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Artists Capturing 'Public Displays of Affection' In Downtown Portland

Emily Fitzgerald and Erica Thomas took photos of people who work in the Portland Building for a project that explored people’s understanding of connection and relationship.

They aren’t paparazzi looking for that salacious shot of celebrities’ secret smooches.

They aren’t scandalous tabloid photographers getting too close for comfort.

Instead of invading privacy, artists Erica Thomas and Emily Fitzgerald are inviting people to share their expressions of love and affection through the lens of what and who they consider family in Public Displays of Affection, a new temporary art installation that opened in June at the Portland Building.

Artist Erica Thomas

Artist Erica Thomas

Courtesy Erica Thomas

“It’s an evolving installation,” says Thomas, who worked with fellow PSU student Fitzgerald to conceive of and construct the project.

For the greater part of June, the Portland Building lobby will double as a photo studio, operated by Thomas and Fitzgerald, with the mission of documenting the ideas that people have about family. The project is a part of the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s Installation Art Series, which converts a small section of the Portland Building’s lobby into a gallery space. The Public Displays of Affection project is focused on the community within the Portland Building. Thomas and Fitzgerald will photograph the families of people who work there.

“‘Public display of affection’ is this formalized term for a really personal way that people interact in public space. It’s also acknowledging the observer of the interaction in a way, which in this case includes both Emily and me shooting the photos and the viewers of the installation,” said Fitzgerald via email. “We’re asking people to step into the studio, and into the public, and tell us why they chose to be photographed together.”

Fitzgerald explains that the opportunity to ask participants to describe their relationships to the people they choose to be photographed with often creates a different dynamic: The participants see each other regularly, but may not necessarily have a biological connection. For example, participants may see their family as made up of friends, domestic partners, coworkers, childcare providers, neighbors, ex-spouses, grandparents, godchildren or any other important relationship they might choose to identify — even choosing to be photographed as an individual is an option.

“We also like the fact that ‘public display of affection’ is often shortened into the acronym PDA, so it’s also a play on the bureaucratic and municipal culture,” Fitzgerald adds.

Aritst Emily Fitzgerald

Aritst Emily Fitzgerald

Courtesy Emily Fitzgerald

“At least one of the people in the photograph should work in the building. It’s not just the people who work in the municipal offices, but the people who run the cafe adjacent to the entrance, the little day care, there are literally hundreds of people who work in the building,” says Thomas.

To date, Thomas and Fitzgerald have photographed the first of the volunteer subjects and have begun to print and hang their photos in the installation space.

Throughout the installation, the photos will be developed and displayed intermittently so that by the close of the project, there is a fairly comprehensive document of the people in the office building and their perspectives on connection, love and family.

“Emily and I came up with [this idea] together; we’re in the same graduate program and wanted to collaborate on a project. Both of us do work around close relationships and intimacy,” says Thomas.

Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block gay marriages in Oregon, and though the project was not intended as a political statement, Thomas and Fitzgerald understand that the installation has implications for the marriages that have taken place in Oregon since the ruling. 

“It was about a month into the project that we learned about the ruling, and it was then we sort of realized that, yes, this project would have some relevance to what was going on,” says Thomas.

A photo taken in the project's installation space shown in its "new gallery": the home of the four roommates who posed for the project.

A photo taken in the project’s installation space shown in its “new gallery”: the home of the four roommates who posed for the project.

Lucy Roberts

“I hope our project can be seen as in solidarity with efforts in the LGBT rights movement,” explains Thomas. “Part of that, for me, is including LGBT families, same-sex couples, polyamorous, blended families, friend families and any other familial configurations along with nuclear families on the same platform. I think we see a lot of images of ‘family’ in the media and the advertising world that don’t reflect what family actually looks like for most people.” 

Note: The installation closed on June 27, when Thomas and Fitzgerald were on-site to facilitate the distribution of the photos to the people who were featured in them. The artists then asked that those receiving the prints take pictures of the artwork in the places where they chose to hang them.

Public Displays of Affection families photos

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Public Displays of Affection in the Portland Building

Emily Fitzgerald and Erica Thomas took photos of people who work in the Portland Building for a project that explored people's understanding of connection and relationship.