Ian J. Whitmore knows Portland. He’s worked here for years as a photographer, designer and teacher, so when the opportunity came up for him to take over the @ridetrimet and @biketownpdx Instagram accounts, we couldn’t say yes fast enough.
Ian’s week behind the wheel coincided with Design Week Portland, which gave him plenty of opportunity to take transit and bike share to and from presentations, parties and open houses all across the city.
As the week came to a close, we asked Ian some questions about the project.
We took note of the Portland Public Transit account on Instagram when you began posting at the beginning of the year. In your first post, you introduced the project as a way for you to learn more about Portland and described transit as one of the city’s most important and intriguing resources. Were you inspired by something specific, like the intense snowfall we were seeing at the time, or had you been developing the idea for a while?
I had started riding public transit more than usual in the fall as a way to avoid dealing with parking and to go out, be social and not have to worry about transportation. I remember going out with a friend on Halloween; we both took buses to meet up and then we bounced around town, and it reminded me of all the time I spent on transit when I lived in Chicago years ago. Honestly, I missed it. Riding public transportation is a unique experience and it’s a really interesting semi-social way of seeing and experiencing where you live.
Those trips in fall 2016 sparked the idea for the project and right around the holidays I decided to go for it. It was a good excuse to keep photographing in my downtime and also stay sharp while moving around Portland.
Instagram seems like a natural fit for this project. As a professional photographer, what are the advantages of sharing on social media versus more traditional ways of displaying your work?
I think the biggest advantages are range of audience and the overall reach that digital media has. Sharing work in person is invaluable. I feel confident saying that when I meet with people in-person I am more likely to get them to hire me or to buy in on a project, but social media is the perfect introduction and doorway to that face-to-face meeting.
Sometimes I laugh at how I used to be so resistant to social media. Twitter never really excited me, but when Instagram came along I felt like a way for me to participate as an image maker.
Everyone has a story about something absurd they saw on transit. But it’s also where you’ll see some uniquely interesting, and even beautiful, moments and interactions. What catches your eye when you’re shooting for this project?
People. I have always been fascinated with architecture and urban landscape, but I think about all the portraits I haven’t made because I didn’t want to be rude or selfish and start pointing my camera at strangers. Even though I am a big advocate for photographer’s rights while photographing in public, buses and trains are a different space that require more consideration. I am still looking for ways to incorporate portraits into the project and I’d love find some volunteers that I can follow along their commute; I think this summer would be great for that.
Your photos have a certain look: calm, observant, with sparing color and strong lines. How intentional is this? Is it inspired by any particular photographers?
I have always had an interest in efficiency when it comes to composition. Which doesn’t necessarily mean less complexity. But I consider whether the subject is calm or erratic, or if it has rhythm and movement. Strong lines certainly help with that, and I learned a lot from looking at both street photography and more conceptual work over the years. I have always been drawn to the classic mid-century street photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka and Diane Arbus, and I am continually inspired by contemporary photographers like Colleen Plumb, Amy Stein, Brian Ulrich, Terry Evans and Will Steacy.
You also took over the BIKETOWN account last week. We’re always trying to emphasize the ease of the bike share–transit connection — how did it feel to you as you rode around on buses and trains, and then picked up bikes?
This process was pretty remarkable and incredibly seamless. The intersections between all these forms of transportation are almost perfectly aligned so that you can pick up or drop off a BIKETOWN bike within a half a block or less of a train or bus stop. When I started my Portland Public Transit project I honestly hadn’t taken that into account, and at the time BIKETOWN was still pretty new, but it became clear very quickly how this bike share program is a natural extension for transportation in parts of Portland.
I can’t wait to see the program expand and see it expand further out from the city center. It sounds like that is already happening.
Your involvement with Design Week Portland was a perfect overlay for the week of your Instagram takeover. Not only were we hosting a Transit on Tap presentation at The Redd, but one of the festival’s themes was the Green Loop, a proposed bike and pedestrian path that connects the city and includes Tilikum Crossing. You’ve lived in Portland for a while and seen it undergo some radical transformations — what are your thoughts on how getting around the city has changed?
First and foremost, I have been impressed by Portland’s public transportation since I moved here from Chicago. They have a great system with CTA and Metra, but the sheer number of people there creates unique problems that Portland doesn’t have yet.
That said, I think the completion of Tilikum Crossing and the streetcar loop has been the biggest change that I’ve seen and experienced. When that was completed I rode the streetcar more than I ever had. It seems like that project alone could be used as a case for the Green Loop.
That connectivity and dedication of transportation space has had a big impact the city center, from my perspective, and I’m hoping other Portlanders are seeing the Streetcar as a temporary option to help with the Morrison bridge closing.
You recently had a show for your new photo book, Forty-Seven Hundred Miles. It seems like transportation is a theme you’re drawn to. Do you see a connection running through your work?
Such a great question. I think movement and experience are at the heart of what I’m interested in as an artist and person. I have been on move since I was 16; when I started photographing punk bands in basements and then on tour documenting my own experiences. Later, that translated into thinking a lot about landscape and our experience as we move through it, asking a lot of questions about the mental, emotional and psychological effects of both our public and private spaces.
More recently, the cross-country motorcycle ride that produced the book ended up serving as a way to reset my mind and to reconnect with that sense of movement. I was able to remind myself how important it is for me to seek out dynamic experiences.
I realized quickly on that trip from Chicago to Los Angeles and back to Portland that even if you’re on the same motorcycle every day, that experience doesn’t leave a lot of room for stagnation or boredom — I am drawn to the attention and care that it requires to ride and I love how different the world looks from the saddle.
Do you see Portland Public Transit as an ongoing project? Or did you imagine working on it over a finite period? What’s next?
I told myself I would work on this for a year and see where it goes. This Instagram takeover has been incredibly fun and I think at the very least after a year I’d like to look into publishing another book of select images with a little writing as well. Maybe it’s a long term project I do for years and it also becomes documentation of Portland as it continues to change.
As for what’s next… the future is strange and exciting, and I am focusing more on my photography work than I have in a very long time. I’m also working in other creative areas and taking on new projects.
See more of Ian’s work at ianwhitmore.com