Industrial Landscapes

Industrial yard and porta potty

(Click on the image see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

I took this shot with my Samsung smartphone, which has a mediocre lens, even for cellphones. Even then, it can occasionally capture something special.

This location is at the corner of SE 26th Avenue and SE Steel Street, in sourtheast Portland, Oregon. I used to bike by here decades earlier, when I attended college a few blocks away. Despite Portland’s massive gentrification, some neighborhoods outside of the Port of Portland still have the blue-collar industries that used to dominate the economy not long ago.

My first memory of Portalnd was of that time, and I loved its grittiness when I first came here. That seems long gone now.

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The Brooklyn intermodal rail yard, still chugging and causing a fuss

For more than a year in my 20s, I lived within a half mile of this large track of industrial land in southeast Portland, now run by the Union Pacific Corp. The yard itself dates to 1860s, and today serves as a Union Pacific transfer point, where cargo is either moved from rail cars to trucks for local distribution or vice versa to the rail system.

A huge fight broke out in the 1950s between the rail yard owners and neighbors in the Eastmoreland and Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhoods. A more than five-decades long injunction limiting some rail yard activity was lifted in 2012, and the Union Pacific moved forward with a planned upgrade worth $75 million. However, pollution by the yard is being monitored with the help from nearby Reed College. In 2014, the head of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association bought a drone to monitor activity at the yard. The association represents the upscale subdivision in southeast Portland that is next to the rail yard. I guess it remains, trust but verify in my part of this city. Seriously, a neighborhood association is now using a drone to promote its interests against a major U.S. corporation.

Portland’s industrial landscapes

Portland seems to be associated with Nike, Portlandia, Intel, and hipsters in the national imagination. But for those of us who live here, the city itself tells a story of international shipping, truck manufacturing, rail traffic, shipbuilding, and other heavy industries. And still, this Portland never seems to make a blip on the national consciousness. Well, here are a couple of pictures of the Portland I see every day.

Swan Island Shipyards, Portland

Most of Portland, Ore’s heavy industry is located on the banks of the Wilamette River. The Swan Island Shipyard is one biggest areas dedicated to what are still high-paying, blue collar jobs. I took these pictures from the bluff overlooking the yards southward, from the campus of the University of Portland. The shipyard has a storied history dating to World War II, when Kaiser was in the business of building ships, not running a health insurance monopoly. (Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Port of Seattle icon

The Port of Seattle is surrounded by light and heavy industrial facilities, including a former cement kiln seen here. There are endless forms, shapes, and typologies to photograph and document in this area. I could spend days in these spaces and still never tell their story.

The industrial Duwamish in south Seattle

The Duwamish River, in south Seattle, is a U.S. federal Superfund cleanup site and one of the most developed industrial landscapes in the Pacific Northwest. The area is dotted with cargo container barges, cement factories, shipping and receiving warehouses, and other industrial facilities. Believe it or not, fish swim up this river to spawn, and people fish on this waterway every summer.

Port of Tacoma, the old and new economy

Every work day I drive past the bustling port of Tacoma, hub of global commerce and home to heavy industry. It is blue-collar to the core, and unashamedly so. (I always wonder what kinds of organized crime take place here–my bet is quite a lot.) I also find the port to be one of the most fascinating manmade landscapes in the Northwest. I have started a series of photographs that I am calling Manufactured Landscapes. Here is one in black and white that I published on my web site in color. I like it in both color and black and white. This was taken from downtown Tacoma, looking east upon the port, where you can get a visual sampling of some of the major industry players that call it home.

Under the spell of Bernd and Hilla Becher

My current expression through still photography, at this moment in time, remains heavily influenced by the highly acclaimed German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. The husband-wife duo (Bernd has passed on) influenced perhaps the most acclaimed and financially successful photographers of the past 20 years, through their late-in-life work at the “Dusseldorf School of Photography.” The Bernds’ now famous protégé‎s/students include Thomas Ruff and Andres Gursky. The latter is now on record for selling the world’s most expensive photographic print.

The Bernds were deeply enmeshed in showcasing industrial forms, which they arranged later in books and exhibitions as typologies. (Please read my post about their work and their influence.) They also were telling a story of the economy of the times and the industrial West, just as at was on its downward spiral, before the rise of industrial China and India.

My most recent photographic series on Tacoma and the Duwamish River industrial area of Seattle are in some ways indebted to this thinking, about how the industrial ports of the Pacific Northwest are the lands devoted to the overwhelming power of global trade, the last vestiges of Northwest industrial activity, and the world of high-paid blue collar work that is on the verge of extinction in the United States.

Here is the first of two provocative YouTube videos on the Bechers’ work and thinking, in their own words (you can see part two after part one finishes).