Signs of Life on a Bus Line in Portland
Here is a story about a photographer and writer who found an uncharted world … in Portland, OR. Geoffrey Hiller is known for his award-winning projects about Vietnam, Myanmar and Brazil. His book Daybreak in Myanmar includes work from 1987 through the country’s historic opening in 2012. He lives in Portland, one block from the #75 Bus. His partner on this exploration is Tom Vandel, a freelance copywriter/creative director with a one-man firm in Portland known as Les Overhead (his alter-ego). Vandel works in print, web, video, outdoor and social media and is also author and co-creator (with artist Karen Wippich) of the book Driving Strangers: Diary of an Uber Driver.
Hiller and Vandel’s new project, Bus 75, which they’ve worked on for the past year, is about a Portland bus line that travels almost 20 miles through the east side of town. I was smitten by this colorful inner-city exploration and the story it tells about America’s hidden-in-plain-sight vernacular treasures. Here, Hiller tells us more.
How has the project evolved? I began the Bus 75 project over a year ago, and as I began working on the blog with writer Tom Vandel I began to include more people in the photographs. Tom came on board two months ago, and his knack for interviewing subjects has energized me. We have even been riding the bus together, and are posting a new vignette each week. One guest essay has appeared so far, by Jarrett Walker, a transportation expert, and we hope to include more. An exhibit is in the works for later this year at a venue along the 75 line. A book may follow.
What gave you the idea and inspiration to use the bus as your moveable feast? Up until now it has been a creative challenge to make photographs in Portland since I live here. It’s too easy to take the place for granted. Since my work has taken me out of the country a lot, I have a tendency to overlook the uniqueness of the mundane surrounding me at home.
The iPhone was part of the reason for beginning this project. The beauty of using the phone is that there isn’t anything precious about the images. In some way it’s just a continuation of shooting with a digital “point and shoot” camera. The phone just takes that a step further.
The bus is a perfect ‘vehicle’ to show the enormous changes taking place in Portland right now. I started out on another bus line, but eventually chose the #75 because it went through pockets of the city that are overlooked, not being downtown or in the more trendy neighborhoods. That’s where the ‘hidden Portland’ aspect comes in. I also live a block away from a bus stop on this route. I can hear it late at night.
What were the biggest surprises? In the early stages of the project I focused on photographing the built environment and the landscape, which in the Pacific Northwest is picturesque. Even in the industrial parts of town there are stands of Doug Firs and other giant trees in the background. They are hard to escape.
I slowly began to include people in my photographs, but kept my distance. Not lifting the camera up to my eye was an advantage. Since almost everyone else on the street was on the phone, it was easy for me to blend in, even in the close confines inside the bus.
Overall people were receptive to being photographed. I sometimes got the sense that they were hungry to connect with others face to face. If you approach them at the right time they are open and accepting.
What is it about Portland that gives you such a thrill? It isn’t so much me being charmed by Portland, but the desire to show things the way they are. Frankly this city is quite homogenous, not nearly as dynamic or diverse as New York, or even other cities of its size.
When I started out in photography I was turned off by the New Topographics school of photography, for example, by the images of Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz. Frankly that work, focusing on strip malls and parking lots, felt cold to me. I have been more at home working in the documentary tradition coming out of New York and Europe, of photographers like Bruce Davidson and Mary Ellen Mark. Their work spoke more to me on an emotional level.
Is there another city where you’d get the same satisfaction doing a similar feat? Perhaps one day I’ll return to the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up, Canarsie. That would make an interesting story because it cuts so close to the bone for me. Back in the ’80s I began photographing a project along the A train.
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