Pete Brook began Eye On PDX last summer as an ongoing series to explore the rich photo scene of his new home, Portland, Oregon. Each profile featured a brief interview with a local photographer accompanied by a handful of photos. Until now all posts have been on Pete's Prison Photography blog. With my profile below of Portland photographer Douglas Lowell the series expands to B. From this point forward Pete and I will split duties, with each of us taking turns writing profiles and cross-posting on our two blogs. While we're still working out exact details, at this point it looks like Pete will handle all of the photographers who are imprisoned felons and I will handle the rest.
Before becoming a photographer Douglas Lowell spent many years as a poet. He then developed a successful career in advertising, owning two firms before eventually leaving them to spend more time on writing and photography. He is a recent graduate of Hartford Art School's Limited Residency MFA Program.
What motivated you to seek an MFA in photography?
I was sitting maybe 8 years ago in the café at the Museum of Modern Art with my two kids and my wife, after having looked at a lot of art, when it struck me that I wanted to spend the last third of my life as an artist. I’d been a poet before giving up writing to immerse myself in a career in advertising. I did this to support my family and see what it felt like to pay all my bills. I realized I had postponed what I believed was the reason I was on earth, which is to create. I had been creating for the sake of commerce, and now it was time to return to creating on my own terms—on art’s terms.
I had returned to photography by then to keep myself sane, and at that moment I decided to fully commit to becoming the best photographer I could be. The fastest path to doing so was to enter an MFA program and study under the best photographers I could find. I knew that otherwise it would take me years and years to get there, and I couldn’t afford that time.
About five years ago, I discovered the brand-new limited residency photography MFA program at Hartford. With the people involved, and its focus on the photobook (which is the heart of my interest), and with the ability it gave me to keep working, I knew it was perfect for me. I didn’t apply to any other programs. It was just lucky that I got in.
|from Airplane, 2011|
Has a photograph ever made you cry?
I believe the closest I came is the profound feelings of beauty and sadness that overwhelmed me when looking at Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens (also titled The Solitude of Ravens). This was amplified when I learned that Fukase today lies in a coma from falling down the stairs several years ago.
Ravens was made when Fukase’s marriage had just failed, and that sense of devastation is so present in his book. And yet, so too is a sense of the beauty of this life. Perhaps the single most moving photo is actually a pair of photographs in sequence, where we se an incredibly sad-looking and very large prostitute naked on a bed, and then turn the page and see this incredible mirroring image of the face of a fish. The sequence is extremely emotional for me.
|from Seated, 2009|
In your photos, how important is place?
Ostensibly, not at all. I don’t consider myself a photographer of place. On the other hand, I have such a long and deep relationship with the places of Oregon that I find myself engaged in that relationship anyway. I love mixing in photographs that come from wherever I might have photographed, so that Paris or London might intermingle with Tygh Valley or the Oregon coast. Mostly I’m looking for images that fit into the work, and not concerned in the slightest with a continuity of place or time. My work isn’t fed so much by place as by ideas.
How do poems act like photos? How are they different?
The poetry I’m interested in is focused on creating books of poetry, not just individual poems. For instance, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Michael Palmer, Edmond Jàbes, Norma Cole--even going back to William Blake--all wrote books intentionally. Meaning that the book was the poem, so to speak. And the interrelationships between the poems within the book created a whole and were not separable. William Carlos Williams did the same thing with Spring and All and with Kora in Hell. It’s all about creating a much more connected and complex work than just collecting a handful of separate poems. I feel the same way about photography, and, given the renaissance of the photobook, I’m not alone.
The worst kinds of poems are the ones that are a meditation on a subject matter, or, as the cliché goes, things “Often thought but ne’er so well expressed.” Good Lord. That Robert Frost New Yorker Iowa Writing Program workshop poetry crap. It’s such a contained, limited mode of operating.
The poem, or book of poems, can be just as rich and uncertain and infinite as the paintings of DeKooning or the music of John Cage. I feel the same about the photobook. The best of these show the mind of the photographer at work and play in the world, like Ron Jude’s Lick Creek Line or Alec Soth’s Broken Manual. Such photography becomes a semiotic engine that keeps generating meaning every time you go back to it.
Just like poetry, photography involves rhythm, rhyme, melody, harmony, recurring motifs and multiple meanings. To study one, in a way, is to study the other. There’s nothing one can do that the other can’t. They just use different languages. Robert Duncan used to say, “The poem is that which cannot be said in any other way.” So, too, with a complex body of photographs.
|from The Brothers Grimm, 2009|
That reminds me of Robert Frost's reply when asked to explain his poems, "You want me to say it worse?" I think photos operate in the same way sometimes. When people ask me what my photos mean the best answer is often just to point to the picture. It's all there.
I'm so glad you mention the Frost quote, because I think it illustrates the difference I'm talking about perfectly. On the one hand, Frost implies that his poem could be restated, but only if said "worse." This points to a reducible message or idea that is spoken through the poem. Whereas Duncan is saying that it is impossible to restate the poem. That the poem is made up of so many elements that are open to so many interpretations and meanings in combination with each other that it is absolutely impossible to imagine any other statement, worse or otherwise, of the poem. The poem is not the container of meaning, it is the engine of meaning itself.
This might seem like a small difference, but the two views are worlds apart. It's the difference between Norman Rockwell and Robert Rauschenberg. I imagine this is why Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens got into a fist fight in Florida. Two opposing views of the poem.
You're right to point to the picture. Because, while we can talk about art, and I love doing so, we cannot reduce it to an explanation.
|Two page spread from Orion, 2012|
What music would best accompany your book Orion?
Hmmm. While I was making Orion, I sometimes had in my head “Search and Destroy” by the Stooges. Iggy sings “I am the world’s forgotten boy.” That’s Orion, in so many ways.
Your company ID Branding set up the Photobooth at Powell's. What are your thoughts on photobooths? Do you have any strong memories or personal experiences in them?
Funny you should ask. When I first met Colleen, my soon-to-be wife, we started going into photobooths together. That was in Albuquerque. And then, when we moved to Newburyport, Mass, we found this amazing photobooth at Salisbury Beach that had the most extraordinary black and white tones and qualities. I totally wanted to buy that photobooth. It was awesome. Our wedding invitation ended up being a grid that included 17 photobooth pictures. My poor mother-in-law. It was not what she was hoping for.
If I were stupidly rich I would put black and white photobooths in every city in America. It was so lovely that Powell’s liked our photobooth idea, and I understand they brought it back this past summer.
|Wedding Invite, 1980|
Name one favorite photographer.
Oh, God. One? That’s like naming a favorite finger. OK, Michael Schmidt. The range of his mind and vision, from Waffenruhe to Ein-Heit, is an inspiration.
Your favorite photo book.
That would have to be Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens.
One favorite poet.
Impossible task. Right now I’m reading William Blake. I’ve never read him deeply, and his work is the underlying literary text of my current project. So I guess I would say he’s my current favorite.
One favorite painter.
Forced to choose I’d say Gerhard Richter. The fact that he can simultaneously pursue both his abstract work and his so-called photorealistic work is a testament to the possibility of an artist embracing completely different forms of vision at the same time.
One favorite musician.
Bob Dylan. His evolution over the decades is unmatched, and I constantly return to him.
|from Reading Sandy Boulevard, 2009|
One location in Portland that you most closely identify with the city.
The corner of Broadway and Yamhill. You’ve got old Portland, with Jackson Tower, which used to be the Oregon Journal’s offices. And modern Portland, represented by Nordstrom, which committed to Neil Goldschmidt to stay downtown, which kept the city itself lively and vital. And current Portland, represented by Pioneer Place, where all kinds of strange things happen. For me, that corner is the heart of Portland.
How do you define the Portland photography scene?