Mapping Portland

by Phil Harris

" ...In our American cities, we need all kinds of diversity, inthcatefy mingled m mutual support. We need this so city life can work decenily and constructively, and so the people of cities can sustain land further develop! Their society and civilization.. [Mjost city diversity is the creation of incredible numbers ol diflerent people and different private organizations, with vastly dillermg ideas and purposes, planning and contriving outside The formal Iramework of public action — Jane Jacobs, from The Death and Life at Great American Cities

In the fall of 1995. Christopher Rauschenberg. a photographer in Portland, Oregon, had a realization. The realization emerged from a contradiction, and. as sometimes happens in these situations, an idea was born. The realization was that, although he believed that his photographs should help us notice that "the ordinary world around you is wonderful, and not ordinary at all, and you should pay attention to it," he was so busy with his not-so-ordinary life traveling to Paris, Stockholm, and Mexico City, that more and more of his photographs documented everywhere, in fact, except Portland. "My work |was] starting to mean the opposite of what I wanted it to mean: it [was] starting to mean, ‘Don't bother with boring places, only go to exotic places.’"

Rauschenberg also realized that like most people, he had a habitual set of destinations and routes through town that he knew well, and that he wanted to go outside what he knew, to really get to know Portland in its entirety, to break out of his known little world. But he didn't want to pursue this as a solo project. If one photographer could write a love letter to a city with a camera (e.g., Atget), think how much more eloquent two or four or a dozen people could be. Rauschenberg also knew that he wasn't interested in simply "divvying up" the city among various photographer friends, in the interest of efficiency. The idea was companionship—everyone would photograph everything, and then share the results. "I wanted to do the whole thing/' Rauschenberg said. "But I wanted company along the way." Thus, the Portland Grid Project was born.

The Grid Project began as an amorphous collection of photographers, united by nothing except a love of the medium and a collective fondness for the city they live in. Most of the photographer/participants had day jobs, and most were connected through Blue Sky Gallery. Blue Sky has existed as a loose collective for 29 years, a membership-driven anomaly that has amassed an enviable prescience for showing undiscovered talent that has later been lauded by the cognoscenti. Every Wednesday night, for the last three decades, all members have been invited to help choose the gallery exhibitions, Christopher Rauschenberg has been one of the gallery's guiding lights since its inception, when he and four other photographers established Blue Sky in 1975. He is currently co-director and board chairman.

In 1995, after Rauschenberg's epiphany, he gathered a small group of photographers together to talk about his big idea: what would it be like to try to explore {and photograph) every bit of the city of Portland, over timer* Estimates of the size of the city vary from 130 to 145 square miles, excluding outer suburbia; Portland is a relatively compact city, but the idea was still audacious. The photographers had mixed reactions—great idea, but a nine year commitment? Most of them were pursuing bodies of work, exhibiting, and participating in Ihe photographic community on various levels. Did they want to put all that on hold while undertaking such a massive project?

The Grid photographers arrived a I an elegant approach to a visual problem that looked, at first blush, overwhelming. Once a month, the members gathered at one or another's home to review images they'd taken that month and to choose a locale for the following month's work. They'd cut up a AAA map of the city into its component grid squares and assigned themselves one square (roughly one square mile) of the city to photograph each month, by picking a square out of a hat.

Each person was completely free to interpret the designated locale in whatever style suited. The only constraints were geographical and temporal: you had to have at least one foot in the grid square while you look the picture, and you had to work consistently, so that you had something to show at the end of the month. This method ensured that a document would be produced over time that would be as imaginative, and as idiosyncratic, as the participants. The resulting pictures would be as varied in their depictions of time and geography as they would approaches and techniques used by those who warned a piece of the action.

Portland's two well-defined seasons (wet and dry), its mixture of urban, suburban, and quasi-rural scenery, along with two major rivers, and a wide seasonal variation in the amount of daylight, added plenty of built-in challenges to the ambitious project.

Aside from people with too much time on their hands, where does something like The Grid Project come from? Though this endeavor feels like a typically collaborative contemporary-art effort, its roots go back to both European and American photographic surveys and eccentric passions.

In France, the obvious precursors are the 19th century photographic inventories of Edouard Baldus (government-financed), and Eugene Atget (heartfelt, personal, and obsessive). These two men (along with the Bohemian writers, musicians, and painters of the Second Empire) established the image of "Olde" Paris in the popular mind. It was easy for Bras-sal Doisneau, and others to follow in their footsteps, cementing Paris as the preeminent spot for romance (heartfelt or tawdry) on the planet.

In Germany, photographers took a different tack. There, the fondness for monuments and ruins, and the nostalgic temps perdu desire to ruminate over them was replaced by a cerebral/mystical need to catalog people. Which brings us lo August Sander, premier librarian of humanity.

Baldus photographed monuments and architectural achievements with the eye of a nationalist; Atget took in the fading Paris of his youth with an intimate nostalgia. But Sander approached the German people with rigor and political rectitude. His desire to pin down every type of person by their profession, handicap, haircut, sartorial sense and/or social increment is unparalleled in photography. His indelible purpose has marked his descendants, Karl Blossfeldt and Bernd and Hilla Becher, and his grandchildren, Thomas Struth. Andreas Gursky, and Uta Barth (though their work has evolved to The point That its connection to Sander's meticulous cataloging can only be inferred).

In America, the need to document where we live and who we are (as a consequence?) has been a central strand in photography since its importation in 1839. The fountainhead of the landscape-as-mirror genre is probably Timothy O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan's Civil War experiences were doubtless partly responsible for the unique quality of his western expeditionary work. The haunted emptiness in so many of his images is the great taproot of American landscape photography; the tension between the enigma of the land and the human who dares to crawl across its crust.

When O'Sullivan's work is crossed with Atget's, their hybrid offspring sprouts up as Walker Evans. In Evans, The refined modern American sensibility appears: The tension between the restless and the fixed, the commercial and the private, the local and the generic. Evans said that what he prized as a documentarian and as an artist was the "vernacular." There has been a great deal of debate about what Evans meant by this word. But it seems from the evidence of his pictures that, if Evans was reticent when it came to explanations, he knew the "vernacular" when he saw it. His pictures are a document of home places: the handmade and homemade next to the manufactured; eccentric personal choices constrained by questions of livelihood; oddities of language, like backwater eddies in a world of burgeoning mass communications. Evans, like Aiget, foresaw the withering of the sorts of idiosyncrasy he treasured, and reached the same conclusion: large leveling forces are unstoppable, but small treasures can be preserved, and photography is an ideal preservative.

From Evans, the impulse to photograph the man-made landscape eventually gave rise to a group of American photographers that curator William Jenkins called the New Topographers: Ed Ruscha, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Stephen Shore. Joel Meyerowiiz, Joe Deal, and younger artists like Len Jenshel and Diane Cook. Though their differences as photographers are much more apparent than their similarities, these photographers share the same interest in a sense of "home" in the landscape, the tension between commercial culture, nature and The individual sense of self. Whether they are driven by a sense of joy, outrage, irony, loss or just plain curiosity, these artists have elected to explore The American outlook by way of the American outback, or at least the American backyard.

Since The Grid Project's inception in 1995, about a dozen and a half photographers have participated for varying lengths of time. The participants agreed to limit the number of people working at any given Time by the amount of pictures (hey could look at in an evening. The consensus was that the most boring and unproductive squares were perfectly maintained suburbs. The houses were all set back so far from the street, and often so inaccessible on foot, that the pictures were hardly worth making. As Rauschenberg says, "No one ever got excited by perfectly clipped lawns." The best places, by some accounts, were mined residential/commercial areas; alleys were particularly prized for their views of backyards, where life really happens.

Over the course of nine years, much of the original intent of the project has come to pass. Patrick Steams, a participant for almost the entire nine years, says that the biggest eye-opener for him was "going to different locations around Portland that I had never gone to before, and probably never would have if it hadn't been for the Grid. And sometimes, it felt like I wasn't in Portland at all, but some other city, just because it was so unrecognizable to me."

Another participant. Bill Washburn, was amazed by the amount of shoreline inside the city limits, much of which he explored and photographed by kayak (which he dubbed "an unfair advantage”).

“If anything informs this area, it’s water. You could forget it because we’re a city, but we’re in the delta of one of the great rivers of the world…when you get out onto the water itself, and you get to see the point of view from the water, it’s astounding.”

The solidarity of the participants seems to have been one of the Grid Project’s strongest attributes. Ann Kendellen, another long-time participant, emphasized that the “opportunity to get together with a group of photographers on such a regular basis, simply to look at each other’s work was really valuable. And focusing on the same project and seeing how it looked to other people when they were out there, what it was they saw was really interesting.” Members of the group would often see something that they knew would excite one of their colleagues, and it was not uncommon for someone to let the group in on a particularly good find in a grid square, or a hidden entryway or access route.

Rrauschenberg notes that there were some unforeseen outcomes in generating this vast body of work. For one thing there are almost no pictures of people. People, particularly in some of the least populated areas, were not amenable to being photographed. And although there have been some exhibitions of work-in-progress, there had been no culminating event planned for the Grid Project. The project, which has been financed entirely by the participants, does not, as yet, have either funding or venue to realize a major exhibition of even a small portion of the work that has been generated.

As one might expect in a long-term group project, the lineup of the participants has changed over the years, and a few grey hairs have sprouted. Meanwhile, the city has grown, the rivers have flooded and receded, the economy has boomed, built, and gone bust. Participants have dropped out, dropped back in, changed their feelings about the rising mountain range of images. At this point, by Rauschenberg’s conservative estimate, some 20,000 prints have been generated, and a new issue has come to the fore: what to do with all this work?

“What are we going to do with this vast inventory?” asks Kendellen. “So many of us have so many things going on in our lives, and we know [it would] be a huge effort to do some kind of grand finale show, or if we were fortunate enough to be able to publish…” The end of the project, at this point, seems much less definite than its inception; but it’s too soon to tell how the work will be shown, collected, archived. The ultimate concern for nine years has been the process, not the resolution of the product. The fact that Oregon ranks near the bottom in funding for the arts hasn’t stopped people from participating in the Grid Project, but, as Rauschenberg says, “somebody’s going to have to show some actual financial and some commitment to the idea to make [the compilation and archiving of the project] happen.” Although it might look to the untutored eye as if Blue Sky is a logical sponsor or venue for sharing the fruits of the Project with the public, the gallery is simply too small and too marginally funded to sponsor work of this scale and complexity.

Characteristically, the spirit of the group seems undiminished by the passing of the accumulation phase. Kendellen thinks the Grid photographers will probably continue meeting. “Even if we’re not collaborating on a project, we’ve built this nearly-ten-year-old relationship of a certain kind, and we’re all really reluctant to just end it because Portland’s run out of mileage for us. Which it really hasn’t in a way. I think some of the areas we’ve gone to would be really interesting to revisit.”

Rauschenberg is more emphatic about making another circuit, a sort of photographic Saturn return. “A few months ago, I was scrambling down this really sharp embankment along the Columbia Slough, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, let’s see, I’m 52; nine years from now when I’m scrambling down this embankment I’ll be 61. Well, whatever.’ I don’t know if I’ll get my walker down there, but it might all be paved by then, anyway.”

What is the significance of this project? For the participants, the Grid Project may be less about pictures generated than about initiatives taken and bonds formed. For the rest of the world, it’s another signpost pointing in the direction that the arts seem to be headed: decentralization, collaboration, an attachment to the local and the regional. While a suburban consumer society (and its stepchild, the Internet) have encouraged us to think that everywhere is a bit like everywhere else, a few contrarians beg to differ. The stubborn specificity of where we live, how it feels, what it looks like – these are the real objects of the world.