I don’t know about you but my nerves are shot. As the coronavirus pandemic enters its third year, this thing has put everyone’s psyche through the wringer, testing our patience as well as basic assumptions of self interest, altruism, and interpersonal relations. If you’ve felt your faith in humanity begin to flag recently, it’s understandable. But there is a tonic available, at least for the next few weeks. The current exhibition Beauty That Thrives Under The Ravages Of Time collects portraits and homes shot by the late Portland photographer Ward Shortridge. It fills both gallery spaces at Blue Sky Gallery through the month of February. It’s the first major show of his career, serving as a memorial tribute, retrospective, and celebration of human spirit all intertwined. This is one of the most life affirming photo shows I’ve seen in a while.
Some brief background on Ward Shortridge: He was born in 1960 and grew up in the DC area. At age 6 he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a disease which affected his outlook and experiences throughout his life, becoming progressively worse and manifesting in countless ways, including through the photographs on display. Shortridge’s parents divorced when he was young, and he endured a troubled upbringing including bullying, alienation, and the death of his sister as a teenager, all in addition to typical adolescent angst. His general outlook took a dark turn during his twenties, as Shortridge gradually came to grips with his disease and life’s cruel absurdities. He battled depression, drugs, and poor health.
His path might easily have spiraled downward from there. But somewhere in this period he rebounded. Whether by intentional bootstrapping, fate, genes, or circumstance is hard to determine now. Who knows what makes anyone who they are? As Shortridge described his evolution later to Bobby Abrahamson, the exhibition’s curator, “Eventually I came to realize that there’s no good in comparing pain and loss. Everyone suffers. Once I accepted that, I felt my burden get so much lighter.” By all accounts, the person Ward became in the last half of his life was extraordinarily compassionate and engaging.
In 1987 he began to use a motorized wheelchair and hands-only van. Both aided his self-sufficiency. He earned a master’s degree in social work a few years later. He fell in love and married. Soon afterward, he began to photograph, a hobby which grew into a central interest and creative outlet until his death in 2019.
The front room of Blue Sky is devoted to the early years of Shortridge’s photography. It contains roughly 25 framed portraits from the late 90s through early 2000s, shot in the Dupont Circle area of DC near his home at the time. They are essentially street portraits of strangers encountered in public—many around the neighborhood’s central fountain— but the word “stranger” might be a misnomer here. His subjects were anonymous to Shortridge initially, but he typically spent a while with each person, sometimes revisiting them over the course of months or years.
Somewhere in the process of conversation and gradual connection he would make portraits, shooting medium format film from a small tripod mounted to his motorized scooter. By all accounts, these pictures were an extension and a byproduct of his relationships, not the primary goal. They were the rough photographic equivalent of social work. “When practiced well,” he wrote, “there is a remarkable resonance between these two arts.”
Shortridge engaged with subjects from all backgrounds, but he had a special love for underdogs. The photographs on display hone in on outcasts, street denizens, and dissidents. As he later wrote (presaging the show title), he sought “the priceless beauty that we each embody and that surrounds us every day, beauty that is common to the lives we humans actually live, beauty that thrives under the ravages of time and experience.”
Shortridge might saddle up to an unkempt couple lazing with their gear in a park, a tanned gentleman wrestling a huge cigarette into his lips, a street preacher, or a bearded drifter. All are shown here, captured with a tender lens. It’s hard to know much more about them, or how they conversed or thought of this odd stranger with a motorized tripod. But it’s clear that Shortridge shared a deep connection with these people, if only for the split second of exposure, although likely for longer. As someone explained during a panel discussion at the exhibition on February 5th, he wanted his subjects to feel seen. And by all indications they did.
“I see you” is the great gift of portraiture. It’s no stretch to connect Shortridge’s generosity to the circumstances of his own life. His daily outings in a motorized scooter alternated between invisibility and unwanted spectacle. Kids sometimes stared at him. Others made a clumsy effort to divert their attention. As his wife Carla Danley recounted to the panel, he was cursed as both “invisible and hyper visible.”
In typical Shortridge fashion, he sometimes turned invisibility to his advantage. In populated situations where other street photographers might attract attention, he could move unnoticed on his wheelchair. If the observational powers of others sometimes wavered, Shortridge suffered no such barriers. “He could see right into people’s hearts,” declared someone at the panel. A coworker expressed amazement that he could somehow see others at long distance over the telephone. Fortunes, ugliness, scars, and health were all subsumed by his X-ray powers. “My goal is not to record the glaring beauty that turns every head,” he wrote, “but to pause long enough that the quiet beauty that waits almost invisibly everywhere one turns, the beauty of experience, sadness, kindness, will be revealed.”
The back room at Blue Sky should be of particular interest to locals. This space showcases Shortridge’s portraits from Portland, shot after he and Danley moved to the city in 2009 until 2014 when health issues forced a brief hiatus from photography. In rough terms this work is similar to the Dupont Circle series, covering a similar demographic, also in medium format monochrome. But this period is generally more intimate and cropped more tightly on faces. Shortridge had been shooting for several years by this point and knew what he wanted, and how to get it. Forget scenery, history, coupling, or place. He was after souls. Photographs are silent by nature, but this selection blankets with a ghostly hush, showing mouths pursed and eyes glimmering. In one photo, a close-up of a women’s gaze, the five-bladed aperture of Shortridge’s camera lens is reflected in the background. For a split second, the heavens opened wide.
Is it a stretch to feel mortality’s limits in these portraits? If it’s slightly ambiguous there, the weight of death is evident in the accompanying series. The last photos Shortridge worked on in 2018-19 was a series of house facades shot around Portland. His father had passed in 2009. His body was failing him. He sensed the reaper at the doorstep, and it was doorsteps he sought. As with people he was drawn especially to homes needing a little TLC. He avoided certain neighborhoods if they did not feel lived in long enough. To earn his attention a house might have to show paint chips or yard debris or wrought iron or unraked leaves.
Despite Portland’s current wave of rebuilding, the city still has many homes like this. Shortridge was in his element here. As noted by Danley in the panel discussion, his home photos were in the realm of ruin porn, a well worn photographic trope. But his version escaped cliche. They were dignified and studious. They offer a glimpse of Shortridge’s last tour, documenting his surroundings in an affirmation of existence, death, and exploration. In those final years the great wheel of life matched those on his scooter.
Tagging along on many of these late-life outings was Bobby Abrahamson. A friend and colleague, he brought Shortridge’s work initially to Blue Sky’s attention. He also curated the work on display, and printed much of it in his home darkroom. The prints are hung lower than normal, for wheelchair accessibility. Altogether it’s a monumental feat, and one supposes Shortridge would be happy with it. But who knows? He was ambivalent about exhibiting during his lifetime, focused more on giving prints than displaying them. Any such posthumous curation is a tricky business, fraught with aesthetic and archival questions. Just ask the editors of Mike Disfarmer, EJ Bellocq or Vivian Maier. Open questions remain, and that’s fine. But on the whole this exhibition is a triumph. It should hold interest for die-hard photographers, general public, local historians, and anyone else feeling ground down by the pandemic.
Ward Shortridge: Beauty That Thrives Under the Ravages of Time is at Blue Sky Gallery through February 26, 2022
www.blueskygallery.org, 122 NW 8th, Portland — Open Wednesday – Friday, 12:00-5:00 pm and Saturdays by appointment