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Home truths: Travel bans force photographers to narrow their focus
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Home truths: Travel bans force photographers to narrow their focus

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Social distancing and travel bans may be necessary for the health and safety of everyone, but they limit photographers in what and where they can go out to shoot.

The Willamette Valley PhotoArts Guild may prove the most interesting pictures you can take are the ones closer to home or even in your own backyard.

The guild encouraged its members to have their cameras ready to take pictures at home or wherever they go on walks for an online gallery. “Field Trip: Socially Distanced Photo Excursions,” which features photo collections by 20 photographers from March-May, is available to view on the guild’s website (see box for details).

Guild member Rich Bergeman says photographers can find something nearby that satisfies their urge to take pictures. He said several guild members saw the photo excursions as a “release valve,” because people get frustrated with the limited activities they can do around the house.

“Personally, I think it always does an artist some good to work within some restrictions and see what he or she can do,” he said.

The guild, which formed in 1985 and currently has 40 members, would normally travel for a spring day trip along the South Coast, taking photos of the low tide near Coos Bay.

“That’s not possible since you can’t get on the beach now,” Bergeman said.

On his daily neighborhood walks with his dog, Emma, a Welsh Pembroke Corgi, Bergeman began photographing areas he never had before, like Dixon Creek.

“I would sort of explore the creek and see what pictures I could find that made it look like a wild creek, not an urban drainage,” he said.

For Bergeman, a retired instructor of journalism and photography at Linn-Benton Community College, it became more of a project than he intended. He delved into the creek’s history. It was named after one of Corvallis' founders, William F. Dixon.

Bergeman also looked for ways to map the waterway. He followed the stream for miles throughout Corvallis as it makes its way to the Willamette River.

“It’s been rerouted so many times it’s not near anything like the original creek,” he said.

Bergeman shot photos from bridges using an infrared camera, which he said transforms the landscape and nature scenes to appear more pristine than they are.

“It’s an illusion of special little places that are isolated by themselves to look like they’re running through the woods,” Bergeman said.

Bergeman would eventually like to do a larger project, possibly an online book about Dixon Creek.

“In the beginning, I didn’t think there was much potential in this little creek,” he said.

Bergeman and his colleagues show different interests with their photos, says Phil Coleman, guild president.

“Some members have put up photos that clearly refer to the effect of the pandemic, and others, like mine, have primarily just tried to focus on the other things around us, like nature,” he said.

Coleman is a retired physicist who lives on a farm just outside of Philomath. He photographs the many flowers his wife, Kathy, grows in their backyard and then works on the pictures in his "digital darkroom," a computer equipped with Photoshop.

His gallery series includes photos of hyacinths, daffodils, magnolias and the stalk of a nearly blooming peony. Coleman is interested in emphasizing the symmetry and geometry of flowers and pursuing their abstract qualities.

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“Each time I see something, especially if it has interesting lines and shapes to it, then I will take the picture,” he said.

Coleman, who is also a member of the Corvallis Art Guild and Art in the Valley gallery, uses a technique called focus stacking to capture his images.

“I set my camera up and take a bunch of pictures at slightly different focal distances,” he said. “I try to end up with a picture where all of those different places one might look to admire the flower can be nice and sharp and interesting.”

“Just being able to see every day what’s new is one of the things that keeps me very busy and hopeful,” he said.

Bill Laing, a longtime guild member, is one of two photographers living outside Oregon who have contributed their pictures to the gallery. He and his wife, Nicole, moved to Tucson, Arizona, last year to live closer to their son and grandchildren. They live in a retirement community in the Oro Valley.

Laing, who had open heart surgery in February, said he has taken most of his photos during his daily neighborhood walks to increase his stamina and cardiac health.

“I live in a community that is part of the Sonoran desert, and all of the landscaping people have in their front yards and in the common areas is just strikingly gorgeous,” he said. “This time of year, all of the cactuses, agave, desert plants and flora are in bloom.”

Laing has shot many pictures using his iPhone for convenience.

“I stop and take a photograph, and play with it afterwards,” he said.

Laing said he sees many other seniors out walking. Their community has 2,500 homes and the gym, pool, golf course and exercise facilities have been closed. But the residents are well-informed and understand the need for social distancing.

“The people who live here are very cognizant of that and maintain social distance while we’re out,” he said.

Laing said it can be easy to get depressed if you spend your time inside watching TV or the news.

“I guess these photographs are a reminder that it’s important to stop and appreciate the natural beauty around us,” he said.

COVID-19 and social distancing have presented a unique opportunity for nightlife photographer John Ritchie. The guild’s web administrator, who created and has maintained members’ pictures in the gallery, features a collection on the subject.

Ritchie has shot nightlife photos of Corvallis and Portland for a long time, catching the action at crowded bars and restaurants. He recently returned to Portland’s Pearl District.

“I was standing in the middle of Northwest Glisan at 8:30 on a Saturday night with my tripod taking pictures down the street, and there is one parked car and one moving car,” Ritchie said. “It shows the COVID impact. There was nobody around at all.”

Ritchie, who retired from a job in IT with the state of Oregon to pursue a career as a photo artist, also presents street photography. On his walks around Corvallis, he has found odd things to take pictures of, including a Rubbermaid tub sitting on top of a tree and a telephone pole cable wrapped with a long, colorful knitted cozy.

Ritchie said he will continue to take photos of no nightlife to build his body of work during a strange time.

“For me, it’s a challenge of how to deal with that as an artist and make good use of it,” he said.

Bergeman said he would like to see the guild’s photography project become a physical exhibit to display in a gallery by the fall, if that is possible.

Guild members are optimistic the photo excursions will show people there is more in the world to focus on right now than just the pandemic.

“The virus has upset the apple cart in so many ways, but there are still really interesting, beautiful, strange and wonderful things to be seen,” Coleman said.

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The Corvallis Art Guild has a message for community members who may feel isolated by stay-at-home orders and social distancing.

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