Please introduce yourself: What is your name, where are you from, what do you do?
Hi, I'm Lisa Gidley. I'm originally from Kansas City — the one in Missouri. Now I live with my husband and son in Portland — the one in Oregon. I work as an editor and spend a fair amount of my free time walking down sidewalks with a camera. I like living in Portland, but I also love visiting other cities and towns to explore and take photos.
What is your relationship with photography? How did you get into it?
Mostly it's a way to record my life and the various bits of the planet I come in contact with. On another level, I love the challenge of finding scenes that I can turn into images I like — not just in terms of what they show but also how they'll look within the formal constraints of a photo. On a third level, photography lets me occasionally slip away from frustrating news of the world to look for some ordinary beauty or humor. A temporary escape pod.
I'd liked photography as a casual hobby from the time I was a teenager, but I really fell for it when I took a color darkroom class in my late 20s. Now it's a constant part of my life. Because my day jobs haven't been related to photography, I've been able to pursue my own photo projects without worrying about commercial gigs or anything. I'm pretty grateful for that.
What do you think triggers you to photograph in a certain moment? Is it planned or solely driven by intuition?
Mostly intuition. I rarely set up shots, other than very occasionally asking someone for a portrait. I'll often go to a specific neighborhood to walk around with a camera, but what I'll actually photograph is unplanned.
What is the story you want your pictures to tell?
I'd rather leave some ambiguity than tell a linear story. Lots of my photos reflect walking around cities in the early 21st century, with glimpses of homes and stores and people and side streets. Then sometimes I put them in groups spanning different cities. You could imagine narrative threads tying them together, but I like things open-ended.
Which city would you like to visit the most and why?
Really, any city I haven't been to yet! More specifically it's probably a tie between Hong Kong and Tokyo. I've never been to Asia, and both of those cities seem full of beautiful light and interesting things.
What is the driving force behind creation?
Well, that's the question. For me, photography's somewhere between an art practice and a natural impulse. On one level, like almost everybody, I want to record the people and places in my life. And I want to document my kid's childhood. But I also have a compulsion to make images of the world at large. I love cities, and I like broadening the perceptions of what they look like. Ultimately, I guess like most of us, I just want to leave a few things behind.
Which project did you never finish?
I once started a series where I photographed older industrial buildings with stripes painted on the exterior. I liked how they look, and there are lots of them in certain neighborhoods. But after I'd shot about 20, I realized they weren't too interesting as individual photos. And I didn't want to do a sweeping Becher-style inventory of all striped warehouses in America. Maybe at some point I'll make a little book of what I have, though.
What is that one place you have never managed to photograph at and which is now forever gone?
If I could time travel, there are lots of answers. Sticking to my real life, I wish I'd taken photos of the East Village in New York when I lived there in the mid- to late '90s. I made casual photos of my friends, but I didn't really shoot the neighborhood, which in addition to being fun was pretty visually interesting. Saul Leiter lived a few blocks from me and was shooting it, though back then I had no idea who he was.
I started photographing street scenes in the '00s. But even by then the East Village and Lower East Side were changing, with old buildings being torn down and small indie businesses being priced out. And now when I return, it's completely different. But I guess that's perpetually the story of NYC. In the '90s I listened to middle-aged punks in Tompkins Square talk about how great the late '70s had been.
If you could travel back/ forth in time, what advice would you give your younger/ older self?
If I could go back in time, I'd tell my younger self to:
1) start photographing earlier in life,2) travel more while it was still relatively easy and cheap, and 3) be better at labeling my negatives and making contact sheets.
I've currently got several years' worth of negs that I'm trying to organize, and it's a slog (though occasionally nice to find shots I'd forgotten about).
What do you prefer saying: to take a photograph or to make a photograph and why?
I understand why some photographers prefer tp ‹make a photograph› but I still say ‹take a photo›.
Asking you to single it out, what was the most interesting experience you have had while photographing?
Does it count if I went someplace to take photos but couldn't document the interesting experience? One day in the last summer that I lived in NYC, in 2003, I traveled out to shoot in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens. That's about the furthest away you can be from midtown Manhattan and still be in New York City. I only had my film camera; it was the era before phone cameras or reliable digital ones. Literally a few minutes after I shot my last frame, I was walking toward the subway when a massive blackout knocked out power for the entire northeastern United States and parts of Canada.
Since the subways couldn't work without electricity, and phones weren't working either, it took me about six hours to navigate home through Queens and Brooklyn via a mix of crowded buses, walking, and hitching rides with cars full of strangers. There was a weird but awesome camaraderie in the city as everyone figured out how to get home as the sunlight faded and the Milky Way appeared above us. I passed sidewalk barbecues as people cooked things from their freezers to share with neighbors. There were dance parties with battery-operated boomboxes, and volunteers were directing traffic while holding tiki torches. It was a great and vivid experience. I couldn't believe I didn't have any film left. So now I always carry too much film and have my phone as backup.
If it wasn’t for photography, what would you be interested in doing instead?
It's hard to imagine my life without photography. But if all my cameras broke at once, I'd probably still wander around cities just to look at things. And I might spend more time making abstract art.
Actually for the past few years I've been making abstract photograms in color darkrooms. Sadly, the closest public color darkroom to me, at Evergreen State College, just shut down.
Please, describe one of your pictures to a blind person.
A man has fallen asleep while sitting on a sidewalk bench on a warm September afternoon. A «Mister Softee Ice Cream» truck is parked about 10 feet away, playing some old carousel music to soundtrack his dream.
What are you currently working on, and — if there is — what is your next project/ journey?
I'm starting to go through a pile of photos I've taken in the past dozen or so years and organize them into groups, not necessarily based on location or year. I'd like to make a few books out of them. But of course whenever there's nice light outside I'm tempted to go shoot some more, adding to the pile.
Thank you very much, Lisa!
© Lisa Gidley