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A New Deal photographer’s forgotten Portland

“This is about how a city can shape a person. And how a person can shape a city.”

Lorenzo Apartments, SW 11th and Salmon, Portland, Oregon, 1940
| Minor White/Oregon Historical Society Research Library

I stopped wearing heels when I moved to Portland, Oregon.

The Southeast neighborhood surrounding my new apartment was dominated by huddled groups of wanderers camped on sidewalks, their wire-wrapped crystals splayed across dog-hair-dusted tapestries. That transient lifestyle bleeds into the style of Hawthorne Avenue, a main drag of Southeast Portland, where a smattering of trendy boutiques are still flanked by thrift stores and head shops. Anything new and tall felt too New York for the rain-slicked streets and squat neighborhoods of my new home.

This was the version of Portland that I met when I arrived at the tail end of a three-month road trip in 2014. I came here to be a writer. Much like Minor White came here to be a photographer.

This isn’t about footwear, or the differences between New York City and Portland. This is about how a city can shape a person. And how a person can shape a city. And how one photographer captured a certain moment of symbiosis between a city and its inhabitants, and a city and himself, through the photographs he took at the start of a storied career.

Minor White never meant to spend time in Portland. When he caught a bus from his home in Minneapolis in 1937, he was headed for Seattle to pursue a budding passion for photography. Portland seemed like a good place for a break from travel along the way—the annual Rose Festival was approaching when White arrived at Union Station, and it sounded like something he should photograph. He walked to the downtown YMCA, requested a room, and decided to stay.

White joined the Oregon Camera Club for access to their dark room, but the aesthetic approach of the organization wasn’t a good fit. So he started his own club at the YMCA, converting an unused bathroom into his work space. He hadn’t meant to be here, but he was carving out space for himself regardless.

Knapp House, Exterior Tower, 1942
Minor White/Portland Art Museum, Museum Purchase, Exhibition Budget Fund

Parting Shots: Minor White’s Images of Portland” is an immersive presentation of White’s documentation of the city from 1938 to 1942, open through December at the Architectural Heritage Center in Portland. Most of the photos were taken on assignment with the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency created to employ Americans in public works projects. It was a straightforward job with little room for artistic interpretation—the Portland newcomer was meant to take photos of buildings that represented Portland’s past, before they were torn down for something new.

The Architectural Heritage Center pairs White’s photographs of houses and buildings with pieces of the structures they feature or similar architectural elements from the same time period. A massive fireplace mantel takes up an entire wall alongside a photo of that fireplace in the Richard B. Knapp House. A stained-glass window hangs next to its black and white, two-dimensional version—proof of its sparkling kaleidoscope of colors. Cast-iron pilaster ornaments sit on a table next to photos of iron-facade buildings on Front Street (today’s Naito Parkway) that feature similar details.

Portland was once a pretty glitzy place. I could imagine the ghosts of this time period, their five-piece Victorian gowns billowing behind them as they descended grand staircases to greet guests; a stretched-out dining table would be set with crystal wear, ready to receive a sizzling roast. This decadent style stands in stark contrast to the food trucks and farm-to-table charm that dominate dining culture in the city today.

Three of White’s primary subjects, the Knapp House (built in 1884, demolished in 1951), and the Isaac Jacobs and Cyrus Dolph Houses (both built in 1882, demolished in 1942) were regal, sprawling homes on the west side of the river, built during a time when Portland was experiencing considerable growth in both population and wealth. The Knapp House was a Queen Anne Victorian, dripping with so many delicate details it could have been designed by a pastry chef. The Dolph and Jacobs Houses were two nearly identical Italianate structures built side by side.

The people who lived in these houses were prominent characters in the young and booming city. Ralph and Isaac Jacobs were the founders of the Oregon City Woolen Mill, which led them to excessive wealth. They weren’t modest individuals, the owners of these homes, with their custom frescoes, 10-foot doors, and massive foyers that could welcome a circus train.

But previous homeowners are not present in White’s photographs, and White would never know them, or the Portland they knew. The glamour and excesses of those Victorian castles were considered gaudy and distasteful by the time White was sent to capture the aesthetic. His photographs represent a moment when they still stood tall, yet quiet and cobwebby—bleakly unaware of time passing without them. The homes were demolished soon after.

A smattering of surviving Victorians can be found in Northwest and Southwest Portland today. But apartment buildings with first-floor retail and smaller, less-adorned homes are more prevalent than the decadence that dominated the era of Knapp, Jacobs, and Dolph.

While the house photos are devoid of people, a few of White’s downtown shots capture Portlanders in the throes of their day-to-day lives at the tail end of the Great Depression, moving forward against a backdrop of disrepair. Downtown’s cracked and crumbly brick facades and cast-iron columns seem to be of little concern to the men hauling plucked turkeys off the back of a truck, or the ones sitting on a curb, enjoying their mid-workday lunches. One gentleman with a curled mustache and a protruding belly smiles smugly for the camera in front of a linoleum shop.

The set would soon change for the people in these photos. Many of those buildings were also demolished shortly after the shots were taken. Change meant progress, and as more and more people moved to Portland, older buildings were discarded, without much thought to historic preservation, to make room for the newer and less ornate.

Arches of the Dodd Building (Southwest Front Avenue and Ankeny Street), 1938
Minor White/Portland Part Museum, Courtesy of the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration

Minor White would go on to become a celebrated artist of the abstract. He died in 1976 and is remembered as one of the greats. Those who know his work know it as bold, curious, and steeped in the mysteries of the mind. Some of it is erotic. None of it is simple.

But these photos of Portland were taken at the very start of his career, before he’d defined his artistic vision. The photos he took of Victorian mansions and downtown buildings show a city on the verge of change—and a photographer on the verge of mastery. Victorians would be replaced with simpler, more sensible architecture. White’s style would become increasingly abstract. “Parting Shots” condenses time to highlight photography’s power to freeze a fleeting moment.

The photos capture a certain time in Portland, but they also highlight what’s missing—the past that built them, and another past that left them behind. In viewing the show, you’re aware of three different versions of Portland colliding: the one that existed in those structures, the one that chose to tear them down, and the one that honors them today. “Parting Shots” is a reminder that progress can look like destruction, and vice versa. And that no one ever knows the whole story.

What does it mean to photograph your greatest fear?

That is a question that Minor White asked his students to address when he was teaching at the Rochester Institute of Technology, years after his time spent documenting Portland.

Peter Schutte was one of the students asked to answer that question. Startled by the dark nature of his very first assignment as a photography student, Schutte nonetheless set out to answer honestly.

Schutte knows fear. As a young boy living in Holland at the end of World War II, his family home was bombed by the allies who had arrived to save them. He was found beneath rubble, across the street from the demolished house, and awoke in the hospital after days of lying unconscious. For White’s assignment, Schutte photographed the lingering smoke of a forest fire to capture a fear that’s never left him.

Minor White was more than a teacher to Peter Schutte. He was also a neighbor, a friend, and the first person that Schutte encountered when he arrived in Rochester, knowing almost nothing about photography or what his future might look like. It was a mentorship that would have a profound impact on Schutte’s future, which would lead down his own path of success.

White continued to visit Portland throughout the time that Schutte knew him. And eventually Schutte would come to Portland too. He didn’t arrive via road trip, like me, or by bus, like White. He arrived on assignment with a German publisher, by plane, days after Mount St. Helens erupted, sent to capture the unfolding story.

This was 1980. The New York Times had yet to fall in love with Portland, setting off a wave of newcomers to the once-quiet Pacific Northwest. Portlandia was three decades away. Craft beer wasn’t a thing. But Schutte heard two real estate developers discussing Portland’s impressive potential—they were planning to buy up land and make a fortune. It sounded like a good place to be.

The bellhop at the hotel where he stayed told Schutte that it would be impossible to reach the volcano. Roads were blocked with six feet of ash for miles in all directions. But Schutte had a job to do, so he drove to the town that was closest to the blast and waited until he spotted a pilot shoveling ash to make room for a runway. Schutte paid the man $200 to let him on the plane. They were circling the simmering crater when St. Helens erupted a second time. A tower of dense, billowing smoke shot straight up into the sky. Boulders tumbled through the air. The radio crackled with frantic warnings to land right away. Schutte hung out the open doorway; the pilot had removed it at his request. The shot he captured would mark one of the most profitable and defining moments of his career.

Demolition of the Opitz Building, SW Pine Street and First Avenue, Portland, Oregon, 1939
Minor White/Oregon Historical Society Research Library

He sent the photograph to his publishers and then spent three more weeks traveling around the region between Portland and St. Helens, photographing the aftermath of the blast.

This dramatic introduction to the Pacific Northwest stuck with Schutte. St. Helen’s was a career-defining moment, and in the aftermath he lingered, intrigued by the city of Portland, just 60 miles away from that earth-shaking explosion. He returned to Holland shortly after, but the experience and the city never left him.

“I met so many nice people in Portland around that time,” he recalls from his living room in the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of Irvington, where he’s lived for 25 years. “And I was ready to leave Holland. It was much too crowded there.”

Schutte returned to Portland for the summer when he was offered a job teaching photography at Linfield College in McMinnville, just outside of Portland. By 1984, he decided to make Portland his new home.

Schutte’s first Portland house was big and old, located just off of Hawthorne Avenue—where I would eventually live. He shared it with three roommates. In 1992, he used the money he’d made from that now-famous Mount St. Helens photograph to purchase a fixer-upper bungalow, where he still lives today.

Schutte laments the crowds that have since arrived, but he appreciates that his neighborhood has retained a close-knit community. Driving down his block, there are kids playing in front yards and people mowing their lawns.

“Those big apartment buildings they’re cramming people into are terrible,” he tells me. “There’s too much traffic, too many people. But I’ve never been sorry that I came to Portland.”

A bus dropping off passengers, a bomb, a wrecking ball: these markers of time are as brief as a photo.

Minor White captured moments of a Portland that only he could know. It’s a Portland that is drastically different than the one I met when I arrived here almost three years ago, and it is drastically different than the one I know now, having experienced the variety of Portland neighborhoods, far beyond the sidewalks outside of my home. It is not the Portland that Peter Schutte knows either. And the Minor White we see through “Parting Shots” is not the Minor White that taught Peter Schutte how to capture his fears with a camera.

“The time between photographs,” wrote White, “is filled by the beholder.”

Much of White’s later work explores an obsession with time. He often experimented with series, combining images like a poet combines words.

Sequence 17 is one example; White mixes photos of two of his close friends with landscapes, shot with odd angles and intense close-ups that create striking geometric shapes of mysterious origin. The landscapes were favorite places he’d visited with these friends, including the California and Oregon coasts, and the Utah desert.

While there is a striking difference between Sequence 17 and the photos presented in “Parting Shots,” a glimmer of White’s intensity slips through some of the photos at the Architectural Heritage Center. A close-up of a swooping staircase showcases sensual curves and a romantic beam of light.

A shot of the Broadway bridge shows two people walking with long, intentional strides, their silhouettes dwarfed by the overpowering shadows of the bridge’s beams. One of the people looks up, searching for whatever the photographer across the street might be photographing—searching for significance.

Visitors to the Architectural Heritage Center will be grateful that Minor White began his career in Portland, Oregon. His dedicated documentation of Portland’s past mirrors the emotional attachment that so many Portlanders feel for their city today—and the fear that it could be gone in an instant. In viewing a city that looks nothing like the one we know, it becomes painfully clear that we might not recognize our city tomorrow. Time and progress are unstoppable.

At the end of “Parting Shots,” there is a map of Portland where visitors are invited to hang photos of buildings and houses that are important to them. There’s even a hashtag (#myPDXplace) helping the project to spread online. The physical version has turned into a cobweb of strings, pointing to various spots all over the city, spidering out to photos of Craftsman houses, bungalows, city streets, parks, and storefronts. Moments of lives that make up a city that is not the same city for any two people. The board is crowded, but there are still plenty of spaces—and plenty of time—to fill it in.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler


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