East Second Avenue, 2008. From the the Portland Switching District Project.
This April, I completed the run of my first photo exhibit, a short preview show of selected images from the Portland Switching District Project. The show was hosted at the offices of the City Club of Portland, one of the oldest and most respected civic institutions in the Portland metropolitan region.
This exhibit did not happen as the culmination of (much less a part of) some larger planned process. Instead, it was an organic outgrowth of the switching district project. Having spent over a year of concentrated work photographing the subject of the disappearing traces of the city’s urban industrial past, I was faced with a conundrum: what now? What to do with all of these images, now that the project was completed? A series of developments — including a call for temporary art exhibits at the City Club — resulted in the show, and I hope will result in another, larger version next year, in the city’s Central Eastside Industrial District, where many of the images were made.
Is this, however, serving the best interests of the photographs? And what really is their purpose anyway?
Photography is widely varied. Some people are photographers because they want to explore their inner selves, to express emotion or complex inward thought. Others want to document, to preserve in images traces of the world they see around them. Others want something in between, a hybrid mix that is all about telling a story. I previously outlined this basic tripartite theory of photography — expressive, narrative, and documentary — in a story I wrote about detail imagery and the railroad for Trains.com and the Center for Railroad Photography & Art.
For me it is that third, middle way of narrative that matters to me most. It may be no surprise, then, that the most seen photos I have made are those that were published, often beside text-based narratives I wrote, and (to-date) always in periodicals of one form or another.
For the switching project, documentary is a bit more prominent in my motives than usual, and I am forced to consider what the best way of sharing them is. After all, if these photos merely sit in a box — in this case a hard drive — do they serve the purpose I intended? Do they reach out and tell the story of Portland’s heritage, of the city’s industrial roots? In some ways, storing them implies a value to the images that is more vain than if they were shared, as when something is shared it belongs to the beholder and not just the maker.
So few images actually are shared, though. Far more photos die ignominious deaths as hard drives crash, orphaned photo albums get donated to Goodwill, or slide collections get tossed into a dumpster. The vast majority of them have their ultimate value to society unfulfilled. To have my photos sit on a hard drive, stored in some semi-altruistic hope that a future historian will value them, then that is in my view a personal and artistic failure. It’s like performing a play to an empty room.
In this regard, the show at the City Club was a step in the right direction. Here, for a month, they were able to be seen by the public at large. Who, though, goes to gallery exhibits? A select few — even more so a self-selected few. Web sites? These images have been available on the Internet for almost three years, but such digital presentations generally are about as effective as tossing 3×5 prints of the images out third story window in the middle of downtown — the Net is just too vast, too full of competing eye candy, time waster, and the like to be effective on its own as a way of telling this story. What about a book? That would be even more self selecting, even more limited in its reach, although it would at least be less transitory than the former two options.
This is a question larger than the switching project, and larger than my photography. This goes to the heart of what photography is, and what role it plays in society. Put another way, what is the ultimate intent of the photos we as photographers make? Might the gallery / web site / book formula not be the best way to use our images to tell the stories we wish to tell? And if not, what might be a better way?