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‘The Portlanders’: A spirit of place

David McCarthy's book of photographs portrays a city gritting it out through tough times. Plus, a new book celebrating Portland photographers.


Cover image for the photography book “The Portlanders”: The action outside Kelly’s Olympian downtown. Photo: David McCarthy

The mood in The Portlanders, David McCarthy’s new book of 240-odd photographs of the city shot between 2015 and 2022, is gray and black and gritty, not a Portland for the travel brochures but a Portland of decay and dislocation and perpetual threat of rain. It’s a city with dirt beneath its fingernails: a place of hunched shoulders, false starts, bruised hopes, hardscrabble endurance, and occasional flashes of happiness.

And it is, surprisingly, a place of possibility. Photographed from the dawning of the Days of Trump through the worst of the Covid pandemic and the city’s continuing crisis of homelessness, the images nonetheless convey a sense of survival, toughness, adaptation. McCarthy’s photos, all in black and white and most dimly lighted, are reminiscent of the Portland of the 1970s and ’80s, before the influx of tech money and upcycled warehouses and gentrification of working-class neighborhoods — a street-savvy town where down was not necessarily out, and where anything might happen.

Temporary closure, with good advice. Photo: David McCarthy.
Staying positive in spite of everything. Photo: David McCarthy

That The Portlanders is as much a story of revival as of entropy and decay is suggested by its own story: It’s the first book to be published under the imprint of Northwest Review, the legendary literary journal that was started, in editor and publisher S. Tremaine Nelson’s words, “by writers and artists in the English Department of the University of Oregon in 1957. The first issue ever published included Ken Kesey’s debut short story The First Sunday in September. The journal went on to help launch the careers of Raymond Carver, Gary Snyder, Ursula K. Le Guin, Louise Erdrich, and George Saunders.”

In 2011 the university cut off funding for the journal, and it ceased publication. Nine years later it was reborn, this time not under the university’s purview but as an independent publication, publishing three issues a year. In November 2022 it published The Portlanders in a small edition that quickly sold out, and a second edition is rolling out.

Love and tents. Photo: David McCarthy
Getting by with a little help from their friends. Photo: David McCarthy

McCarthy, a third generation Oregonian, has deep history with his subject. “For my first 33 years I was a frequent visitor to Portland,” he writes, “and for the last 32 years I’ve been a full-time resident.” That longevity may help account for his willingness to look at his city unblinkingly, recognizing its troubles and their roots and yet not accepting them as an endgame. Cities, after all, go through cycles.

What he shows us in The Portlanders is the forgotten places, and the places striving not to be forgotten. There isn’t much here about the city’s street protests in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd — in one image, a woman is hunched over on a street corner, a “Black Lives Matter” sign tucked under her arm — but we see plenty of tents and trailers and makeshift shelters, and food carts and outdoor eating spaces and people wandering lonely on the streets. We see homes and other buildings in disrepair, and people lost and people getting by and people reinventing themselves and their surroundings. At times it almost seems we’re looking at images from the Great Depression.

Sometimes, you make the best of what you have. Photo: David McCarthy
… and sometimes, you just go with the flow. Photo: David McCarthy

The Portland that McCarthy presents is not the truth. It’s a truth — part of a complex and elusive larger picture, and a part that seems necessary to acknowledge if we’re also going to bask in images of sunsets over the city from Washington Park and cherry blossoms along the riverfront and the latest popular places to drink and dine. And I find hope and honesty and something intensely Northwestern in this vision that sees the dark side and does not blink.

“These pictures are intimate — and painful,” Nelson writes in his introduction. “They show a city learning how to survive, and a city refusing to die. These Portlanders are emblematic of the Kesey spirit that has long guided Northwest Review: never give up and ‘never give a inch.'”

Hail and farewell: Dining out and walking past at the Mediterranean restorant Shalom Y’All in inner Southeast Portland. Photo: David McCarthy


Cover of the photography book “Perspectives”; photo “Mystery & Illusion, NYC” by Randi Rosenfield.

For a different, well, perspective on Oregon photography, another new book, Perspectives: Selected Works by Members of the Portland Photographers’ Forum, is now available. It’s a small but richly illustrated book featuring 41 photographs from the exhibit of the same name that ran Nov. 12-Dec. 7, 2022, at LightBox Photographic Gallery in Astoria. It’s published on demand on Blurb by Portland photographer Pat Rose (whose several stories for ArtsWatch on photography you can see here); you can order a copy at the link above and also preview the works by hitting the “preview” button on the link.

The photos, by Forum members including Rose, Ray Bidegain, Jānis Miglavs, Randi Rosenfield, Patrick F. Smith and many more, are as varied as the photographers themselves. Some images are black and white, some are intensely colored; there are portraits and nature photos and cityscapes (including Nick Gattucio’s centerspread Hawthorne Bridge, Fog Lifting) and pictures literally from around the world, from Venice to iceberg seas to Bhutan. Rather than the strict focus of McCarthy’s The Portlanders, Perspectives offers pleasing variety and a sense of the high skills and active eyes of a cross-section of picture-takers from a town that takes photography seriously.

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


2 Responses

  1. Wow, Bob, what a wonderful surprise in today’s ArtsWatch newsletter, directing me to this article! Thank you so much for including a write-up on “Perspectives” in this terrific piece on Portland photography! You made my whole week, and my fellow members of the PPF will be thrilled too!

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