Geoffrey Hiller's Hidden Portland

The human, natural, and built environment along TriMet's #75 bus line.

By Daven Mathies

After catching a movie at the Hollywood Theater sometime earlier this year, a few friends and I ducked into the Moon and Sixpense to escape the cold and throw some darts at a wall. I had never been to the dimly lit British pub tucked away on NE 42nd less than a block from the busy Sandy boulevard, and yet it felt familiar. It hit me like a déjà vu, this uncanny sensation that I had seen this place before. And then I realized I had, only not in person — in a photograph.

The image I was remembering (above) was taken by Geoffrey Hiller, part of his Bus 75: Hidden Portland project that he received a Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) grant for last year. Pro Photo Supply pledged support of the project by funding the print gallery that will be on display at Concordia University from October 14 through December 18.

Being in the Moon and Sixpense and thinking of that photograph as if it were my own memory was a testament to the power and importance of photography. I recently caught up with Hiller to learn more about the project, the ideas behind it, and where it will go from here.

Living online as an image-rich blog, Bus 75 is a joint effort between Hiller and writer Tom Vandel. Through images and words, the project tells the story of the “great unknown” of Portland that prevails along the 20 miles of TriMet’s #75 bus line. The project is best explained by its own description on the homepage:

From upper St. Johns to downtown Milwaukie, the 75 passes a vast array of places and spaces that are often out of view and out of the ordinary. Oddball specialty stores, old-school barbershops, subterranean music scenes, ethnic cultural centers, family-owned sausage parlors and tire purveyors, and unknown spots where people are doing uncommon things.

The project has been running for close to a year now, a result of Hiller’s desire to focus his lens on his hometown. Known for his work abroad, Hiller tells me he’s struggled when trying to photograph his own back yard. But inspiration came when he boarded the #75 bus just one block from his home. He began to notice all of the changes happening in Portland, particularly in St. Johns.

While Hiller certainly acknowledges there’s an aspect of the project that focuses on the disappearing Portland, he doesn’t intend to make overt commentary on it. “A lot of people are trying to pick up on the gentrification aspect of the project, and we can’t deny that. We know it exists. We allude to it. But at the end of the day, the Portland Mercury and Willamette Week already do a good job reporting on that,” he explains.

Instead, Hiller is looking for a different angle, something that will fill in the blanks between the story of gentrification and the celebration of the old Portland. There are ideas and themes that a photograph can hint at even when words fail to describe them, and his camera seeks out those themes. “You cross Hawthorne on Caesar Chavez and all of a sudden you notice cars parked on lawns,” he tells me.

There are 131 stops along route 75, and Hiller has gotten off at many of them, some of them multiple times. He’s in this project for the long haul, and returns to the same locations three or four times to photograph particular subjects. “I’m a proponent of slow journalism, slow photography,” he explains. “In order to do good work, it takes time, you have to go back.”

Hiller’s photographic approach is that of a selective realist. He picks his subjects and frames them carefully, but he doesn’t seek to romanticize them. While many of his Bus 75 photos include people, few could be labeled as portraits. He tells me he’s grown more attuned to aspects of place, and his “slow photography” approach reveals a quietness to the locations he visits.

It’s that quietness that makes the project so appealing. Any ordinary bus rider in the hustle of his morning commute could easily miss the details Hiller has worked so diligently to reveal. His work is a mindful investigation of the overlooked, inviting the viewer to peer into a world both familiar and uncommon; to see something differently, more importantly. It is the reason that the photograph from the Moon and Sixpense stuck with me as if it were my own memory; it was striking, yet ordinary.

It’s a feeling that Hiller is well aware of. In talking about the beautiful summer light we get in the Pacific Northwest, he recalls a time when he was out shooting until 10:00 p.m. “There was a melancholic feeling that took hold of me especially in the neighborhoods out at the edge of the city,” he says, searching for the best way to describe it. “The ‘Americana feeling.’”

But as much as Hidden Portland is a story of place, the characters that populate that place also play an important role. Spending so much time on the bus affords Hiller an opportunity to connect with other Portlanders. He’s very cautious about taking anyone’s photo on the bus, and relies almost exclusively on an iPhone as his primary camera in order to remain incognito in these situations. But many people have also warmed up to him quickly.

“Hopefully this doesn’t sound too weird,” Hiller begins, “but sometimes, one gets the feeling that the U S of A, even Portland, can be a very lonely place. I hate to be presumptuous, but it’s like the photographer as therapist. People will open up and share.”

Even for Hiller, inspiration doesn’t always come easy. Riding the same bus line time after time is a good way to closely examine an area, but it can also grow tiring. “Sometimes, I’m trying too hard,” he admits.

But he’s been doing this long enough now to know not to give up, and that inspiration is sometimes just a matter of perspective. “When you’re stuck,” he says, “turn around and look behind you.”

You can board the #75 every Monday at Bus75.org. Photos from the project will also be on exhibit at Concordia University from October 14 to December 18. For more of Geoffrey Hiller’s work, visit Hillerphoto.com.

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