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Zeb Andrews Photographs Portland's Bridges

Zeb Andrews Bridgetown Photos

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Local photographer Zeb Andrews recently released Bridgetown, a collection of photographs that feature Portland’s iconic structures.

Zeb, who has been featured on Oregon Art Beat, picked up a Pentax K1000 in 2002 and he’s been hooked on photography ever since. In fact, he claims to take a camera with him everywhere he goes. For Zeb, photography is more than an occupation, it’s a lifestyle.

Q & A with Zeb Andrews

Bridgetown (2011) is actually your second book about bridges in Portland. What compels you to photograph bridges?

Heh, yeah, I do seem to have a thing about bridges.  Well, what can I say?  They make easy subjects as they never run off anywhere. Whenever I feel like photographing one, I know exactly where to find it, it is patient and never gets antsy and it doesn’t mind being outside in cold or rainy weather, which we have a fair amount of around here.  But honestly, I have “grown up” photographically around bridges. I have lived in the St. Johns neighborhood for as long as I have been seriously pursuing photography, so I guess it is only natural that at some point I would gravitate towards the St. Johns Bridge which is the largest structure around and a grand and majestic one at that.

Since then, I have used the St. Johns Bridge as sort of my Alamo and study control group rolled into one.  Whenever I feel like going out to make images, but it is too late or I am too tired to go far, the St. Johns bridge is a mere couple of minutes away.  The accessibility is definitely a plus.  On top of that, as I learn more and more regarding photography, or get new equipment or want to try a new film, I have a familiar place to go try those things out, a place I know well and can concentrate on what is new to me.

Based on the introduction to Bridgetown, it seems like you have a dynamic relationship with these large, inanimate objects. Can you describe the way your initial observations about a bridge might change over time? What do you notice about a bridge that some people might overlook?

I think my relationship with these bridges is much like anything else in life. When you first encounter something, you only experience it on the surface, you have a very shallow perception of what that subject is, and it is only with time and experience do you begin to develop a deeper understanding of it. That is one reason I like to go back to familiar places to make images instead of necessarily believing I need to keep searching out new spots. The familiar places grant me more and more meaningful photographs the longer I spend with them.

In terms of bridges, this has been no different. Even having spent so many years under the St. Johns Bridge, I still had to start at the beginning with all the other bridges. And this was apparent when I first started to photograph them. The initial round of images were very clean, cold and distant. I tried to remove every element I could except for the bridge. They were very good studies of the bridges themselves, from a distant, emotionless point of view. And as such, I did not really care as much about many of the photos I made. As I set out on my second and third rounds though, I began to become more familiar with the bridges and I learned how to photograph them in … slightly more intimate fashions. I also began to allow in more and more elements that were changing and fluid in nature, such as light trails from passing traffic and bicycles, the blur of people moving through the frame and flare caused by nearby lights or reflection from raindrops that gathered on the lens on rainy nights. I wanted to not only make images unique to each bridge, but images more unique to the time that I was there too, that if I came back another night I would not be able to find.

The more time I spent around these bridges, the more I saw how they play roles other than just moving traffic too. Once I got past the initial, more obvious observations of bridges being made for cars, I began to notice how much some of them were made for moving bicycles and pedestrians, how some became gathering spots for couples on evening strolls, or other photographers looking to practice their art or craft, and how some were nightly shelter for homeless people looking to get out of the elements. And not all of this was initially obvious the first couple of times I went out.

What do you think about the common perceptions of some of our bridges? For example, is the Marquam really Portland’s ugliest bridge?

I have long heard that assertion that the Marquam is the ugliest. I disagree. I think ugly is a perception, and I think the Marquam suffers from some early initial negative criticism of it that caught and stuck, and now people who really don’t even look at it, deem it ugly.  And I think this is unfortunate.  I agree that from certain angles it certainly isn’t the most grand bridge, but especially from underneath, down on the west side near the support pillars, there are some really interesting vantage points. A couple of images I really like were made of the Marquam in that spot. Plus seen from up at OHSU, the twisting on ramps of the Marquam are quite fascinating as well. I have a photo from up there that people continuously express their favorable opinion of.  So I think writing it off as the ugliest is a bit of an excuse, it is admitting that you don’t care to look hard enough for something interesting to see.

What made you decide to use a film camera rather than a digital camera for this project?

Well again, a large part of it is accessibility. I was able to borrow quite easily the camera I wanted to use for this project, which was a Hasselblad medium format film camera. The advantages there over digital mainly being the really large negative allowing higher quality enlargements. I knew at some point I would want to print some large images, something that people could stand right up under and feel a bit of the presence that I felt standing near these structures myself, and I wanted a camera that would produce a large enough image to better enlarge. Plus, I knew I would be photographing in fairly tricky circumstances in terms of the range of exposure. Nighttime photography tends to include quite a mix of bright highlights to deep shadows and in terms of the ability to capture as much of that detail in a single exposure, film is a bit more capable than digital. Of course, digital would have offered its own advantages, like post-viewing the exposure, but I ultimately felt more comfortable with the Hasselblad and liked the look of the Kodak Tri-X film I used specifically.

Many of the photos in Bridgetown are shot at night.  Is there something about that time of day that helps capture the nature of a bridge?

Well, I definitely think there is a specific quality to a bridge that comes out at night, and I tried to home in on that, but originally the decision to photograph at night was one of convenience, as I work all day and on the few days off I have I tend to spend them teaching photography classes.  So daytime photographic opportunities were going to be limited, meanwhile I could go out any night I chose after work to make images.

By photographing at night I also eliminated weather being a point of interest. I wanted the images to be as consistently similar in setting as possible, and during the day I would have experienced much more variation in amount and type of light, conditions in the sky in the background, weather, etc. At night, the sky is always dark, weather it is clear or cloudy. And this allows more attention to be drawn to the bridges themselves.

But the bridges do change at night. The traffic dies down, things become quieter, the city starts to go to sleep and the bridges are still there while we are at home eating dinner. And they are still serving a purpose. The image I made of the homeless man asleep under the Steel Bridge would have been much more difficult to find during the day, and may not have carried the same weight.

Having said that, I do think I will continue this series at some point with a series of daytime images.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the plans to build new bridges in the Portland area. How does your experience as a photographer of bridges inform your opinions about the bridge-related issues facing the city?

Yes there has, and it is a tricky debate. I understand the budget problems, but having spent so much time practicing the art of noticing bridges, I tend to favor spending a bit more money to build something a bit more meaningful. I see it as an investment. After all, think of how long most bridges last… 50 years? 75 years? Even 100 years… Bridges serve roles other than ferrying vehicles. They inspire our arts. They encourage kids growing up wanting to be engineers. They give us places to gather and tourists places to see. They give us shelter. They become part of our collective identity. We probably would not be as proud of the Bridgetown moniker if all our bridges were of the same generic design…

[There is a quote] I like by the architect Daniel Burnham that sums up an important aspect that needs to be considered, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…Make big plans, aim high in hope and work.” I think if we are going to build bridges, we should make big plans, and then work at finding a way to make those plans work… Sort of the same thing I do every time I stand under the St. Johns Bridge.

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