Ward Shortridge at Blue Sky Gallery
I don’t know about you, but my nerves are on edge. As the coronavirus pandemic enters its third year, this thing has strained everyone’s psyche, testing our patience as well as basic assumptions about self-interest, altruism, and interpersonal relationships. If you’ve felt your faith in humanity starting to falter recently, that’s understandable. But there is a tonic available, at least for the next few weeks. The current exhibition The beauty that thrives under the ravages of time collects portraits and homes photographed by the late Portland photographer Ward Shortridge. It fills both spaces of the Blue Sky Gallery throughout the month of February. It’s the first big show of his career, serving as a memorial tribute, a retrospective and a celebration of the human spirit, all intertwined. This is one of the most inspiring photo exhibits I’ve seen in a while.
A few brief facts about Ward Shortridge: He was born in 1960 and grew up in the DC area. At the age of 6, he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a disease that affected his vision and experiences throughout his life, gradually getting worse and manifesting itself in countless ways, including through photographs. exhibited. Shortridge’s parents divorced when he was young, and he endured a difficult upbringing, including bullying, alienation, and the death of his sister as a teenager, all on top of typical teenage angst. His general outlook took a dark turn during his twenties, as Shortridge gradually came to terms with his illness and the cruel absurdities of life. He struggled with depression, drugs and poor health.
His path could easily have spiraled down from there. But somewhere in that period, he bounced back. Whether it was an intentional start, fate, genes or circumstances, it is difficult to determine now. Who knows what makes someone who they are? As Shortridge later described his development to Bobby Abrahamson, the exhibit’s curator, “Eventually I realized that there is nothing good in comparing pain and loss. Everyone is suffering. Once I accepted this, I felt my burden become so much lighter. By all accounts, the person Ward became in the last half of his life was extraordinarily compassionate and endearing.
In 1987, he began using a motorized wheelchair and a hand-only van. Both contributed to its autonomy. He obtained a master’s degree in social work a few years later. He fell in love and got married. Shortly after, he took up photography, a hobby that became a central interest and creative outlet until his death in 2019.
The front room of Blue Sky is devoted to the early years of Shortridge photography. It contains approximately 25 framed portraits from the late 90s to early 2000s, shot in the Dupont Circle area of DC near his home at the time. These are essentially street portraits of strangers encountered in public – many around the neighborhood’s central fountain – but the word “stranger” might be a misnomer here. His subjects were initially anonymous to Shortridge, but he generally spent some time with each person, sometimes revisiting them over months or years.
Somewhere in the process of conversation and gradual connection, he was doing portraits, shooting medium format films from a small tripod mounted on his motorized scooter. By all accounts, those photos were an extension and by-product of his relationships, not the main focus. They were the rough photographic equivalent of social work. “When practiced well,” he writes, “there is a remarkable resonance between these two arts.”
Shortridge engaged with subjects from all walks of life, but he had a particular love for outsiders. The photographs on display focus on outcasts, street dwellers and dissidents. As he would later write (foreshadowing the title of the show), he was looking for “the priceless beauty that we each embody and that surrounds us every day, the beauty that is common to the life that we humans actually live. , the beauty that thrives under the ravages of time and experience”. .”
Shortridge could tackle a sloppy couple lazy with their gear in a park, a tanned gentleman squeezing a huge cigarette into his lips, a street preacher, or a bearded vagabond. All are shown here, captured with tender lens. It’s hard to know much more about them, or how they conversed or thought about this strange stranger with a motorized tripod. But it’s clear that Shortridge shared a deep connection with these people, if only for a split second of exposure, though probably longer. As someone explained during a panel discussion at the exhibit on Feb. 5, he wanted his subjects to feel seen. And by all indications, they did.
“I see you” is the great gift of the portrait. It is no exaggeration to relate Shortridge’s generosity to the circumstances of his own life. His daily outings on a motorized scooter alternated between invisibility and unwanted spectacle. The kids would watch him sometimes. Others made a clumsy effort to divert their attention. As his wife Carla Danley told the panel, he was cursed as both “invisible and hyper-visible”.
In typical Shortridge fashion, he sometimes turned invisibility to his advantage. In crowded situations where other street photographers might attract attention, he could go unnoticed in his wheelchair. While the powers of observation of others sometimes wavered, Shortridge suffered no such barriers. “He could see right into people’s hearts,” someone told the panel. A colleague expressed amazement that he could somehow see others remotely on the phone. Fortune, ugliness, scars and health were all subsumed by his x-ray powers. “My aim is not to record the dazzling beauty that turns all heads,” he wrote, “but to s to stop long enough for the quiet beauty that waits almost invisibly everywhere one turns, the beauty of experience, of sadness, of kindness, to be revealed.”
Blue Sky’s back office should be of particular interest to locals. This space features Shortridge’s portraits of Portland, photographed after he and Danley moved to the city in 2009 until 2014, when health issues forced a brief hiatus from photography. Broadly, this work is similar to the Dupont Circle series, covering a similar demographic, also in medium format monochrome. But this period is generally more intimate and more framed on the faces. Shortridge had been shooting for several years at this point and knew what he wanted and how to get it. Forget the landscape, the story, the mating or the place. He was after souls. The photographs are silent by nature, but this selection blankets in a ghostly silence, showing pursed mouths and glowing eyes. In one photo, a close-up of a woman’s gaze, the five-bladed aperture of Shortridge’s camera lens reflected in the background. For a split second, the heavens opened wide.
Is it exaggerated to feel the limits of mortality in these portraits? If it’s a bit ambiguous there, the weight of death is evident in the accompanying series. The last photos Shortridge worked on in 2018-19 were a series of house facades taken around Portland. His father had died in 2009. His body was failing him. He felt the reaper on the doorstep, and it was the doorstep he was looking for. As with people, he was particularly drawn to homes that needed a little TLC. He avoided certain neighborhoods if they didn’t feel inhabited long enough. To get his attention, a home might have to show off paint chips or yard debris or wrought iron or unraked leaves.
Despite Portland’s current wave of rebuilding, the city still has many homes like this. Shortridge was in his element here. As Danley noted during the roundtable, his home photos were in the realm of porn ruin, a well-worn photographic trope. But his version escaped the cliché. They were dignified and studious. They offer insight into Shortridge’s final tour, documenting his surroundings in a statement of existence, death and exploration. In recent years, the big wheel of life matched those of his scooter.
Bobby Abrahamson followed many of these late releases. A friend and colleague, he first brought Shortridge’s work to Blue Sky’s attention. He also organized the artwork on display and printed much of it in his darkroom. The prints hang lower than normal, for wheelchair accessibility. All in all, it’s a monumental feat, and one assumes Shortridge would be pleased with it. But who knows? He was ambivalent about exhibiting during his lifetime, focusing more on offering prints than exhibiting them. Such posthumous preservation is a delicate matter, full of aesthetic and archival questions. Ask the editors of Mike Disfarmer, EJ Bellocq or Vivian Maier. Open questions remain, and that’s fine. But overall this exhibition is a triumph. It should be of interest to hardcore photographers, the general public, local historians, and anyone else feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic.
Shortridge district: The beauty that thrives under the ravages of time is at the Blue Sky Gallery until February 26, 2022
www.blueskygallery.org, 122 NW 8th, Portland — Open Wednesday through Friday, 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Saturday by appointment