Radical intimacy through photography
I first ran across Bobby Abrahamson’s photography in our local St. Johns wine shop. We came in for a glass and sat at one end of their L-shaped bar. I found a stack of books. I picked up a copy of “North Portland Polaroids” and started thumbing through it.
In this book Bobby has captured all the local ne’er-do-wells, toughs, punks, weirdos, and working stiffs who populate the North side of Portland. You can imagine each person saying “put a bird on this” as they pose for Bobby’s ancient polaroid camera.
I tried to steal the book. I failed. Or more accurately, my wife wouldn’t let me steal it. I snapped a photo of the cover and later tried to find it on Amazon.
One copy available? Imagine my luck. After I placed the order Bobby himself contacted me and noted that we’re actually in the same neighborhood. Why don’t we grab a coffee and I can bring you your copy of the book?
I met Bobby at The Great North coffee shop on North Burlington Avenue. Bobby signed his book for me. This was his last copy on-hand. He had a few left over for his own portfolio and maybe to keep as special future gifts for someone. We drank coffee and talked about art and photography and living a creative life.
During the early pandemic lock-down period, Bobby hosted an outdoor photography show in the central square in St. Johns. There was nothing else to do, why not do this? Bobby strung reprints of photos from his North Portland series on clothesline all around the square. People came by to see themselves and their neighbors. The photos were hung outside and left with the intent of letting them get battered by the wind and stolen by passers by. He embraced the ephemeral.
Since then I’ve followed Bobby and his work on Instagram and his personal site. Bobby is unafraid to share a casual snapshot alongside his more polished “professional” work. I love this. Of course, his snapshots are way better than my snapshots could ever be, but there’s still an offhand casualness and intimacy in a snapshot. I think that’s core to what his work is about: unlocking intimacy.
Bobby’s newest book “Rabbit” is a sort of an archival reproduction of an artist’s journal and scrapbook. It’s a mix of beautifully printed travel photos, journal entries, letters, and photographed bits of ephemera.
Some pages are full page photos of pages from a journal or scrapbook. Some pages are artfully reproduced photos. Some pages include a hand-made simulacrum of a memory, like a bit of an old paperback book or envelope with a letter and a photo.
Each of these added-in bits of ephemera are carefully created simulacra manufactured from printed reproductions, photos, and air-mail envelopes. Each is mounted in the book by hand with a small piece of archaic linen tape.
Reading through this book is a rush of concentrated nostalgia. On my bookshelf behind me right now I have similar journals full of photos and pasted memorabilia. The format and structure of Bobby’s “Rabbit” is so incredibly familiar that I feel like I’m staring in a funhouse mirror.
Bobby detailed his early time in New York and Greyhound bus trips across the country. Reading through journal entries and noting dates I realize that Bobby and I were on the road through America at roughly the same time. It’s very possible that he and I were on two different Greyhound busses somewhere in the US at the very same time.
Maybe the book triggers nostalgia but perhaps my experience is more deja-vu. Maybe I’m looking at a very different artistic life which I could have lived if I hadn’t chosen a professional career path. This book makes me ache for missed opportunities.
At the end of the book is a sealed envelope. An air-mail envelope with a typed label (typed with a typewriter!). The envelope reads “Rabbit Afterward (Letter to the Reader)”. The envelope is numbered “16” - this is the 16th of 100 of the original printing and production. I can feel folded, heavy thick paper inside.
Should I open it?