by Leslie Hickey
I find them in the landscapes I am drawn to: in-between and ordinary places. Forgotten corners of wilderness, circumscribed by cities. Kelley Point is this kind of place; often empty, though never quiet.
An Antarctic seascape. The water broken by an island of sharp black rocks. The pale blues of ice. The waves crash, attended by blankets of yellow-tinged foam. The sky is like a Turner painting, heavy with thick roiling clouds the dark purple of a bruise. The island is besieged by squawking birds that are black, or white, or, like penguins, black and white, but a definitive number and color remain just out of reach. Watching all of this turbulence, standing alone in a building full of windows, a lookout tower, waiting, fixed. Slowly I wake up, and I can hear the cause of my dream world turbulence: crows. The relentless caws seem to amplify their numbers, and with the lingering effects of sleep, I am sure there are dozens of them just outside my window. Walking into the yard, I search for the birds that so effortlessly made their way into my subconscious. Looking up, I realize there aren’t so many crows. The few that remain stay hidden in the two great maple trees just south of me, still full of leaves in early fall. The sky is flat grey, a thick marine layer of clouds hangs low in the morning sky, common this time of year in the Pacific Northwest. The light is right, but I know it won’t last long. Soon the sun will burn through and it will be another brilliant fall day, creating shadows too harsh for what I am after.
These days, I use a large format camera. A handsome machine purchased from a nice doctor in Kansas beautifully crafted of wood and gold plate. A camera that may have been destined for a display shelf has become my mainstay. It suits me. It requires a meticulous approach, but rewards me with infinitely detailed negatives. There is a system to working with this kind of camera, the steps easier if you can embrace a methodical routine: load the film in the holders, organize the holders, make sure the light meter is there, make sure the changing bag is there, make sure the extra film box is there, find the focusing loop, the pencil, and the tiny notebook to record exposures. Usually I can coax someone to be my assistant, my wife or another photographer friend, but today I am alone. I load the camera, tripod and the rest of my gear onto the passenger seat and begin the nine mile drive towards the edge of the city and Kelley Point.
On the way, there are spiderwebs wrapped around the ends of branches like the most delicately spun cotton candy. I’ve done my research. These are not spiders, but caterpillars, webworms, that have already started constructing their nests. Living in large colonies, they create worlds unto themselves, spinning cocoons to last through the winter. The webs protect against predators, birds and other insects, and the weather. I think of them, happily eating more and more leaves, viewing the outer world through a thick gauze. I find them in the landscapes I am drawn to: in-between and ordinary places. Forgotten corners of wilderness, circumscribed by cities. Kelley Point is this kind of place; often empty, though never quiet. At the confluence of two great rivers, the Willamette and the Columbia, the sounds of industry are always present: tugboats, tankers, and trains. On warmer days, motorboats and jetskis add to the din. This afternoon, lugging my camera up the beach, I hear the sonic booms of twin fighter jets. I stop to watch them fly over half a dozen times. I train the camera toward the sky, but realize the futility of trying to photograph a fast jet with a slow film camera. By the time I drop under the dark cloth and apply the focusing hood to the ground glass, the jets will be long gone. I put the camera over my shoulder and walk on.
Another day and I am back at the park. I find small crosses of white spray paint on the Himalayan blackberries. The canes grow with tenacity, forming immense thickets throughout the woods. Introduced more than one hundred years ago for their fruit and picturesque brambles, they quickly escaped captivity and began to overtake open land throughout Western Oregon. Now, the blackberries are everywhere and so is the spray paint, markings for where to put the new signs that read “DANGER: Do not enter water” in fifteen languages. In August, a young man and a ten-year-old girl drowned at Kelley Point within a week and a half of each other, prompting an abrupt closure of the park through the last of the hot summer weather. Their deaths leave behind these marks, warnings of the threat present just beneath the water’s surface. For the seven years we have lived in North Portland, my wife and I would often go out to Kelley Point to swim, usually on Fridays, when the weather grew oppressive. We would stay on the Willamette side because the boat traffic there is less. The view is bucolic; across the water on a slight rise are the small structures that form one of the oldest farming communities in Portland. The river water is murky, but once you wade in deeper and begin to swim, it is a relief. Such a contrast from the astringent chlorine of a public pool, it feels thrilling to swim without the boundary of concrete walls and lifeguard whistles. To swim is to be free. With the sound of water in my ears, I feel both deeply a part of the world and separate, my senses skewed to the rhythm of a stroke. I watch my hands glide through the water, thinking about nothing, feeling content, enjoying the relief of cool water.
But, it is September now, and I am walking the paths with a heavy camera, turning away from the slough and toward the road, feeling the loss of my swimming hole. I find myself daydreaming of a similarly in-between space, wild and tame at the same time. More than a year ago I was in Abruzzo, in the mountains of Italy with a tiny group of MFA photography students and teachers. I remember spotting a dead fox on the side of the road and asking for the car to stop. It had started to rain, and I looked at that fox near the darkened pavement, thinking about Frederick Sommer and his portrait of a flattened jack rabbit on a road in the American Southwest. The elegance and rhythm of that portrait was lacking in this very wet fox with matted fur and missing eyes laying in thick mud, an empty packet of cigarettes nearby. I did not take the picture; the pursuit of photography being more an art of exclusion than inclusion. The act of choosing this over that.
I keep walking, now following the grass lined road that leads back to the parking lot. Suddenly, I smell the sweetly sick scent of something dead, hidden among the greenery, a mix of blackberries, stinging nettles and grasses. I am standing with my camera, leaning toward the bushes and looking half-heartedly for the unknown source, but it remains out of sight. Here in the wildness closest to home, I am thinking about the fox in the road. I am thinking about this sweet smell of decay and the way a body floats on water. I am thinking about the push and pull of the world, the difference between fighter jets and a sailboat, how in a moment I can feel bowled over by memory, pulled under by the past. I am thinking about the new signs here at my favorite swimming place, and how my dream of a clashing sea and sky has continued to seep into my day. I am thinking about next summer and what it will be like, when the weather grows warm, out at Kelley Point.