In The 45th Parallel, storyteller Lisa Wells and photographer Bobby Abrahamson give a travelogue of rural life in the "small, endangered towns" of central Oregon. We spoke to Abrahamson, who has shot for The New York Times, Time and others, about his growing body of work, photographs that walk a very fine line between journalism and fine art by leaving leeway for interpretation.
WW: Rural Oregon really echoes a sense of the past. How do you approach that without sentimentality, characterization or stating the obvious?
Bobby Abrahamson: I think my approach was very straightforward.... It's a kind of intuitive, first-person experience or response to the people and places I photograph. It's about making connections with my subjects. I trust my instincts and respond intuitively to what I'm seeing, discovering, whom I'm meeting. I think I am inherently a lonely person—longing for connections and relationships—and so much of my photography is imbued with that kind of impulse, to get to know the people and have them get to know me…. So when I get to a small town, I get out and walk a lot. If I meet someone, I ask to sit down and talk to them, spend enough time to establish trust, to feel I can get a picture that has some of that emotional quality, connection, sense of human experience.
The portrait work in the exhibition really stands out. Can you say anything about your Cowboy and Cowgirl in Fields, Ore.?
I made a real connection with them, getting physically very close to them. In the case of the cowboy, in particular, I felt a kind of energy in the moment I snapped the photo. Hard to explain, but that is what I live for in shooting on the street. It's kind of like when you meet someone and fall in love with them, or have this moment when you make eye contact and you feel that flash of excitement, intimacy and trust. He wound up inviting me back to his home, his ranch, to meet and photograph his family. That is where several other photos came from—the picture of the dogs and cats with the people walking and the large landscape of the dirt road with power lines—that's actually his driveway.
In one of your images, there is a black bear named Henry and a man wearing a plaid shirt. How did that set of images come about?
Henry and the man in the plaid shirt were the impetus for the whole project. Lisa had stopped in Mitchell, Ore., a year or more before and was fascinated by Hugh and his bear, which he kept in a cage next to the gas station he runs in Mitchell. It seems everyone knows Hugh and Henry—he's like the larger-than-life character that embodies what the whole story is about: characters that thrive in small towns. When I came to visit on my second trip in March, he invited me up to see him, even feed Henry. He came to pick me up on Main Street in Mitchell in his Jeep. When I opened the door, I saw the rifle and his big burly hands and some plumbing parts and rags, so it looked like a good shot. And this shot I did get, it seemed the bear was tiny compared to Hugh. The bear looks like this tame pet, and Hugh seems enormous. The irony is that I think it works this way: Hugh is the bear, not Henry.
CORRECTION: The print edition of this story incorrectly stated that Abrahamson was represented by the Magnum agency. He was an intern at Magnum, but is represented by BlackStar agency.
SEE IT: The 45th Parallel is at the Newspace Center for Photography, 1632 SE 10th Ave. Show closes Nov. 27.
FROM FIELDS: Bobby Abrahamson's portrait of Mike Ensley.