Over the course of a year, professional cinematographer Kevin Fletcher stepped into the shoes of a photographer to document Portland, Oregon’s ‘82nd Avenue of Roses,’ (simply known as 82nd Avenue until 2005 when it was renamed in light of Portland’s moniker, City of Roses). Officially a state highway built primarily for the movement of goods and freight, the street has become a sort of sociopolitical line. It is one of the longest streets in the city, running along the entire east side into suburbs to the south. In the midst of more than two straight months of Black Lives Matter and social justice protests following the police murder of George Floyd, the complexities of the city have recently unfolded onto the street.
“When I started the project, I felt a sense of distance between me and my city—like a wedge had been put between me and other people and I didn’t like that feeling… And I don’t think I was alone—a lot of people in the country were feeling this,” Fletcher says of his impulse to rediscover his surroundings. “Often derided, and by some even considered ugly, the street is not known for its ease or hospitality, but nonetheless, it is a necessary and functional part of the city,” he explains. “Like many photographers before me, I am drawn to the sublime beauty and stories that exist in places like this; places so normal, so daily, and so banal that we tend to overlook them.”
For years, Fletcher kept his still photography to himself. Avenue of Roses inspired him to continue to push himself creatively, tapping into his cinematography background to create compelling and stunning still images. In this interview for LensCulture, he speaks with Gina Williams about his relationship to the city, discovering the streets with his camera and how his work on this project changed his view of his hometown.
Gina Williams: Your series really speaks to me as a fellow Portlander and someone who has been fascinated with 82nd Avenue and places like it for some time. As you say, “Every city in the world has an ‘Avenue of Roses’—a place depicting the multi-layered relationships humans have with their constructed environments and urban landscapes. A place reflecting the socioeconomic strata of the broader city, and a place that speaks not only to isolation and disenfranchisement, but also speaks to how communities come together within these complex spaces.” How did this project come about?
Kevin Fletcher: I’m happy it spoke to you. 82nd Avenue evokes wide-ranging and interesting emotional responses from Portlanders. It is inherently interesting that a street can have such an aura. I started the project because I wanted to grow as a storyteller. Most of my motion work has been commercial in nature, which I love, but I wanted to do something more narrative that felt meaningful to me. I am often asked to speak to groups (usually students) about cinematography and one of the things I always say is that if you have a camera or a phone then you have the means to be a storyteller; to make a movie or do a stills project. Likewise, I tell them to choose a project that is achievable and within their means and not to put unnecessary barriers in front of themselves. Don’t try to make a 100-million-dollar film if you only have an iPhone.
So, essentially, this time I took my own advice, and committed myself to the 82nd Avenue project for a year. I’d been interested in the area for a long time—it represents the disappearing Portland, a socio-political line, and since I travel so much, I feel like I see a similar street in every city. I said I’d give myself a year to really connect to it. And now it’s a document.
In terms of what I came away with, it was important to me to do something local that I cared about. There is something about the broader culture of this area—a sense of separation between people. I mean, 82nd Avenue isn’t that far from my house. But it seems that we’re more separate now than we used to be, and I wanted to break through that—to reach out to the people in my city, my community, my neighborhood.
GW: What did this year on the street teach you about your city?
KF: Portland is a great city. It reaffirmed for me the reasons I live here. It’s a city that is working very hard to be accepting and accommodating and to improve, despite the fact that cities and urban environments are extremely complex and nuanced. Not to mention, everybody has a different idea about what facets need focus and improvement, so how does a city try to fix all things for all people? I learned that there is more commonality than difference. Generally speaking, we want the same things from our city: things like safety, good schools, decent jobs, efficient systems like public transit, and waste management, public spaces and respectful interactions.
GW: How did you go about establishing rapport with your subjects? What was your approach with Avenue of Roses?
KF: From day one, I was determined that I wasn’t going to hide, steal or be sneaky in terms of making images. In other words, I knew I was going to be working there a lot so if somebody were to see me on that street again, I want them to know who I am, and to trust me—perhaps even talk to me—I liked the human interaction. “I’m a Portlander, you’re a Portlander”: we have something in common. I carried my camera in my hand and made eye contact. I smiled or nodded or said hello. I gave people my name, phone number and website. We’re all just humans in the environment—humans in Portland. I’d often return to people I’d met with prints I had made or stop in and say hello. I had a favorite taco place I stopped at a lot for lunch. I was decisively present. I told myself: this is about my city.
GW: Did you ever take candid shots where you as the photographer were not present in the scene?
KF: I had no desire not to be there. I wanted to be a Portlander present in Portland with other Portlanders. Of course there are shots where I wasn’t ‘actively’ present, like architectural wide shots or when people are far away and not recognizable, or when looking at buildings from the sidewalk. But I wasn’t hiding either. There was the parade, and last August there was a large fire that burned down some buildings on 82nd (the oldest boxing gym in Portland which I had photographed a week earlier). There were crowds of people and media in the street watching and documenting the blaze, and in those cases I was taking photos that felt more like reportage of the event, and yet, those images still helped tell the story of the Avenue. Of course, when I was getting close to people and taking their photo then I was very honest with them—asking permission, describing the project, giving my name. It led to a number of wonderful interactions and conversations with people. And a lot of people declined to have their photo taken.
GW: Portland has changed a lot in the past 20 years and continues to change in terms of gentrification and urban ‘improvement’. What do you want your images to reveal about the complexities of these issues—and Portland itself?
KF: I think it was interesting to lean into the complexity of it. Technically 82nd is still a state highway, built for moving goods and freight and it’s low on the improvement priority list in terms of public safety and walkability. On Wikipedia it states that “five of the intersections along 82nd ranked among the most dangerous 5% of Oregon intersections.” There’s an effort underway to move the jurisdiction to the City of Portland in the hopes that it would help, but it’s a very trafficked busy street and solutions for improvement are not simple. I actually have photographs of a number of accidents.
The thing is, people are striving really hard. Really hard. And a lot of it is working; there are major school building improvements underway and there are community centers and parks. Groups are actively fighting the sex trafficking trade that afflicts the area. There is an annual parade (a lot of Portlanders don’t know about the 82nd Avenue Parade of Roses). There is a wonderful food culture that is ethnically diverse. In fact, it’s one of the most diverse areas of Portland, which is not a very diverse city. Shun Fat Supermarket, a new Asian grocery store opened last summer, for example.
So there is that striving and improvement happening, but also in the midst of desperation; areas like 82nd & Malden and 82nd & Flavel—well, I get emotional thinking about it—it’s hard to see. I just wanted to capture a sense of what this city, what we, are going through. This photo project will be quite fascinating in the future don’t you think? It captures this place in a certain time and era—the cars, the clothes and the lights.
GW: I enjoyed checking out your cinematography and I’d like to know more about your inspirations and the influence of filmmaking on your still work.
KF: If you think about going to the cinema, it is the act of sitting with a story. So, as a Director of Photography (DP), I have worked hard to learn the craft of storytelling. And this also translates to when I’m photographing. I’m thinking about story all the time. Both cinematography and still photography are acts of intuition, but on a film set you need to know in advance what you are doing, where the lights are going, etc. On this still project I could let my intuition play out over time; I could sense when a place had a story.
One example is the shot in the series of the empty chair with the fire pit and the boots. 82nd Ave passes over Johnson Creek. On my walks I had sensed something interesting about this overpass and had photographed there a number of times, but the images weren’t really telling an interesting story—they were cliché and didn’t capture anything unique. Intellectually, I kept thinking the photo—the story—would be under the overpass. On my third time back, there was this scene looking not under the overpass but in the opposite direction. Someone had recently been sitting there. The chair, the boots. And those boots—they’re like something from the 1930s. It all just appeared. If I were to go back now, it would be different again. It’s such a transitory place.
In terms of influence and inspiration, I tapped into my cinema training naturally. I have many people I could name who are inspirations to me as cinematographers (Bradford Young, Roger Deakins, Harris Savides, Greig Fraser, and on and on), but I am also passionate about still photography. Look at the storytelling, intensity and beauty in work like Trent Parke’s Minutes to Midnight. Talk about capturing the mood of a place.
GW: What do you want your images to reveal about Portland itself— a place where a radical ask not that long ago was simply to demand better sidewalks?
KF: I want them to reveal exactly that—that it is immensely complex. I think we often want simple solutions, but urban environments and living in close proximity with diverse populations is not simple, and that’s ok. Perhaps we should celebrate the complexity of it while also trying to make better lives for one another.
GW: Your images have all the energy and storytelling quality of cinema. Is this something you strive for or does it sort of happen naturally thanks to your cinematography background?
KF: When you say, ‘Cinematic,’ what are you thinking of? What is cinematic to you in a still shot?
GW: I’m thinking about story—every shot of yours tells a story and you mentioned storytelling as a big part of your cinematography background. Your images also have a special quality of light and richness of color.
KF: Yes, the story is key. When I am planning a shoot as a DP, I have lots of conversations with the director and production designer about mood and tone and there is clear direction. I think I now inherently seek out images with layers of storytelling and it’s not even always conscious anymore. Likewise, I think I have a tendency to create a ‘look’ for each story I am working on. Also, there are cinematic techniques, for example, atmosphere. In movies, you can create atmosphere and fog. In street photography, you have to find the fog. In my work, you can see this at play.
It was about 5:30 in the morning. The sun was creating ambient light that was balancing with the lights of the signs. In terms of composition, I liked where I was standing with the stop sign on the upper left corner, and then the figures appeared in a wonderful spot below the neon motel lights, and it was great. But then the car lights rose into the scene as a backlight and I knew the shot was going from great to really great. It’s the car lights that really give it a cinematic feel. Also in cinematography, you don’t just shoot a single shot, but you have coverage so there are wide establishing shots, mediums, closeups and detail shots that combine to create scenes. I am really interested in this as a still photographer—the bridge between what works in motion and in stills.
GW: Do you have any particular stories about working on the project—moments of connection with people you met or interesting experiences while making the images?
KF: I met so many interesting people and had many, many unique interactions. In some early project drafts, I wrote about a particular moment:
It is twilight. The Portland sky lacks nuance. It’s painted the same gray as the sidewalk, but without the texture. The 7-Eleven sign to my right is so bright I can hear it. A man walks toward me carrying two buckets, both of them white. Encounters on the sidewalk are few and far between, but a bus-stop sits nearby so this corner has more foot traffic than most. He approaches directly but walks wobbly.
“The buckets are heavy,” is the first thing he says. I can see the stress in his jaws. He asks if he can borrow my phone to call Joe. I tell him I’ll dial the number. “Life has been tough lately,” he tells me, but he also says he is trying to do right. The number I dialed is ringing—Joe answers. I hand my phone to the man with the buckets. He tells Joe he’s on his way, but he doesn’t have enough for the bus. He’ll be late. When the call is done, the man quotes Shakespeare, “A rose by any other name…”
I’m not sure what he’s trying to tell me. Maybe he wants to let me know that I shouldn’t count him out. Maybe he’s talking about the street. I ask to take his photo. He says yes and is comfortable but doesn’t look at the camera—it’s a profile shot. I don’t know what was in the buckets, but I wish I had looked. I give the man money for the bus and walk away down the Avenue of the Roses.
GW: Sorrow and hope all at once. And as you said before, it’s a place of both striving and desperation. What’s the story behind the men pictured with the propane tank?
KF: I was at a strange point in the project. Like I mentioned, I told myself I would stick to it for a year, but I was a couple of months in and it wasn’t going well. The images were very formal and all about aesthetics—not enough about people and humanity. It was very early in the morning—maybe 5:30 a.m. and from a distance, I saw the light from the propane fire under the I-84 overpass. The men were warming up in a homeless camp under the freeway. I seriously debated whether I should approach them—there was some fear, I guess.
But I also knew that if I wanted to make images that spoke about 82nd and Portland then this was the kind of scene I should be portraying. I approached them and asked if I could take a photo. There was some tension; I don’t know—perhaps they thought I was the police—perhaps I was showing my nervousness. They said I’d have to talk to the camp ‘mayor’ who was in a tent right by the propane fire. The mayor came out of his tent and gave me permission. He really grilled me as to why I was taking pictures, but I told him my name (which he wrote in a small book) and described the project and my desire to capture a sense of life on 82nd. I think he could tell I was nervous, but he began to trust me, and the tension diffused.
He then sat by the fire, pulled out a roll of hundred-dollar bills and counted them in front of me. I photographed the group and then wanted to take his portrait. He had three teardrop tattoos on his face which he turned toward me, so I could clearly see them. That interaction changed the project. I recommitted myself to the fact that I would not hide, that I would be honest and present. A few weeks later I returned with a print for him. Not long after that, the city cleared the area out and filled it with boulders to prevent homeless camps and I’ve never been able to find those men again.
Editor’s note: Kevin Fletcher won the first place for this series in the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2020. Check out the finalists and winners to discover more new, inspirational takes on the tradition of street photography.