“Portraitlandia” Asks Us: What Do We Look Like (NSFW)

A photographer’s series of iconic Portlanders (famous and not) ignited a fire-storm online and will show in Portland for the first time Feb 7–Mar 2.

By Aaron Scott January 17, 2014

Voodoo Donut owner and dandy about town Tres Shannon

Last July, ran a post about a photo series called Portraitlandia that documented a range of Portlanders in large format portraits, saying it both confirmed and refuted everything you know about Portland. There were the well-known faces (and Portlandia extras): Voodoo Donut owner Trey Shannon, former mayor Sam Adams, circus wrangler Noah Mickens, former Portland comedian Ron Funches, to say nothing of tattoos, piercings, and tall bikes. But there were also the unexpected: two sisters (one a nun) side-by-side at a summer camp, a man in front of an enormous American flag, a Rosarian (according to the Portlandianarrative, of course, the unexpected in Portland are the expected in any other city).

The series went viral, drawing millions of eyes to the site of its photographer Kirk Crippens. Some of those viewers were critical of the project—Portland cyclists and brewers bristling at their lack of representation—others stating that it just perpetuates local stereotypes.

But many eyes saw it differently, particularly those of curators. The portrait of mail carrier Mary Kozlov, which looks like someone handed Vermeer a camera during a PDX vacation, has been curated into London’s National Portrait Gallery as part of a portrait prize exhibition; purchased by a major collection in Richmond, Virginia; and gone into the Photolucida touring exhibition, which will travel from San Francisco to Houston.

The project started as an aside. In 2012, Crippens learned he had won a residency at the Newspace Center for Photography with the plan to sort and print a body of work that he’d been working on for years on the recession and, particularly, Stockton, California—the largest city in US history to declare bankruptcy. (His day job is working at a small, family-owned publishing company.) He was also searching for a creative project he could do on the side. About that time, John Brennan made international news by stripping naked in the Portland airport in protest of the treatment he got going through security—and gave Crippens an idea.

Former Portland comedian Ron Funches

“My thinking was: I can’t do what I’m doing with bankrupt Stockton, which was to go every week for year, and I can’t discuss something new, I don’t have time,” Crippens told PoMo. “But I can find an interesting list of Portlanders and have the people be the stars of the series. They will bring themselves and their personalities, and it will be reflected in the photography.”  

Over the next ten months, he started piecing together a list of subjects through Internet research and word of mouth. “I was looking for iconic Portlanders,” he said. “I wanted not just well known people, but also a mechanic, a mail carrier, a nun, someone who you can have some idea of their place by looking at what they wear—iconic in that way as well. I tried to get as much of a variety of people as possible to represent as much of the community as possible.”

Then, over the course of the one-month residency last April, he dragged his large, antique, 4x5 camera (the kind with the black cloth that hangs over the photographer) to 45 different shoots, asking people for two hours of their time at the site of their choosing.

The name started out as a joke. At his artists talk at the end of the residency, he asked the audience what the worst name they could think of for a portrait project made in Portland, before volunteering Portraitlandia and quickly crossing it off. (His working title was In the Shadow of Volcanoes.) But then the audience told him he had to name it Portraitlandia, because that’s what he had created—a point slammed home when he was watching the next episode of Portlandia, and three of his subjects had cameos (Adams, Brennan, and Jedediah Aaker).

Now, some of the images will be on display for Portland audiences for the first time at Newspace’s artists in residence group show, oh so cleverly titled Fresh A.i.R, from February 7–March 2.

We couldn’t help asking him about some of the photos.

Who most defied your expectation of who they would be or surprised you the most over the course of the shoot?
The mail carrier, Mary Kozlov. She was one of the very first people I got into contact with. She started talking about how she’s a mail carrier, and I said would you be willing to be photographed in your mail carrier uniform. Then it turns out she’s a new carrier, and she hasn’t received all of the funds to buy her uniform, so she’s cobbled together a pseudo uniform in the interim. She has this fantastically wonderful outfit, so when I go to photograph her it becomes much more than I thought it would be. It became one of my favorite photos in the entire body of work.

Did any of the photos take you out of your comfort zone?
The one photo that took both me and the subject out of our comfort zone was the John Brennan photograph, and that’s because he posed naked because he’s well-known as naked airport protestor. But you don’t get that from: “Hi John, I’m working on project, will you pose  naked?” It was a process.

Stripping at the airport and then going to court has been a big upheaval in his life. We’re both proud of the portrait, although he is self-conscious, like anyone would be.

Who was the most difficult to shoot?
The most difficult person to get to was John McAfee [the renegade tech giant], but then once I got to him, he was one of the easiest to work with. I wanted a very clean portrait of him, so I set about moving his dining room table and chairs and taking art off walls, and then I invited him to stand in front of camera, and he didn’t bat an eye.

Sometimes when you have a portrait subject standing for you and you try to get them to give something for the camera for a formal portrait—I’m looking for a neutral expression, and I’d like you to give me your strength and power through your eyes. Some people don’t know what that means or how to call that from themselves. John knew immediately what that meant and poured strength straight through the lens.

Tell us about some of the other photos. 

Jedediah Aaker is the head of the Portland Beardsmen, and he’s a bartender at Tonic. He’s a man about town who owns his own lion suit. So when I show up at Tonic, he has this fantastic lion suit on with his face painted. So we go up on the roof, and he was the one who had the idea: "you know what, I could get down in that ivy and curl up like a cat." It was fun and playful, and he brought everything to that portrait.

Sister Krista is a nun who runs Camp Howard, which is a wonderful camp close to Mt Hood. When I contacted her, she was the only person who, when I asked for two hours of her time, said, "you need to give it four or six hours because I want to take you to the camp."

During the drive, Sister Krista had told me the story of how her sister Karen had come to be in charge of the camp, and as soon as we got to Camp Howard and I saw Karen, I thought it would be great to photograph Sister Krista with her blood-sister Karen.

If I posed the two sisters in front of the two doors painted the same color, I knew it would not just get a feel for Portland, but the two doors mimic the two sisters. That was exactly what I was trying to create: a photograph that shows the contrast of these two women. One who’s a groundskeeper and very sturdy, and one who is in a nun’s habit.

Skip Carroll is a good friend and neighbor of Andy Lewindowski, the gentleman with the large, neon-green Mohawk. If you look at the two photographs, you might think they come from two different worlds, and in one way they do, but in another way they don’t. They both come from Portland and both get along, even though one looks like a punk rocker and the other look like Joe Americana. Portland facilitates the freedom to be who you want to be. Also in my experience, it brings these seemingly divergent communities together in harmony.

Nik Sin owns Lonesome’s Pizza, and he also does entertainment through cabarets. I found him because he did a show called Mini-Marilyn Manson. He’d dress up and put on show, but he’s also a business owner.

So you have former Mayor Sam Adams but not current Mayor Charlie Hales. Should we read anything into that?

I had expressed interest in getting a politican and the owner of Voodoo Donuts. A friend of mine went to an event where they both were, and she went up to them and asked them. That’s how they became part of the project. It’s no snub to Charlie Hales.

Portraitlandia got a huge response on the web, both positive and negative. What was that like for you?
First it was exhilarating, and then a little exhausting. I’m surprised and honored, but with that many people looking at it, there’re people who don’t like it, and there’re people who are frustrated that the bicycling community or the breweing community aren’t represented, and they don’t know that I photographed a person, but I edited it out because it wasn’t strong enough. I can make 10,000 portraits, and still not get everyone who should be included. I’m not looking to create an inclusive body of work; I’m an artist trying to come into a community and make as many interesting photographs as I can. 

What do you think? Does the series just extend our Portlandia image, or does it go deeper?

You can see more of the Portraitlandia series at Crippens' site.


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