by Jake Shivery
One Twelve Publishing, 2015
Reviewed by David Ondrik
Contact is the debut monograph for both Portland, Oregon photographer Jake Shivery and One Twelve Publishing. The book is softbound with a foil embossed cover, and the toothy, matte black surface is pleasingly tactile. The title and an outline of a sheet of large format film are embossed with the foil, which is an elegant, minimal touch that goes a long way towards making the soft cover feel more substantial. Physically, Contact is large enough for Shivery’s portraits to be reproduced at actual size, minimizing the distance between the book and the actual photography. Often black and white reproductions are tinted one shade or another by the printing process, but these reproductions are truly – and beautifully – neutral. Sure, they’re missing the subtle luminosity of the silver prints, but that’s always the case when ink replaces silver. Dr. Julian Nelson wrote the introduction, and about a third of the book offers Shivery’s meandering thoughts on photography and the world – an essay that would have benefited from a more forceful edit, but is still an entertaining read, with many words of wisdom and thoughtful guidance about working as an artist.
The title, Contact, is a clever reference to the process of making the photographs in two ways. The most obvious is that Shivery works with an 8x10 view camera and makes contact prints from his large-format negatives in a darkroom. Because of the cumbersome equipment, there is no such thing as a candid image, and he appears to be working within a handful of tropes: subject with a prop, subject in focus in front of subject out of focus, head shot, and backyard portrait to name a few. Overall the style of the images evokes the ghosts of photography past, which is an accurate reflection of how they were made.
The second way the title is apropos is the familiarity, the contact, Shivery has with his subjects, which shines through each portrait. He is not shooting strangers on the street, or taking commissions to pay the bills. His subjects are friends made in the community of Portland’s St. John’s neighborhood. The sitters are relaxed, aware they are being photographed but not stiff or especially self-conscious, although a handful exhibit a studied quirkiness that reads as overly precious. Shivery writes that, for the most part, he leaves his subjects’ wardrobe up to them, so presumably the (literal) clown showed up to the photo shoot dressed that way. Preciousness aside, the images are charming portraits of people from a largely working class neighborhood, one of the few left in a rapidly-gentrifying city.
My one criticism of the book is that it is almost too concerned with personal relationships and ends up somewhat opaque. The photos will certainly have a nearly anthropologic value to future historians, and people from Shivery’s community will surely enjoy seeing friends, family, and neighbors. I know that I got a kick out of seeing the Blue Moon Camera & Machine employees and a few local artists I’ve met. But most of the images are clearly so personal that I was left with unanswered questions. Why does that guy have a bird? What’s with the clown costume? What’s the allure of Sauvie Island? Does that lady always drive around with a shotgun? In many ways it feels like looking through Shivery’s family album and maybe that’s a good comparison. These strangers share a history that is possibly meaningful, and visually intriguing, but their stories remain mysterious to the uninitiated.
Buy the book here.
David Ondrik is an artist, art teacher, and writer currently living in Bloomington, Indiana.
Check out more of his writings as well as his artwork at Bromide Drag.