BY BRIAN LIBBY
Although Portland is enjoying a kind of moment these days as a cultural hotspot, attracting musicians and filmmakers and chefs, for much of the city's history there have been few famous names born and raised here. Matt Groening, anyone? Doc Severinsen? Tonya Harding?
Yet there are a few examples of great minds being nurtured by the city for a few years before moving on to greater notoriety. Mark Rothko attended high school locally, for example, after emigrating from the Soviet Union and before heading to New York City, where he would go on to become one of the top two or three American painters of the 20th century. Steve Jobs spent time attending Reed College, where he took a very influential calligraphy class, of all things, that impacted his thinking about computer fonts and other aesthetics. Clark Gable took up acting in Portland during the 1920s before heading to Hollywood and becoming a star.
The legendary American photographer Minor White, whose work is the subject of a new show opening March 1 at the Architectural Heritage Center, "Parting Shots: Minor White's Images of Portland, 1938-42," is another example. Born and raised in Minneapolis, he came to Portland at the age of 29 in 1937. His intent had been to move to Seattle, but after stopping off first in Portland, decided to stay. Living at the YMCA for a little over two years, he began to explore photography seriously for the first time. He soon joined the Oregon Camera Club and within a year was offered a job in 1938 as photographer for the Oregon Art Project, which was funded by the Works Progress Administration.
White was tasked by the OAP with photographing historic buildings in downtown Portland before they were demolished for a new riverfront development, which means that many of his photographs of the city are also documents of the historic architecture that would soon be lost. At the same time, White worked for the Portland Civic Theater, documenting its plays and casts. White would leave Portland by 1940, when he was hired to teach photography in La Grande. By the time he returned to the city a year later, intending to establish a commercial studio, three of his photographs had already been accepted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for a group exhibit, and in 1942 the Portland Art Museum gave White (as the museum would later do for Rothko) his first solo show.
But then, World War II ended White's time in the Rose City. He was drafted into the US Army and after the war would settle in New York, falling under the influence of Alfred Stieglitz, and later would continue on to San Francisco, where he would be influenced by two other legendary photographers: Ansel Adams, with whom he helped establish American Photography magazine, and Edward Weston, who became a close friend. By that time, White's style had evolved to be more like Weston's, finding abstraction and sensuality in close-up images.
But White's Portland photographs are something different. They are more straightforward and representational, given this was mostly work for hire and White had yet to develop his artistic identity as a photographer. Yet they are also unquestionably beautiful pictures, making adept use of light and shadow to create a sometimes haunting sense of mood. An interior photo of the stairway at the now-demolished Knapp House in the AHC exhibit, for example, is like its own noir or gothic movie set. Another picture, of the Dodd Building formerly at Naito and Ankeny, is wistful and moody in its depiction of a lone man standing underneath one of its arches.
Recently I spoke with Val Ballestrem of the Architectural Heritage Center, who curated the exhibit using photos from the permanent collections of the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Historical Society.
Portland Architecture: How did this exhibit come together?
Ballestrem: We have a volunteer committee that helps with exhibits and collections: sometimes ideas and sometimes installations. A year ago we were talking and somebody suggested, ‘What if we did something related to Minor White?’ Bill Hawkins is on the committee, and he made an inquiry to the art museum to see fi they’d be interested in providing photos. And we have artifacts: pieces of the two houses photographed by Minor White in 1937. The next step was the Oregon Historical Society had some photos also. They were equally generous in providing what we needed. They both had quite a few images to look through. I wanted to find as many images as I could where there was an inkling of a building with an artifact we might have associated with it. I did some of that: not as much as I’d hoped but enough to fill our gallery. Then I wanted to think more about White as a photographer. He was early in his career here. People say this is what sort of launched his career. I tried to look for different themes coming out of them. I selected an assortment, basically, from the two organizations, and ended up with 35 photos on display. It was sort of a process, but there was interest from many people in the organization here.
Do you see White as another creative mind who passed through Portland for a relatively short time, like Rothko or Clark Gable?
Definitely. They came here for a while, and started their careers, and went elsewhere and did amazing things. It’s interesting: I read Minor White wasn’t planning on staying here. He was passing through on his way to Seattle from Minneapolis. It’s that sort of story you’ve heard before: got of the bus and sort of liked it and stuck around.
Minor White, "Arches of the Dodd Building (Southwest Front Avenue and Ankeny Street),"
1938 (Portland Art Museum, Courtesy of the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service,
US General Services Administration)
What captivates you about White's pictures?
Most of these photos he’s trying to capture reality on the street, but at certain times a day. Maybe there’s nobody on the street and it’s barren, and maybe that says something about the area. Then you see another picture in the same part of town and there are lots of cars. It’s hard to describe. There’s a mood to the photos. I wouldn’t say he’s being sentimental about it at all. He’s not making things look really pretty. Some of the pictures with the people in them, you see the junk store in the background, or some really gritty part of town. He was capturing that reality of what was going on there.
But I also think there could have been some purpose in that: who was cutting his paycheck. Part of the WPA’s purpose, it was like, 'Make yourself a better artist.' At the same time, he was documenting conditions in a part of town that the powers that be at the time were wanting to wipe out, in a precursor to urban renewal. That’s part of the story that I didn’t know about until I dug into this. Why was he taking these pictures along Front Avenue? I think in part, even if I haven’t completely connected the dots, that the WPA was helping to fund a proposed redevelopment along Front Avenue. His job in some ways was to go take pictures of how lousy it was so they’d support demolishing these buildings. That may be only part of what was going on, but still: I didn’t know the WPA was helping to fund projects in Portland. That’s some of the detail I find most intriguing: the backstory that goes along with the photos. Now I can look at this photo from the Burnside Bridge looking down Front Avenue. He was taking an artistic photo, but he was also capturing conditions that were deemed less than desirable.
And we know that by the mid-20th century much of Portland's riverfront buildings would be gone. White's years in Portland pre-date those years of turning historic buildings into parking lots, but evidently that thinking was already underway in the 1930s during the Great Depression.
When he was there some buildings were already coming down. It really didn’t start to take off until mid-1940. By then he’d gone to La Grande for a year and a half. For the demolition photos you see in the show, I haven’t been able to find out what was going on. But there was clearly a decade or more’s abandonment of those buildings. It was the Great Depression and people didn’t have the funds to fix them up. I think that’s why some of those buildings came down, and why they show up in some of his photos. But the demolition of those buildings along Front Avenue he didn’t document. The one you are seeing, I believe that was near First and Pine, just a little bit off of Front Avenue [now Naito Parkway].
It strikes me that there is a connection between what White was documenting and what inspired the formation of the AHC's parent organization, the Bosco-Milligan Foundation. White was documenting Portland's historic riverfront architecture about to be lost, and a few decades later it was that broader loss, over the 1940s-60s, that inspired the BMF to begin collecting artifacts from these buildings. And given the growth we're experiencing today, maybe the times are comparable.
It’s definitely been in our minds the whole time developing this exhibit: he was documenting a time on the cusp of or in the beginning of some large changes to the city. Today here we are too with big change going on. We want peole to use this exhibit as a way to think about today. Is there a building I should take a picture of? If I don’t take a photo maybe there won’t be a photo someday. If it’s gone and there’s no documentation of it, it can be completely gone. There are some buildings like that in Minor White's photos where I go, 'I’ve never seen that before.' The Witch Hazel building at the foot of the Hawthorne bridge with its turret: I’m fascinated by it. I think it came down around mid-1940 or somewhere. It’s long forgotten. If it wasn’t for the Minor White photo that shows it clearly, there may not be much record of it.
And with the threat of a large earthquake, now more than ever we should be documenting the city.
Change is going to happen and we know that. We know we can’t save everything. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make a record of it. Take a picture of it. Take several pictures of it. Write a couple paragraphs about it. So when that change does happen, someone in the future could say, “Wow, THAT’s what that block looked like in 2017.” I’ll bet few documented Division Street in the 1990s, for example. Now it’s been completely transformed.