Jon Gottshall | Issue Nine Interview

December 5, 2019

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your work 

 

I fell in love with photography when I was 19, when I realized it was at the center of my mental spider-web. Beyond the taking of photos, all of my other interests—history, psychology, science, social and environmental issues—are well represented by photographs, ever since photography was invented. 

 

I got my MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art, where I studied with some notable photographers, Abelardo Morell and Frank Gohlke being the two I remember most fondly.

I teach photography now at ACMA (Arts & Communication Magnet Academy), an art-focused public school in Beaverton. I still teach film photography and still believe it is the best way to learn about photography. I require students take a year of darkroom practice before they move onto digital photo.

 

What potential do you feel artists have to help bring about change? 

 

I think artists bring awareness. They break through the restrictive norms of social boundaries, and open up issues that would not be otherwise considered. Another element is ‘seeing-is-believing,” where existing, unacceptable conditions are made visible by an artist’s curious and persistent eye. This has been the story of photography since its inception, be it Roger Fenton’s war images, Jacob Riis’s tenement scenes, Lewis Hine’s work on child labor, or photojournalists showing the victims of famine, photographers have brought serious social and environmental issues into public awareness.

 

Tell us about the themes you pursue in your work. 

 

My current work concerns an existential theme: how do we as humans manage to live sustainably on Planet Earth without being toxic to other forms of life? My specific window onto this question is close to my home: I live less than a mile from Oregon’s largest superfund site. The last 10 miles of the Willamette River, before it joins the Columbia River, is known as the Portland Harbor. This stretch of the river has been heavily industrialized for over a century. The upland and in-stream sediments are heavily contaminated with creosote, PCBs,  petroleum distillates and heavy metals.

The Willamette is no different from how rivers have been treated as they flow through cities anywhere in the world. Like most navigable rivers, the Willamette continues to see oil and industrial chemicals barged upstream and down, chemicals that, if accidentally spilled or released, are toxic to aquatic life. 

 

The Willamette River’s contaminated sediments are slowly being remediated, but the question remains: How do we in Portland help the ecosystem to regain its vitality while we continue to use the river as an industrial highway? This is my backyard, so to speak, but the situation is global. If we can’t figure this out, we’re literally in a world of hurt. 

 

What art do you most identify with?

 

I identify with art that is that is a form of inquiry, where the artist is using their skills to dig into a problem, a phenomenon of imagination or of the world outside. I don’t care much for pretty pictures; I want to see the artist trying to discover or uncover something they are driven to understand better.

 

Is there something you couldn't live without in your studio? what is your most essential tool? 

 

As a photographer, I the most essential thing I use is light. A camera is just a light-capture device.

 

What place do you think artists have in the political sphere? 

 

All expression is in some way political, whether it be conservative or avant-garde. Art challenges the status quo, that is why Plato wanted to censor artists in his Republic & dictators jail them. 

 

What do you feel the role of artists and photographers is in society? 

 

What it has always been—to communicate social values and ideas, to observe and record, to raise issues that both challenge and reinforce the status-quo, and of course, artists also entertain. 

 

 Are there any upcoming exhibitions or projects in the works?

 

 I am showing my Willamette River/Portland Harbor photographs this December (2019) at Gallery 114 in Portland OR.   < www.gallery114pdx.com>    The title of the show is "16 Cranes" the number of industrial cranes located along the Portland Harbor.  The opening is Dec. 5th.

 

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