Do We Care Enough to Notice? A Conversation with Photographer Jon Gottshall by Julianna Paradisi

One of my favorite parts of being a member of an art gallery, is the opportunity to not only view the art of my colleagues, but to also pose the questions their work raises in my mind. This post is a result of such an opportunity. My gratitude to photographer Jon Gottshall for indulging me.

Floodplain is the latest series of archival inkjet photography by Jon Gottshall, exhibited through April at Gallery 114 . The images focus on the natural and man-made environments along the floodplains of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers.  


Gottshall’s landscape images have an intimacy that takes one beyond the gallery walls, lulling viewers into a sense of meandering along the rivers’ shore, discovering feathers woven into a chain-link fence, or paddling a kayak downstream. The seeming effortlessness of these scenes evokes iPhone photos taken on a day hike- until you’re drawn in and discover you’re being led to what Gottshall wants you to see. Floodplain demands the viewer acknowledges that for many, nature is merely something in the background we wander through without connection, lost in our own thoughts and purposes.
I had the pleasure to interview Gottshall via email about Floodplain.


Julianna Paradisi: Jon, what was your epiphany moment about the slough as an environmental necessity, and the impact industrial use has on it, leading you to create Floodplain?


Jon Gottshall: My epiphany moment was about 4 years ago, walking down the bluff just west of the University of Portland to the floodplain below. I’d read about the superfund sites along the north end of the river, but had never really explored it until then. I’d live in SE Portland for 24 years, and had ridden my bicycle a zillion times along the nearby corridor of the river, from the Steel Bridge to the Sellwood Bridge. I’d spent countless hours photographing along that stretch, which is mostly green now. There’s been a lot of restoration along the riverbank; Oaks Bottom, on the east bank below Sellwood, had been re-established as a wetland. Across on the west bank, Willamette Park had a butterfly garden replanted.
That’s what I was used to seeing. The landscape I saw before me now was nothing like that- it was scraped flat, fenced off, barren of trees and only defiant weeds sprouted from the bare dirt. And this was land already remediated from its former contaminated status. Across the river, the south bank is covered with ‘tank farms,’ the huge fuel & chemical storage tanks accessed by barges, railroad tanker cars and underground pipelines.
It was then that I wondered ‘how on Earth does this place recover, when it is still being used as an industrial corridor?’
That’s the long-term goal, I know, but how does it work?


JP: Besides protecting the only habitable planet known to humans, what do you consider is the artist’s role in protecting the environment? Do you have a vision of the artist as an environmentalist?


JG: I don’t know if it’s an artist’s responsibility to address social issues, more than it’s anyone else’s responsibility. During the Vietnam War, what’s the biggest art movement of the period? Minimalism.
But it certainly is within our purview. I’ve been photographing urban and urbanish landscapes for many years, moving in this direction almost imperceptibly. I began to focus more on the wild/urban interface along the river, especially near the old Sellwood Bridge. The interface fascinated me, how we bulldoze nature under and how nature rebounds the minute we neglect “maintenance.” The issue has grown in my mind by slow degrees, and walking along the riverbank north of the U of P, it all came home to me. I don’t see it as a “responsibility” but it is a fascination which has gotten bigger the more I’ve pursued it.
From first admiring a lovely weed that grew in this least lovely place, I now think of this issue as prototypical for waterways nearly everywhere humans have developed industries. This is Portland’s situation, but Seattle, San Francisco, St Louis, any city that grew up along a waterway (which I think is all of them except maybe Atlanta, which grew up along rail heads), they all have superfund sites located in wetlands. We never thought about poisoning the environment on a massive scale until we’d already done it. So, how do we still develop industries and not be toxic to the life next door? That’s my operative inquiry.
Political art, which is the meta-title for advocacy artwork, often looks pretty dated after the moment has passed. I want, in my images, to make sure there is something specific, rooted in this place and this moment, as well as something more universal at the same time. I’d like to imagine someone looking at my photos in 100 years would still find them interesting, perhaps even more so, because they stand up as landscape images illustrating a poignant part of our history.


JP: Several images of Floodplain are punctuated with quotes by Ryan Pemberton. Who is Pemberton, and why are his words included in the exhibition?


JG: Ryan Pemberton was the author of a 2017 Master’s Thesis from Portland State concerning the history of the Slough. It was something I really needed. Mr Pemberton discussed the Columbia Slough floodplain specifically, but also dealt with our historic views of the land and what it is good for. Land that wasn’t used to grow something or produce something from was considered in our culture to be wasted space. Wetlands especially were seen as places of pestilence and disease, even thought to cause floods. Draining them was a priority. Now, of course, we know that wetlands help prevent floods, and they are most often the most biologically productive lands around, doing millions of dollars of good work for us for free. We never thought to calculate that before. We’re just starting to do that now.


JP: I was struck by how the Floodplain images draw the viewer in, as though you’re guiding us on a tour of the Columbia Slough. The effortless feeling of the photographs belies your professional skills, apparent in the compositions, and lighting. What is your process? Do you go looking for a specific shot? Once you find a subject, do you wait patiently for exactly the right moment to click the shutter, or do you allow serendipitous images to occur?


JG: I’ve never done well going out looking for specific shots. Of course, I do that, because I have some goals in mind when I set out, but often the shots I thought I was going for don’t work out as well as I’d hoped. I burn through all of my pre-loaded ideas quickly. That always brings up a “well, now what?” moment, which is when things get interesting. I follow whatever direction my intuition leads me, usually a much more interesting direction than what I’d anticipated. Then I’m curious about what I’ve seen & photographed, which makes me do more research, which makes me more curious to explore further…a “virtuous cycle.”


JP: You teach full time, including photography to high school students. What challenges and/or assets does this bring to your practice?


JG: As far as teaching goes, time is my biggest conflict. Teaching full time if more than full time, and I have to steal moments to do my own work. Getting prepared for my own exhibit, I stopped assessing student work at all during Spring Break, and I just this week dug out from under the pile of assignments I’d neglected. But on the other hand, I can speak to students from the point of “I do this too” and I show them my work. I edit some of it in front of them, showing them how editing is essential in finishing their images. For this show, my history class was studying Celilo Falls and how it affected the Native Americans that have historically lived along the river, fishing for salmon. The Columbia Slough is a similar example, Native villages were moved away and the sensitive floodplain was viewed through an economic development lens and drained.
My Urban Design class was studying the effect of urban development on surface streams. Relevant! And of course, my photo classes…
As I mentioned above, this interest has been creeping on me for years, moving from neighborhood night scenes to riverside night scenes, to considering how we live along rivers, to…this. It’s been an evolutionary process. Where I’m at right now feels like a logical destination in the direction I’ve been heading for years.
I mean, I shoot 100’s of shots walking around my neighborhood, but mostly that’s me doing sketches. Often I shoot some I really like, images that would be good for a show, but they probably won’t get one. I’m feeling pretty committed to staying with this story for a while yet, and whatever follows will probably have some larger human-environmental interface undergirding it.
The big question that occupies my mind is “do people notice enough to care? Do we care enough to notice?” That’s the million dollar question. I’m trying to open the issue in a way that makes folks think about the way we use land, especially invisible land like the Portland Harbor (superfund site) and the Slough, in a more considered way, by making it visible.

Floodplain, archival inkjet photography by Jon Gottshall, at Gallery 114

Floodplain, on view at Gallery 114, 1100 NW Glisan Street, Portland, OR, closes Saturday, May 1. Gallery hours are Friday 12-3 and Saturday 12-6. Floodplain is viewable online at http://www.gallery114pdx.com. Learn more about Jon Gottshall at jongottshall.com

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