Maybe you’ve seen her award-winning street photography on social media and in galleries. Maybe you know her from Blackfish Gallery (of which she’s a co-owner). Or from the Artist Union, a local critique group for budding film photographers. Maybe you know her as one of the original members of the Portland Darkroom. Or maybe this is your first introduction to Alice Christine Walker. But to say that Alice is an active member of many veins of the Portland photography community would be an understatement.
Behind The Camera: Alice Christine Walker
On top of all the elements listed above, Alice is a repair technician for analog-based photo booths and a freelance commercial photographer. “I'm taking two paths with my photography. I make my living as a commercial photographer, doing the gamut of things real estate photography, portraits, weddings, and working with artists, documenting them in their studios. It's a very rich, engaging career to have, which I feel really grateful for. And then on the art side, that practice has always really been just mine for me. It's only been in the last few years that I've decided to finally start showing my work,” explains Alice about the varied paths of her photography.
“That path [showing photographic work publicly] has been unfolding in a really beautiful way. The more work I've shown, the more I'm really clarifying why I'm doing what I'm doing and what stories I'm trying to tell,” Alice continues. “Through my ‘Nostalgia’ series, photographed at Viva Las Vegas, that's when I started asking myself, why am I called to this group of people? Why am I wanting to tell their story?” Alice’s “Nostalgia” series is a collection of candid black & white and color film street photography images. While she admits that there are multiple film stocks that she uses for her street photography, from Ilford FP4 to Kodak Tmax and Tri-X to the beloved Kodak Portra, all of the images in this series are about exploring the perceived innocence of “simpler times” while aiming to give the viewer a sense of increased empathy and connection to a collective group, the Rockabillies, who have found their “people”. This group has distilled the essence of the 1950s Americana down to pin-up fashion, hot rod cars, rock & roll music, casinos, and easy living. “Every year, in April, thousands of Rockabillies from all over the world flock to Las Vegas for their event, Viva Las Vegas. As I walked through the crowds, as a spectator, wearing my own mid-century vintage clothing and holding my 1950s Rolleiflex, I found myself overwhelmed with the shared sense of deja vu for a time and place I never lived,” states Alice. “Attempting to define identity is a uniquely human struggle. While we are connected to family by blood, many of us still go through life seeking out our chosen families. Finding one’s ‘people’ or ‘chosen family’ can feel like discovering the missing piece. Many of us inexplicably connect to different times in history or geographic locations. I would argue that finding ‘our people’ is one of the reasons that we travel. We all look outward into the world to make sense of our own inner one.”
“The street photography thing, it's interesting. It is a very pure, joyous format. I am so in love with now-ness. When you are able to be out in the world with your camera, engulfed purely in the present, you can just be an observer and see the dance that happens between objects and people, automobiles and buildings, shadows and light. When I started, it was very precious to me,” continues Alice. “It took a lot of personal growth to be able to start showing my images. Putting my work out in the world means being open to its success or its failure. I feel honored that it has been well received; that the work has won awards and been exhibited worldwide.”
Alice notes that having her street photography work shown in galleries is rare. “I think in a lot of formal photography galleries it's still seen as a lowbrow art,” she laments. “Street photography is actually quite complex. Is it a single image? Are you telling the story of a neighborhood? Are you telling the story of a city? Are you intentional about the time of day you’re photographing?” Alice questions. “It takes a certain type of mindfulness to understand the work you're putting out there and what it says besides just being a beautiful or well-composed image. But I don't think a lot of formal galleries approve of street photography. And I think that might, unfortunately, keep the genre on Instagram for a while,” says Alice.
“I think for as popular as street photography is right now and for how many images there are being made of it, if there's not a really strong narrative that goes with it, Instagram is the best forum at the moment.” Alice continues her thoughts on social media, “I know for a lot of people that it is the main way that they're showing their art and I absolutely commend them because it takes a lot of perseverance to keep showing up for yourself and your audience in that way. I'm personally a little disillusioned with Instagram right now. I consider Instagram a tool, but not my gallery, you know.” Alice points out that there are really great opportunities here in Portland to show your work outside of social media. “The Blue Sky Gallery drawers are fantastic. I’m really, really grateful that Blue Sky provides that opportunity for local artists where these images can be made into a print and they can be consumed in a more casual format by a broader audience that isn't just on Instagram.”
Alice points out that other street photographers have also found the Blue Sky drawers to be a great spot to display their images. “There's a group of us that are finding other ways to show this work. I'm on Women Street Photographers and Gulnara is doing the good work to highlight female street photographers and work with exhibition spaces worldwide to show street photography,” Alice continues. “Street photography is as close to a spiritual practice as I have. It's beautiful to be able to freeze these moments in time, but it is also a lot of work to take those moments and find a way or a platform to show them where they aren't just consumed and forgotten.”
“I'm never gonna stop doing street photography. It has opened up awareness in me of what story I am trying to tell and opened up a desire in me to tell bigger stories,” Alice states. “My art practice is ever-changing and developing, I'm still doing the things that I really love that are really simple and straightforward, like street photography with my Rolleiflex. But in terms of where I'm going with my art and a storytelling narrative path, it continues to unfold in a very rewarding way that's different from what I thought it would be,” Alice cheerfully shares. “As an artist, I am always asking myself questions, trying to understand myself better in the context of the world and why I am making the work I am making. I've realized I want to only tell stories I have personal experience with or communities that I'm a part of. Street photography revealed to me that there are other stories that I feel compelled to tell that aren't out on the streets,” Alice says of the departure she made for her most recent body of work.
Alice is a co-owner of Blackfish Gallery. “It is a unique gallery in that we all [the roughly 30 owners] equally own the gallery together,” she explains. “We all collaborate, make decisions, set the exhibition schedule, do the installations, support each other, and run the gallery. The gallery’s structure cultivates equity because it's not one or two people making decisions. We get to be in a space where you can show work that isn’t as commercially viable.”
Alice’s latest exhibition, about the grief of losing her father to incurable cancer, showed at Blackfish earlier this year. While processing her loss, she began to harness her practice of photography and self-portraiture as tools to explore the universal experience of grief. The work questions how the societal image of grief hinders one’s own grieving process and affects the way one expresses it. “Although grief is typically associated with death, the emotion is also experienced with other types of loss that affect us all regardless of age, race or gender. Grief has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions. Much like grief, this body of work is multifaceted, consisting of photographic images, video, and installation,” Alice describes the show. “Through my exploration, I learned that grief can be beautiful and transformative, that it should be honored and used as a tool in itself to mend,” she continues. “The intention of this exhibition was not to dwell in my own loss but rather through my vulnerability, to empower us to have broader conversations about grief. The essence of the show is rooted in advocacy and community to provide participants with information, resources, and tools so that we all can find belonging, support, and connection.”
It seems as though community is a huge component of Alice’s life and her work as an artist. Similar to [Behind the Camera Alumni] Mike Vos, Alice was a “student” of Charles Purvis and his project salon that he ran here in Portland for quite some time. “When Charles moved away, there was a void in my life in terms of a community that required accountability to make work, bring it in, and share it with others in a nurturing way,” says Alice. “And so I felt compelled to start a similar group where we're asking each other good questions and we're giving insight into the technical aspects of creating art,” Alice says, describing her Artist Union group. “I was very lucky to find a handful of other emerging photographers that were also analog based and it's been very rewarding, not only sharing the work that we're doing but having a community where you can ask questions that you feel like you can't ask a stranger.” Alice says the group discusses things like how to price one’s work and how to transition from having one’s work solely on Instagram to being exhibited in a gallery. Alice excitedly shares, “there are two artists in that group that now have their work in the Blue Sky drawers this year, which is just a massive success for them. I'm so proud.”
“I know there's a lot of photographers that are lone wolves. And there are other groups in Portland that are established and very comfortable with their members being what they are. I just think through community, we're all so much richer,” Alice explains of the important role that she sees community play in creating art and telling stories. “We all have skills that other artists don't. We can all choose to be open to sharing them. Somebody who's not as strong in studio lighting might have a friend that knows how to do it. Somebody who doesn't know how to develop their own color film could be taught by somebody else. It's like a big skill share and it's building knowledge. I think particularly for a lot of photographers that didn't go the formal art education route or it wasn't the right fit for them, we're still hungry for knowledge. YouTube's great, but nothing quite beats meeting up in your town with a group of your peers and being like, ‘Hey, I have these questions.’ And ‘I shot this photo this week, what do you guys think?’ You know, that's what that group [Artist Union] is about. It's a safe space for everybody. It's not exclusive. It's very important to me that the community be as diverse and full as it can be. People can reach out to me if they're interested in participating.”
Alice notes that her drive to foster community and create connections derives from her own utilization of it as well. “I edit, scan, print, cut, and frame my own work. And I know how to do all those things because different people at the Portland Darkroom knew how to do those things and shared their knowledge with me. And there was something I had to share that I gave back to them,” Alice says. “There are things that we have knowledge of that others don't and it can be traded. You don't have to always be doing formal classes and paying to learn this knowledge. You can learn from YouTube but you can learn from your community too. That's just so important to me. I think photography is such a vast medium and there are so many different ways you could become specialized in certain parts of the knowledge of it. There are people who love paper and know all about the different kinds. Just be friends with those people. Go into Pro Photo and ask. There are people wanting and willing to help. And that's what's really, really, really important to me. We need to stop feeling like we have to know it all, that we have to be great at everything. Find your community and let people help.”
Alice admits she fully embraces the mindset of a rising tide raises all ships. “I think what you miss on Instagram or Flickr or some of these online platforms is the humanity of a person. Sitting at a table with somebody and hearing the cadence with which they talk or, the speed at which they talk about their work or their enthusiasm. In these in-person community groups, you learn about the person holistically, you learn more about their entire story,” Alice says. “There's more vulnerability and sharing about why the person is that way, why they're making that work, why they're interested in it. There are people online who have those skills and are able to harness them and beautifully tell their story. But I think for the majority of us, that's not our strength and my hope is that nothing will replace the local community and interactions.”
And these interactions with the local community aren’t just limited to other artists. “I had a random conversation with a stranger when I was out doing a commercial shoot. He saw me with my camera,” Alice remembers. “We were chatting it up and he shared that he was a writer. He asked me where he could see my work. I told him, ‘go to the Blue Sky drawers.’ He started asking me how much I sell my work for and I was like, ‘well, I sell my work for less than I'm charging to do this shoot right now.’ And it really hit me at that moment because he was like, ‘it shouldn't be that way.’” As an artist, Alice admits she doesn't understand how to make it not that way. She laments that it is easier to sell her time for a client than it is for the community to support her and other artists by purchasing their work. “I think it's a cultural thing,” says Alice. “I listened to a podcast about how art has changed and I think there's a way in which we live differently in our homes now where we don't collect original art anymore. It used to be that people owned something like maybe 10 or 15 original pieces of art in a household. And I don't think that's the way our culture is living these days. We have posters or Ikea stuff, or maybe we have a piece that was inherited. People come over to my house and they're like, ‘wow, it's magical in here. What do you do?’ And I just have my friends' art up. It's not that hard. If your friends are doing something, buy it.Throw it up. It will bring you such joy,” Alice states as she is sparked by the joy of thinking about her own collection of original art. “Maybe Portland is a little more artsy than other places but in general, being surrounded by original art isn't how we live in our homes anymore. It's a shame. It's a real key missing part of the art cycle compared to the commercial route of things.”
You might think that as both a commercial photographer and a fine art photographer, Alice might struggle to balance producing artwork and the paid work coming in through more commercial channels. “I actually feel less struggle in that realm [commercial photography],” Alice proclaims. “I actually feel really excited that I can do what I love, that I have this camera, this piece of equipment, and that I can also work digitally. For me, I'm just selling my time. Commercial work feels incredibly rewarding and it helps balance the two passions out. I just wish that on the art side of things, our consumption habits could change and really benefit the community as a whole in terms of it being a priority for people to purchase original art and support artists.”
“As somebody who is conscientious of what finite time we have here as humans and as artists, I want to make sure that the time that I have and the work that I'm putting in reaches people. That it says what is important to me and what I want it to say. I think about things a lot as an artist: how I wish I could be spending my time; how I'm spending it; what the personal and financial costs are,” Alice explains. “I think as an artist, you're always in three different stages of your work. You are conceptualizing new work. You're trying to finish and process the work that you've made. And you're also trying to find exhibition opportunities for projects that are completed or nearly complete.” Alice notes that being at different stages with everything, it is sometimes hard trying to explain to a gallery what a body of work will look like when it's in that middle stage, where it hasn't been fully materialized. “You trust yourself to make it, but you maybe aren't established enough in your career to have the clout to gain their trust that you’ll deliver it,” says Alice. “There are always gonna be tastemakers. There are always going to be people who have worked really hard in their own careers to get their MFAs and run galleries and be part of these bigger organizations. I think if you are telling a beautifully told story and you are technically proficient and you have your own voice, I think those works are being recognized by galleries, publishers, and collectors. And I think there's a thirst for artists creating those types of works. But I also really push back against the monetization of art as a collectible. I feel very strongly that if you love it, buy it, and let it bring you joy. I am not of the mindset of buying this art as an investment. It makes me sad for the people that don't buy work that they love just to put on their walls and treat it like a status symbol because art is so much more than just a future cash cow.”
“I mean, we could go down a pathway of my struggles with the role of female artists. Society likes there to be a tragic story associated with female artists typically in which female artists get recognition after they're gone, think of Francesca Woodman. There are some really famous female photographers that I don't know if they have full consent over how their work was used and shown. I struggle with that as an artist. I've had conversations with other female artists that there is this infantilization of maybe I'll be discovered after I'm gone because there aren't enough people trying to support us while we're here doing work,” Alice laments about the disparity many artists like her have experienced in making a viable living off of their work. “I think we're obviously in a time of cultural shift where some of the privileges that had previously only been given to a few are now being expanded,” notes Alice on the other hand.
“I think that's a fantastic thing that we have more artists that have the time and the resources to be able to tell their stories and get them out. I'm very sensitive to making sure that the story that artists tell is theirs to tell. I feel very, very passionate about that. I think we all have really powerful, beautiful stories to tell. I think we're so in the middle of living them that sometimes we can't see the forest through the trees,” continues Alice. “And so in terms of a cultural shift, I do think it's really important that platforms, galleries, and the audience, especially the audience, want to continue to hear artists tell their stories, stories they haven't heard before.” Alice points out that hearing stories that one hasn’t before is going to create a mix of emotions from those stories. “You're gonna have questions that come up and it's complicated when you have questions that you want answered. Artists want to explain some things, but not everything. I think as the viewer, it's important to know that you might not receive all the answers to the questions that you have,” she says. “You might realize that there's a whole lived experience out there that you don't have access to and we need to be able to sit in our discomfort and not put the responsibility on the artists to explain themselves or defend their experiences or educate the audience.” If an audience is curious enough, Alice hopes they will seek those answers for themselves. She hopes the world will be more curious about each other. “I grew up abroad,” explains Alice. “I've been very lucky that I've traveled to many places. I think one of the most beautiful things in my life has been being open to different cultures and differing ways of life. Photography is a powerful medium that is accessible to most people at this point, whether it's through an iPhone or digital cameras. We can use it to listen to each other, foster empathy and broaden our connection to humanity”.
On Alice’s website, there's a mini-series of self-portraits called “Portrait Parlé” taken in one of her analog photo booths. This series is about the invention of the mug shot by Alphonse Bertillon and the development of his anthropometric measurement system to document an individual’s identity and how all that plays into artificial intelligence and facial recognition tracking in the modern day. “When you start looking back into the origins of artificial intelligence and facial recognition, it comes from one French criminologist. The history of all this was how do you track criminals? If you catch a criminal here in one town, how do you know if it was the same criminal over there? So they started using anthropomorphic measurements. They had photographers take pictures of these criminals, but they became literally too artistic. They had to start standardizing the photographs. That's basically where the photo booth came in, this need for standardization of mugshots. It takes away the role of the photographer and solely is documenting a face so that face can be recognized again,” explains Alice. “I'm always trying to understand why the world is the way it is now. So in doing research and looking into history, it was really important I used the photo booth in that series as a medium to talk about artificial intelligence in the modern-day. What I really loved in that body of work is referencing the history and how we got here. Why did we get here?”
Stay on Alice’s website and you’ll notice that “Portrait Parlé” isn’t the only series that she uses the photo booth for. “I fell in love with photo booths very early on,” proclaims Alice. “They were honestly a cheat to me in the years that I wasn't doing photography. I could jump into a photo booth and I could have a self-portrait. Or I could take it with friends. And that was all the bandwidth I had for certain years,” she continues. “It's so easy to shame yourself if you're an artist or you're a photographer and you're not actively engaged in your medium. There's gonna be a season for it and that's absolutely okay. But there are things that we do to make ourselves feel connected to it. And for me, that was photo booths.”
“I'm also very interested in the photo booth in terms of exploring queer love and queer art,” continues Alice. “Because there was no photographer present, this allowed queer and gay lovers to be authentically themselves without the interjection of the photographer. They were able to have pictures of themselves together that didn't put their health, safety, and lives at risk.”
Alice's love of photo booths led her to learn how to take care of the surviving chemical photo booths in Portland. “When I had the opportunity to work on them and get to know them better, I was very joyous about it,” she exclaims. “They're the original selfie! When you're talking about history, we've always been interested in documenting ‘ourselves.’ Alice says one thing she loves is the performative aspect of photo booths. “Everybody always kisses in the third one. The kiss is the third frame. There's this rhythm that comes up as human beings. It's beautiful to see it in repetition.”
Alice uses a lot of different formats in her work. “There's a break in mindset for each medium. I'm very into form and function,” she explains. “I enjoy exploring the connection of what the original use or purpose of photographic mediums are and how they can either be still used in that way, or if there's an artistic divergence.” Alice says that she’s always questioning, “why the object, why the origin, and how it can best be explored. What is that medium's strength? What does that mean? How is that being used? Photo booth = no photographer. Instant camera, you could take it anywhere and you would have these pictures right away. I'm using Polaroids, the 600, round frame color to make some artistic images. But I also love the Polaroid to take it with me on trips and I just have little stacks of trips and, you know, autobiographical memories.”
Alice says her choice of medium isn't just about the image that she’s creating, but why she is creating the image and how that medium’s form plays into the function of creating her work. “That’s probably why I use the Rolleiflex for doing street photography,” Alice states. “That's how street photography started out. A lot of the original street photographers were using analog. Vivian was using the Rolleiflex.”
“I have a Canon 6D,” says Alice of her choice of digital camera to do her commercial work. “It came highly recommended by a real estate photographer, Crosby Dove, who helped me in learning real estate photography. And from a portrait photographer, Holly Seeber, who does beautiful work. They were like, ‘we love this camera.’ And I was like, ‘you can do both types of shoots with this camera. That's great!’” Alice says she trusted both these photographers and that once she picked up that Canon camera, it was just intuitive to her. “I’m sure some digital enthusiasts might say that there are newer, greater cameras out there, but I think it's a fantastic camera and it's incredibly reliable. I feel very much like the camera is the artist's tool and like you either vibe with that camera or you don't.”
“When we're talking about gear, it's about encouraging people to explore different mediums,” Alice says. “I think for a lot of photographers, they're gearheads that are really into their camera and their equipment, you know? That's not me.” Alice encourages other photographers to not pigeonhole themselves. “I spent the first 20 years of my photography practice refusing to edit any of my negatives. I was such a purist. I was like, they have to just be as they are.”
“I've had to continually challenge myself to be like why do I have that thought? Is that thought helping me or keeping me back?” Alice continues. “I think that it's really important that if you tried photography and maybe you didn't like it, maybe you had the wrong camera. Maybe you were trying film and you should have been doing digital. Or maybe you should be doing found photography and making collage art with it. Don't limit yourself and always challenge the way that you think about what you're capable of. Keep finding shortcuts that help you. If film is too labor intensive, then do instant film. Or do digital. Find ways to harness your own strengths and find work arounds for your weaknesses,” exclaims Alice. “More than anything, I just want to keep emphasizing that we are not supposed to know how to do it all. Start with a friend, one person that you can talk to that might know a skill that you don't. Find somebody in the community that can teach you how to do studio photography or how to scan your work. Don't be afraid to ask for help, there are people who are wanting to help each other learn. I have learned more through being in the communities that I’m a part of than I think I probably would've learned in school.”
“I guess I'm not somebody who's afraid to learn something new and I feel very fortunate that I have the bandwidth to be able to continue to pursue these projects and these curiosities,” Alice states about her own future with photography." Sometimes I take it for granted but I feel really grateful.
So yeah, I'm sitting on a treasure trove of work that I've shot, that needs to be shared. I'm sitting on a diamond mine of Rolleiflex work that I haven't been showing that I need to keep scanning. So stay tuned, because for as long as I am around, I will be making work, even if I am slow to share it!"