When people ask me why I work with young men, sometimes with a little suspicious or hostility, I think of a Sunday morning in late May of 2013—a confluence of location and conditions, atmosphere and subject. While it’s no more representative of every session I shoot than any other, the sharpness of my experience that day strikes me as a kind of answer.
On that morning, I was to work with a wholly new model and wholly new location. I slung a duffle full of clothes and my Lowepro bag—this filled with my 5d Mark II, a couple of primes, the usual memory cards and extra batteries—over both shoulders and headed into the brisk foggy air of the South Waterfront neighborhood in Portland, Oregon.
Together with my subject, Drew, we walked and talked our way down SW Moody, past Riverplace—many of its shops still closed; it was early—and over the Hawthorne Bridge into SE Portland.
The trip was a quick one, walking considered, maybe 30-minutes. The day was prickly, overcast, halfway poised between rain and sun. By the time our 5-hour workhorse of a session was done, Drew and I had seen both rain and sunshine in ample. It was lucky: a brilliant blending of pure luck with conditions and location. Because neither of us had any idea where we were going…
Well, sort-of. Drew and I had discussed a location in a pre-shoot meeting (which are common and often required for my portfolio sessions). Drew had teased the place as “sick,” “urban,” and “unique,” though he’d only heard about it from a photographer-friend. Actually, he wasn’t even sure where it was, only that it was someplace near the streetcar’s termination stop amid the stark and rusted mess of Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District. What he described fit Drew’s personality like a glove: the kind of marriage of subject and location I’m always hoping to shoot.
Of course, I wasn’t without some trepidation. I was still new to Portland, having left San Francisco for cheaper fare the previous fall. I knew nothing personally of our shooting location, though the pre-shoot with Drew had gone well. As we walked, the duffle cutting into my shoulder, keeping our eyes peeled for something that fit his description, we talked concept.
I wouldn’t find out for two more years how much the location really fit my subject. That one of Portland’s local newspapers, The Oregonian, had done a piece on our destination, the Old Taylor Electric Supply Company Bldg., which journalist Devin Kelly had called a “burned-out” “eyesore” “artistic gem” a few years before our little search. The lot, on SE 2nd and Clay, was a hulk that had been passed and repassed around since the 1990’s, after a chemical fire had gutted the place, and due to “potential and ongoing” environmental concerns that made the property difficult to sell. The Portland’s Central Police Precinct had signs posted everywhere, indicating that any trespassers would be arrested on sight. Drew seemed likewise “fallen on hard times.” He pulled up early in a shitty car, in tattered clothes, skipping the niceties to use the bathroom—a couple cans of Monster Energy to piss out. There was something wild and broken about him, in flux, fumbling.
He didn’t seem like a smart choice of subjects. Not really typical at all. Jorie Graham, in her book, The End of Beauty, during "Imperialism," writes a kind of terrified mistrust of “the finished things.” And that’s what I, too, mistrust—what made me like Drew, and the description of our destination, immediately. It was, he was, unfinished.
Now, of course, like much of Portland’s inner city, the lot has been turned into luxury office space—I think that happened just this year. When Drew and I first spied the chain-link fenced-in beauty (while walking up SE Clay), we simply looked at each other in that co-conspiratorial agreement common to both artists and delinquents that says, “this is the place.”
Old Taylor Electric Supply had once been a handsome warehouse of brick and wood frame. Its large expansive walls played home to electrical equipment, flammable materials, and chemicals that sat on mortar-red and ash-grey asphalt floors. A ramp, made of cement, ran out the middle of its south side. And huge glass pane windows, reinforced with steel—like the high windows of a high school gymnasium—faced west toward the Willamette River. The building has a beautiful panoramic view of downtown Portland.
Then the fire nine years ago. A PGE transformer exploded atop an electrical pole, starting an industrial fire that ripped through Old Taylor’s wooden frame and left behind an ashy hulk in less than a day. Contaminants from the building’s chemicals combined with ash from the fire to make a lovely mix of PCB waste, posing the health risk that made the property so hard to sell off. The fire, I guess, was spectacular and spectacularly destructive.
Drew and I weren’t here for that. Our day in May of 2013 was perfect.
Drew and I found ourselves ducking the rain—that Portland staple, the fine mist of little droplets that coat every surface—just as we arrived, hiding my gear and his shed wardrobe under scattered cardboard and broken drywall shelters, probably erected by absent vagrants. We worked in clear patches, ducking under spray-painted mechanical equipment, when the rain returned, hoping not to get rust all over our clothes.
We had hours of this and Old Taylor Electric Supply Co was silent as a cathedral. Its free-standing walls cut cleanly into the overcast sky, making right-angles and rectangles, their omitted doorframes casting perfect dynamic windows to make depth and vanishing points both. The graffiti itself was a beautiful mess of colors and patterns, recurring characters, which left us free to play endlessly. Refuse—empty beer bottles, stolen traffic cones, piles of industrial garbage, even several rubber tires—made odd and handsome props.
Not every shot is perfect. I felt like an amateur at moments, trading between my 135mm and 50mm because I couldn’t decide how I wanted to capture it all. And Drew made mistakes, too--this was his first shoot; he was new—yet he seemed as filled with the place as I was.
There was a space of time, maybe mid-morning, when most was the asphalt floor, mortar-red in places, sometimes ash-grey, was glazed with rainwater. (Like something out of a William Carlos Williams poem…) Drew was in a tank, briefs, and sneakers: he was bounding into and over puddles, themselves sheened over the hard almost-glasslike surface. He threaded discarded car tires, three of them on their sides, set in a triangle, those four objects interrupting what would have been a flawlessly blank mirror.
As a photographer, maybe as a human, I live for those moments when my subject becomes part of the background—neither ancillary nor exactly primary—but another part, composed of his individual shapes and lines, what Sontag calls “participation.” These are embedded scenes. There’s something tangible about them, muscular in their quality, and as subject to loss and change as the weather or the burned-up bulk they were created in.
Moments like these are as much the reason why I work with the beautiful youth as anything. I am looking for moments like these: where intimacy is as delicate, rooted, threatening, and forever-losing as my memory of its experience will be. I wish to make photographs that are concerned with, and about, this vulnerability and loss intermingled with the singular moment. Beauty, youth, particularly the uncertain and unfinished energy of alternative narratives of masculinity, seem precisely the place where these moments live for me.
Thanks for reading!
A version of this article, entitled "Goodbye Old Taylor," was printed on 19 February 2015 for BACKWORDS Blog. Used with permission.