For art institutions, museums and performance spaces, responding to all the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has made for a dizzying year. Not only has the general shutdown of normal life interrupted funding and public engagement, constant shifts in health and safety guidelines have also demanded a new level of nimbleness.
“We had to pivot to online as best we could, but it’s been a challenge,” admitted Oregon Society of Artists Executive Director Nancy Truszkowski. The nearly 100-year-old organization located in Portland’s Goose Hollow neighborhood is home to an exhibition gallery and classroom space for art instruction.
“Probably 75-80% of our student population are senior, so we want to be extra cautious about their health,” Truszkowski said. The dual complications of serving this vulnerable population and transitioning them to online learning took no small amount of creative problem-solving.
But after months of canceled events and juggling ever-evolving regulations, last summer OSA embraced the moment to highlight what art does so well; They put out a call to photographers to submit images for a show entitled “Oregon in Extraordinary Times.”
“It’s a lot harder to put on a show like this because who knows what the opening is going to look like? Will people be able to come to the opening?” said Mark Fitzgerald, whom OSA tapped to judge the exhibition’s photos. “But it made sense to do it now, during the time because there’s gonna be a lot more meaning to the images that are being shown.”
Fitzgerald is a local photographer who does a good amount of competition judging for the Oregon Professional Photographers Association.
For evaluating the submissions, Fitzgerald considered five main criteria, each of which generates a score that is then added up to measure an image’s overall merit. The elements include storytelling elements such as creativity and concept, as well as technical considerations like composition and color.
Almost immediately Fitzgerald was struck by the range of subject matter in the images, which documented much more than social justice demonstrations or the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People are finding all sorts of ways to cope,” Fitzgerald said. “So, it might be something that’s peaceful and relaxing, that still talks about how we’re having to deal with these extraordinary times in Oregon.”
Like many working in creative fields, Elizabeth Fennelly’s work dried up at the beginning of the pandemic. That’s when she decided to put down the digital camera she was using for product photography and use her now-free time to revive a long-time interest in the wet plate process.
“To me, different processes work better with different subject matter and I just felt like this was something that took more care and time than I would devote to it if I shot it in digital. I feel like digital photos to me are kind of a fleeting moment and this didn’t feel like a fleeting moment,” she explained.
Fennelly picked up the 1915 four-by-five camera she’d found in a Beaverton junk shop some years earlier.
“I knew I wanted to make this mobile darkroom and I knew I wanted to do a series of tintypes, so I started photographing people in the van community.” In the series, Fennelly began documenting the growing society of latter-day vagabonds whose homes are on wheels.
“Then I think it kind of unfolded deeper than that. I think for a lot of people, their van is kind of their safe haven. That’s their vehicle they use to escape, the way they feel solace. I started to realize with the pandemic and lockdown, that vans are kind of the answer to that for a lot of people.”
Just as Fennelly had hoped, the sepia-toned tintypes seem to arrest the forward motion of 21st-century life and crystalize a moment. Several of the series were ready just in time for OSA’s show.
A good day for a rare show
The photography exhibition’s October 8th opening reception had the good fortune of being scheduled between the relative openness of the summer season and the new restrictions resulting from the November surge in COVID-19 cases. The date also fell on one of those last magical, autumn evenings: rainless and still warm enough to have the galley doors open.
Before a small gathering of a couple of dozen artists and OSA members, Mark Fitzgerald awarded prizes to seven photographers whose images captured subjects as awesome as a Mount Hood sunrise to as humorous as adolescents struggling to give grandad a haircut.
Among the images that stood out to Fitzgerald was James Parker’s “Once in a Lifetime.” The image depicts the 1906 wreck of the Peter Iredale, entombed in the sands of the northern Oregon coast at sunset. Above it, the comet NEOWISE arcs gracefully toward the horizon. In his juror’s notes, Fitzgerald wrote:
“Though the world seems to be crumbling at times, many things continue to exist outside the concerns of humanity. The ocean maintains its behavior of wearing-down an old shipwreck and celestial bodies stick to their predetermined movement.”
The image’s blend of warm and cool colors created a soothing harmony that also impressed Fitzgerald and he awarded it an Honorable Mention.
Winning the Best in Show prize was Eugene photographer Ceara Swogger’s image “Airpocalypse – Gathering.”
“We were going to go shoot in the Alvord Desert. Then Oregon caught fire and everything changed,” Swogger explained.
With a tote of costumes and props, Swogger, her brother and a couple of other friends headed to downtown Eugene to see what they could find. The resulting photo of three figures on the steps of a classical building captured the eerie drama of uncertain times.
The image stood out to Fitzgerald as soon as he saw it.
“I thought this piece did a really good job of just telling a really interesting story about fear and anxiety. The man on the right has a very menacing look on his face and I can’t tell if he’s friend or foe. The person leaning against the column (wearing a plague mask) seems like they’re waiting for something to happen. Then, there is a really interesting scene of a woman leaning over the side of the railing as though something’s happened to her. I don’t know if she’s been attacked or she’s injured. It really makes me want to know what the story is and makes me want to come up with different stories in my mind.”
Along with a composition that leads the eye in a never-ending circle from face to face and scene to scene, the image’s smoky yellow hue enhances the feeling of unease.
“It could be from the fire smoke. It could be from tear gas. It fits the show really well,” Fitzgerald said.
For Swogger, the image’s success was at least partly accidental.
“The idea was just to put something out there that we find interesting and it turned out to be kind of 2020 and encapsulated; we’re all stuck in this fear of a plague going around and the protests and the fires and it’s this apocalyptic feeling that we all have; the anxiety and the fear and the desperation for something normal, for some normality. And I took that and I wanted it to make art with it.”