane.

How do you just “take the controls” of an airplane?

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Oh, he landed his friend Herb’s plane a couple times at remote desert landing strips.

That’s adventurous! You mentioned the infrared images which to me have more overt zaniness to them. At the JSMA panel discussion, John Weber (JSMA Executive Director) described that series as almost coming from a different creator than his later basalt photos. They are like two separate bodies of work, joined somehow by one maker.

I think John put it well, and really explained Terry’s growing interest in the history of photography as he began to teach it at PNCA, and as his own collection of photos grew. Back then in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the photo world—both of photographers and collectors—was much smaller and the stakes weren’t as high. So you could pick up great material and not spend a lot, and collectors bought and sold among themselves, depending on their finances. Terry was part of that network and trained his eye, I think, from looking at a whole lot of photos. He was still collecting when I knew him, selling things he was no longer interested in (a large group of snapshots, for instance). So his tastes and interests were changing. I think people like Robert Adams and the New Topographics show were also important for him.

Maybe the evolution in his taste was the natural evolution that most human psyches go through, from the silliness of adolescence toward wiser judgments? 

I’m not sure I’d put it that way, exactly. Because before the infrared, there were landscape photos and he never lost the interest in geology that he’d discovered as a little kid (six or so) in the creek near his house.

Terry Toedtemeier, Radial Fractures, Basalt, Mollala River, Clackamas County, Oregon, 2002, gelatin silver print.

Did you accompany him on most of his later photo trips?

Yes, I did. Not to the coast because I found that too frightening—to scramble over boulders at the minus tides which always seemed to happen right at dawn.

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Can you describe some of his working process from a nuts and bolts angle. Did he generally know when he’d hit a good photo spot? Did he spend a long time at a certain site? Did he find most places on foot? Or by car?

Terry had a huge collection of topo maps that he’d photocopy at the Oregon Historical Society and at DOGAMI (Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries), whose publication he wrote for from time to time. So he would really study those maps and other geologic papers and pick some sites that seemed likely. We had two coolers—one for film and one for food. He had a small spice box as he liked to cook Indian food. Ice, a couple extra gas cans, and lots of water. We took the Montero to most of SE Oregon, to Nevada, to Idaho, where there are more interesting geologic features. And yes, he usually knew when he’d found a good spot. But some were surprises and of course as you know, a lot depended on light conditions and on wind. We took the car off road, then hiked. Some places took nearly a day of 4-wheeling to reach.

Could you tell from watching him work when he’d found a good potential photo? 

I think I could tell by his level of concentration. I would often look through the viewfinder, but I couldn’t previsualize the print, as it were. I don’t have that training. But I certainly knew when he was really excited about the geology and the composition. 

What about the photo with you standing in the geologic pothole in Idaho? Did you have any sense at the time how that photo would turn out, or if it would be a success, just from his behavior? I got a close look at it at PDX gallery. You are wearing rain gear, and dripping wet it looks like.

Terry Toedtemeier, Pothole Erosion – Big Wood River in Lincoln County, Idaho, 1995. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum

Yes, the big pothole photo was on our honeymoon in Idaho, where it it rained or snowed every day for two weeks. (We were camping, of course.) Terry had wanted to see the Big Wood River and some other exciting sites and he also wanted to drive a legendary 4-wheel stretch called the Arco to Minidoka Road. Not as thrilling as he’d hoped.

Those trips sound rough from a raw comfort level. Did you enjoy them?

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I’ve never had more fun or been happier in my life.

What activities were you doing while he made photos? Were you taking photos of him? Or assisting him? Or maybe off on your own? 

He never wanted help. I took some snapshots and just blissed out, studying plants, or birds, or rocks or looking for animals. I did take some hikes while he was at his camera, but not long ones. He had a habit of disappearing and we’d be miles away from anything or anybody. It was a little unsettling sometimes to be so solitary. I thought then—and still do—that I was lucky to learn so much about the land from someone who loved it so much.

At the JSMA panel discussion, you said he was in love with basalt. I realized after viewing the current shows and some of his books, that basalt is almost a perfect metaphor for Oregon. The state’s terrain is extremely varied, from coast to farmland to high desert to forest. Terry shot it all, and he found basalt forms everywhere. It became a unifying state symbol.

Yes—his overarching project was the basin and range—the lands shaped by the Missoula Floods. He only photographed out of state within that territory.

Did he ever shoot elsewhere outside the Pacific Northwest?

We went to Hawaii—to the Big Island–and he shot the lava fields there, both on the land and from a helicopter. He was not doing anything in the darkroom then (he stopped printing in 2004) and he was shooting a bit in color, so those images only exist in digital prints. And we went to the Inner Hebrides in Scotland once, so he could see that basalt. But conditions weren’t right and he never made any prints from that film.

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Those journeys make me curious where his path would have taken him next. In my mind, he’s closely associated with Oregon and with a specific regionality. I mean, he settled down just a few blocks from his childhood home. So I have this idealized view of him closely tied to one place. But perhaps he was beginning to explode that myth toward the end of his life…

I don’t think Terry would have become a world traveler—there was too much here. And he’d had a lot of road trip adventures in his youth, so really was happy to stay in Oregon. And his work at the museum, building the collection and doing exhibitions, was important to him as well. l think the idea of him as tied to Oregon is accurate and while he may have traveled more later in his life, it would have been to put the geology of Oregon into a bigger context.

Terry Toedtemeier, Arch Below the Rock of Ages Trail, 1986

You mentioned his work as a curator at PAM, and he had a great career there. At the JSMA panel discussion John Weber said he’d want to be remembered for his photography above his curation. Do you think that’s true? And do you think that will be his primary legacy?

Yes, I do. I think John also said that curators are rarely remembered, and I think that’s true too. That being said, Wild Beauty was a huge project and he basically devoted the last year-and-a-half of his life to that, at the expense of making photos.

I agree with John’s assessment. Curators are rarely remembered. But that probably goes for artists too. Very few are remembered, although maybe the odds are slightly better than for curators?

Definitely better.

Do you have a favorite photo in the JSMA show?

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The Arch Below The Rock of Ages Trail is one of my all-time favorites. It’s a beautiful geologic site and the image also has such atmosphere and mystery and space.

I love the that photo. I’ve actually poked around in that area. Back in my rock climbing days (the ‘90s) a friend and I tried to climb St. Peter’s Dome (visible through the arch in the photo). It was mossy and uninviting and we got nowhere! That was before my wiser judgments kicked in, haha.

It’s a hard site to get to, for sure. I don’t think I could do it anymore but I’m glad I got to see it. (That photo was made before we met, by the way. But Terry took me back there twice.)

Is there anything else about Terry that you’d like to share?

black-and-white photograph of water with an x created by cross current ripples
Terry Toedtemeier, Untitled (Seascape), 1976. Gelatin silver print.

John mentioned how hard he worked—that’s important. I once wrote of his passionate generosity—perhaps the story of the soliton image (above) best illustrates that. It was used as an illustration in numerous math and physics publications and he never wanted money from its reproduction—just to let others use it for their own work. As I mentioned in an essay, his only “payment” was in the form of a copy of the book or paper. He built up a nice little library of esoteric literature that way.

An equitable outcome for a visually equitable image.

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Terry Toedtemeier: Photographer is on view at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon through August 11, 2024. The museum is at 1430 Johnson Lane and is open Wednesdays from 11 am – 8 pm and Thursday through Sunday from 11 am – 5 pm. 

Terry Toedtemeier: Arches (and apertures) is on view at PDX Contemporary Art through June 1, 2024. The gallery is located at 1881 NW Vaughn in Portland and open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am -6 pm. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, where he lives with his wife and teen sons near Spencer Butte. In addition to his own blog, B, an irreverent view of the photo world which he has maintained since 2007, he is a regular book reviewer for Collector Daily and PhotoEye, and the photography critic for Eugene Weekly. As a photographer he has been consistently engaged in one project or another since 1993, including Portland Grid Project, Eugene Grid Project, UP Photographers, and numerous shows internationally. But mostly he shoots for himself. He received a B.A. in Environmental Studies from Brown University in 1992, a discipline which comes in handy behind a camera.

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