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Julie Keefe's Photos Show Beauty And Heartbreak Of Northeast Portland


Paris Hart and Julie Keefe

Paris Hart and Julie Keefe

Tyler Kohlhoff

Few Portland artists can claim deeper ties to the city than Julie Keefe. She’s shot for everyone from the Oregonian to the New York Times; she’s done major community engagement projects like Hello, Neighbor, where kids in North Portland interview elders about how the neighborhood has changed; and she’s wrapping up four years as Portland’s first creative laureate.

But she might be best known, at least in Northeast Portland, as the primary photographer for the Skanner newspaper, where she’s documented Portland’s African American community since 1991, as seen in the exhibition “Document of a Dynamic Community: The Skanner Photography of Julie Keefe,” at the Oregon Historical Society through Dec. 18.

The hundreds of photos, drawn from the tens of thousands Keefe has shot, depict the everyday triumphs, challenges, and banalities of life in North, Northeast, and increasingly East Portland.

Julie Keefe

“What the Skanner did is said, ‘Here, we’re going to show you our parades, and we’re going to show the girl scout troops and the chess clubs and the golf teams that are bringing people together,” says Keefe. “They showed everyday life in a very dynamic, wide-ranging community in ways that we don’t see in the [mainstream media] headlines. So I felt super privileged to be able to gain trust and respect in a community that I was an outsider in.”

The Skanner was started in 1975 by husband-and-wife team Bernie and Bobbie Foster. Living just blocks away from its offices, Keefe started shooting for the paper in 1991. One entire wall of the exhibition is wall-papered in snapshots of everything from Juneteenth parades to political rallies to Rose Princess coronations, depicting hundreds of everyday Portlanders, political figures, and visiting dignitaries like President Obama.

Tony Hobson Sr. greets students on the first day of the newly opened SEI Academy in North Portland.

Tony Hobson Sr. greets students on the first day of the newly opened SEI Academy in North Portland.

Julie Keefe

Some of the photos carry bittersweet emotions for Keefe, like one showing the founder of Self Enhancement Inc., Tony Hobson Sr., shaking the hands of students on the opening day of the SEI Academy. The nonprofit has an incredible track record for improving the lives and educational experiences of at-risk youth, and when it was built in Unthank Park, it pushed out a lot of the drug activity. But that in turn led to new folks moving in, which accelerated the gentrification of the neighborhood, pushing out a lot of long-term residents, too, many of them Keefe’s neighbors.

And then there were the truly heartbreaking events.

A march to protest the death of Kendra James in 2003.

A march to protest the death of Kendra James in 2003.

Julie Keefe

“There were times when I was really emotional,” she says. “I couldn’t distance myself — I knew a lot of these people. I watched them with their pain. One of the first things I shot was a candle-light vigil, and then when I kept photographing them, it just never stopped. Kendra James was shot by the police three blocks from my house.”

The exhibition includes three photos following the death of James: one of her memorial, one of a march against the shooting, and one of a public hearing with the police.

Keefe tells us what it was like to document a community in the interview above. 

Listen to a few additional stories from Keefe about some of the most significant photos she shot below:

Maya Angelou at the dedication of the Maya Angelou Apartments on North Borthwick Avenue, a low-income housing complex renovated by the community development nonprofit Housing Our Families in 1994.

Maya Angelou at the dedication of the Maya Angelou Apartments on North Borthwick Avenue, a low-income housing complex renovated by the community development nonprofit Housing Our Families in 1994.

Julie Keefe

Co-chairs of the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Renaming Committee Carolyn Leonard and Bernie Foster, publisher of the Skanner, switch out one of the Union Avenue street signs.

Co-chairs of the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Renaming Committee Carolyn Leonard and Bernie Foster, publisher of the Skanner, switch out one of the Union Avenue street signs.

Julie Keefe

photography Portland Oregon

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