In Person

Periodically in Photo Happenings I post a conversation
with a personality in Portland's photography world.

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A conversation with Julie Keefe

1984 was the moment in time that sparked today's creativity scene in Portland.  The number of art galleries tripled, artist Will Martin's Pioneer Square was dedicated, and the seeds of First Thursday were planted.


And Julie Keefe arrived in Portland.


Named by Mayor Sam Adams in 2012 as Portland's first Creative Lureate,  she has been using that position to advance both her personal artistic goals and her contributions to the artistic village that is our city......and both happen to be ther same thing.

I sat down with Julie at Freshpot on Mississipi Avenue, near the home she shares with her husband, Portland photographer John Klicker.  She had recently taped her upcoming episode for Oregon Public Broadcasting's Oregon Art Beat and was working on ideas for her opening remarks as the featured speaker for the June Brown Bag Lunch Talk at the Portland Art Museum.  

It was a good time to talk about the journey that brought her to this point,

"As a Journalism major at the University of Iowa, I took a class in photojournalism to finish up my senior year.........I discovered that photography was really my voice".

On moving to Portland, she remembers, "I had held a fascination with Oregon since seeing Ken Kesey's "Sometimes a Great Notion" when I was 10, so I was thrilled to be here."


Arriving in 1984, she landed her first job at Wy'East. "I didn't go to school in photography, so working at Wy'East Color is how I learned the technical ", she remembers.   

Julie would spend the next "three years working in the darkroom, developing 70-80 rolls of film a day."   She left Wy'East in 1988 to start her own studio.

The Portland Art Museum School (predecessor to the Pacific Northwest College of Art) offered a class with Stu Levy called "Introduction to the Zone System".    "Can you imagine, a photo journalist taking a class in the zone system?" she said. That workshop, however, led to her interning as an assistant with Levy, "making work prints for Stu---it was an honor to be entrusted with his negatives!".

"As part of the class Stu gave us a tour of the Museum Art School"   Natural light bathed the fourth floor studio that now houses the Museum's Northwest Art Collection.   

At 24, it was the first time that she had been in an art museum.  "I felt comfort with windows when I was young", and when she saw those windows "I was filled with hope."

"Windows are the in-between, a portal and a transportation device".   As a child, "sky and windows were my early inspiration."

Julie describes another turning point in her career when she met Cherie Hiser.  "As the sole black and white human film processor at Wy'East I developed all of her (Hiser's) film."   Remembering the "snack food" series she said "I laughed out loud!!   Imagine unrolling that film off the spool to put in the drying rack and seeing a series of penis' inside everything from the (obvious) hot dog bun to Big Hunk candy bars and ice cream cones".

"I had to meet her, .....I knew she taught workshops and I told her that I would assist her for free.....I just wanted to learn from her.  She hired me on the spot." 


While Cherie was teaching at Oregon School of Arts and Crafts, "I assisted her in her classes, and in all the many legendary workshops she led ......with Duane Michaels, Lee Friedlander, Jerry Uelsmann, Judy Dater, and was a wonderful period for me."

AWhidbey Island Photography Workshops she assisted Cherie and her ex-husband, National Geographic photographer David Hiser, in a class called Photography--For Love and Money.   "Probably one of the most diverse and interesting workshop series I have ever been part of or witnessed."

Within a few months Cherie had resurrected the "Center of the Eye Workshops" and invited Lee Friedlander to teach a workshop in the Steens Mountains of Eastern Oregon.   "We ran several workshops in the Steens involving Stu Levy, Terry Toedtemeir, Allan Bruce Zee, and others."


She married Portland photographer John Klicker "on the top of Steens Mountain,", with Cherie Hiser as the officiant.  "Cherie  had gotten her mail-order-minister certificate from an ad in the back of Rolling Stone Magazine".

They moved into her photography studio at the North Coast Seed Company, where her daughter was born.    "It was a rustic warehouse studio on the top floor with a pot-bellied wood stove", but eventually the fire marshall would tell them they couldn't live there.


In 2011, "We closed our studio (Keefe/Klicker Studio) space in the North Coast Seed Company after 23 years there."   Relocating to their present home in the Mississippi neighborhood, Julie says "I still rent space at the Seed Company as needed, but do most of my work on location."

Following in their parents creative footsteps are their two daughters.  " Lucinda is involved with dance, and Sophie works in programs with children  that incorporate art and social justice.....they are both very influenced by art."

When you ask Julie what it takes to make it, she says "even through doubting, I have to keep moving forward."  When she got the call in 1992 to cover the activities at an African-American church after the Rodney King verdict, "I rushed over, with my baby in a backpack and camera around my neck". 

Being the only white person in the room, she didn't know what the reaction would be to her taking photographs during such an emotional event, but kept telling herself "people are counting on can inspire alot of people."

Enjoying a self-described "embarassment of riches" Julie told me that  Fast Company Magazine, this year's magazine of the year for print and digital coverage,  had last year named her to their Top 100 Most Creative in Business.

"I loved getting to meet the incredibly kind, forward thinking and creative people in charge of making the magazine the compelling read it is, and I was inspired by the other members of the Top 100."

And now, as Juile's term as Portland's Creative Laureatte comes to a close, it's important to note that not only has she used her position to enhance the influence that photography has played in the our city's creative revolution, but the ways in which she has also established standards by which future honorees can aspire to. 

In an OPB interview with Think Out Loud's Dave Miller, she talked about  some of her projects, the ones that have been a focus of her career path and the goals of her term.

Probably her signature contribution has been the Hello Neighbor project , launched in 2007.   Julie was driven to create the project after reading a quote in a newspaper about gentrification.  A local activist had said that "he didn’t mind the safer streets, but it pained him that with the influx of gentrifiers, it seemed people just weren’t saying hello to their neighbors anymore".

Keefe now teaches children to interview and photograph their neighbors, posting the mural size pieces around the community. "What I've always worked for in Portland is social justice through the give people voice and validation".    She recently was featured on Oregon Art Beat talking about the Hello Neighbor project.



" I teach kindergardeners at Boise-Elliot, taking photographs with with Digital SLR's",  starting with "the way in which they hold a camera".  

The students she originally started with are now in the 3rd grade and she will work with them through to the 8th grade. "The kids are amazing. They pay attention better and are understanding perspective better becuse they are more willing to use their bodies".


An article in the Portland Oregonian by Casey Parks describes Keefe's long association with Calderathe arts youth nonprofit.  Creating a program that takes place in five schools in Portland and five in Central Oregon, she teaches middle school students how to photograph.


In a recent program, 80 students from Elton Gregory Middle School in Redmond, Oregon,  created a photo montage of nearby Dry Canyon.    The students learned how to use the cameras, taking over 1500 photographs and turning them into a 2'x47' panorama that is now displayed at a permanent location in the school.


In the future Julie will continue working with middle schools, and would like to "work with Oregon Humanities to create photographic response, and maybe writing bigger grants like a Fulbright to study in other places."




I posed the last question to Julie, asking her to tell me what she would suggest in a letter to the next Creative Laureatte about the task ahead.  

She thought for a moment, and said that   "The Struggle has been how to define this, it can't have too big a scope.   What's important is how you can spark and illuminate issues that are important to you."