Oregon is renown for the lively community of artists in Portland and the magnificent natural scenery the state has to exhibit. Morgan Grether merges these two elements together, creating images overflowing with ambiance. With a focus on landscapes and portraits, let’s read the photographer’s thoughts.
Describe Morgan with 3 words
Optimistic. Passionate. Compassionate.
How did it all start, what attracted you to the medium and how did you develop your style?
Photography? I started before I can remember really. As a child I spent each summer with my grandparents in Idaho. Both of them, but my grandfather in particular, were lovers of photography. My grandfather for instance had many Polaroid cameras that he let me play with and eventually shoot with.
But more importantly, he taught me by his actions the joys of creativity through cameras, of capturing moments in time, of capturing beautiful locations or beautiful smiles. Polaroids are a fantastic entry into photography because there are no settings, no lens choices, no flash choices, etc.; and you have really only one point to consider: framing the shot. And that to me is almost everything: what’s in the view, how is it framed.
As far as style, that’s been a lifelong development, and I hope that it will be continuing to develop. But I try to focus always on heart. To me photography is emotion. A burst of energy from the past. At that point in time and space, you stopped what you were doing to take a photo. Why? Because something struck you, something moved you.
So, I want my viewers to feel that too. I want them to connect with that moment. The heart of the photographer reaching out to the heart of the viewer. Does it always work? Absolutely not. But I am always trying.
Why landscapes and nature?
I suppose that goes back to my childhood. It was at times very isolated; I was often alone, just me and the mountains and streams of central Idaho. That taught me to connect to landscapes, to want to explore the beauty of nature and later to represent it through photography.
That has certainly stayed with me. I remember one time driving with my former mother-in-law and being in awe as we passed through a great pine forest, and she turned to me and said, “You like to look at things.” So true! Perfectly said, really.
What do you love about Oregon the most?
The people are wonderful. They are hardy, frugal, positive, good-hearted, gentle: all things that I love and aspire to be. But the best part of Oregon is you are endlessly interacting with nature. The mountains surround you, the rivers, the wildlife. In some parts of the world you can pretend you are living in a sort of humans-only urban world, but not in Oregon.
What do you seek when taking a portrait?
The best portraits are able to present the humanity of the subject. In other words, I want you to look at the photo and feel like you know the person in it. You know them or at least you would like to get to know them.
Your gear of choice?
I have a lot of cameras, but my favorite is my sister’s old Canon AE-1 that I have been using since high school. One of the best cameras ever.
Can you define beauty?
Beauty moves you. And it makes you want to change, to be a better person, a more powerful artist, a nicer human. Beauty is an energy, like lightning that stings you when you encounter it. And unlike with most stings, with beauty you can’t wait to get stung again!
And the describe the essence of a good picture?
All of my energy as a photographer is chasing the elusive “good picture.” It’s all I want out of a shoot. But what is it? Sometimes it is as simple as a shot that makes the client happy. It’s about the viewer who was not there when you took it getting something out of it, getting a feeling of connection. And sometimes it is a shot that came easy or you had to agonize over or one you didn’t even remember taking… But you look at it and say: yes, that is what I was after in the shoot!
What you want a “good picture” to accomplish is letting the viewer feel the same rush of emotion that got you to take the shot in the first place. You are trying to re-present the beauty of a scene or a smile or a street to them, and connect them to the emotional energy of that moment. When it works, it is glorious!
A hard question for all artists. If you had to introduce your work with a single image, which one would it be and why?
Tough, tough question. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself. But I’d go with a portrait. I love the energy that nothing more than eyes, a nose, and a smile can deliver. It’s a challenge, but when it’s done right, it can be a wondrous sledgehammer. And you say, I wish I were talking with that person right now, they seem so interesting. Because everyone is, if you give them time to present themselves. A good portrait is an invitation to that.
Regarding visual artists, which would you consider to be your favourite?
These lists change all the time, depending on my mood. But certain names stay near the top always. Like, Gordon Parks for photography, a master both of form and of using art for social progress. Werner Herzog in cinema. He focuses on the human drive to better ourselves. It can be beautiful, but also crazy. Thomas Hart Benton in painting. His works shake and roll and sing. Such glorious movement.
And when it comes to musicians?
During the school year, I have a weekly radio show for alternative rock and pop. Music is a great passion of mine. Today I’ll say my favorite musical acts are Beck, Guided by Voices, and Rhett Miller.
Which literary works do you hold the dearest?
Today I’ll say The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky; Absalom, Absalom by Faulkner; and The Crying of Lot 49 by Pynchon. I have a PhD in English and taught literature for years. I’ve been taking a break from teaching recently to focus more on photography, but one day I’ll go back to it when I have more time.
If you had to name your three favourite films, which ones would you select?
Today it’s Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog; Bullets Over Broadway by Woody Allen; The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman. I am a film fanatic though and could talk about films forever.
In the end of the day, what fulfills you?
Being a father. My daughters are indescribably important to me. Nothing else can come close. However I only have them two weeks per month, so I fill the remaining time with my passion for creativity, particularly photography.
And to conclude, what should we expect to see in the future?
I’ve been so busy that you haven’t even seen a fraction of the work I’ve already been doing this year. It’s essential to take time to show off what you’re up to!
And I’ve been terrible about that. So you will see a lot of new posts on my blog at grethershot.com/blog as well as daily updates on instagram.com/grether — and they will focus on a lot of travels through the Pacific Northwest and some fun fashion shoots and portrait shoots. Probably most exciting for me is a photo trip to Venice at the end of the year. Cannot wait. That is one of my favorite places on earth.
Interview conducted by Demetrios Drystellas