Lenses of Lane County

“I know people who go to a location specifically with a photo in mind,” says Walt O’Brien, a longstanding member of Eugene’s PhotoZone Gallery. “I don’t work that way. I like to go to a place and just kind of wait and see what the light is doing.” 

PhotoZone Gallery, an artist-run collective, is presenting a group exhibit at the Emerald Art Center through Feb. 3. The organization was founded in 1988 and currently boasts around 35 active members, though this show features work from only 15 to 20 members, O’Brien says. 

O’Brien emphasizes the variety of creative practices among the artists. “Some of our members are strictly darkroom printers, some are digital, some are cellphone,” he says. The genres on display not only include landscape and nature photography, but documentary styles and abstract expression, along with portraiture and pinhole photography.

Guy Weese, president of PhotoZone and board president for Emerald Art Center, appreciates the creativity and historical knowledge of its members. “We had one guy doing gum bichromate printing, which is from the 1880s,” he says. The process gives a painterly quality to the photograph.

At the show, the public can view these vintage style gum bichromate prints as well as collaged and 3-D prints, images made from digital capture, platinum/palladium and traditional silver prints. It also features hand-colored and airbrushed prints.

O’Brien is a landscape photographer who uses primarily large format film, and sometimes only shoots four or five sheets of film a day. “I’m very careful not to waste the material,” O’Brien says. “It makes you look closer at what you’re photographing if you’re limited.”

Other artists have wildly different working methods. “One of our members is a magnificent bird photographer, and when he goes out he’ll shoot two or three thousand images,” O’Brien says.

A benefit of being in the collective is the monthly meetings. “People can come and bring work to share — they don’t have to be a member to do this,” O’Brien says. The meetings provide an incentive to produce and an opportunity to receive feedback from fellow photographers. “Some people get offended, but most of us are learning from each other,” he says. The members critique the photos on a technical level, but also dive into what the photo is about and why it does or doesn’t work, O’Brien explains. 

Weese, a member since 1989, says a huge benefit of the collective is bringing out the social aspect of an often solitary art. “We’ve had field trips together,” he says. Often they will go to the Oregon coast since a few members live there. The trips “were quite productive,” Weese says. He has fond memories of visiting the Oregon coast with the group: a handful of people traveling along the beach, cameras in hand. “They’d even photograph each other,” he says. 

O’Brien echoes Weese’s sentiment. “PhotoZone is about the group,” he says. “We want to go out and shoot together.” According to O’Brien, the COVID pandemic limited these photography sessions, affecting the collaborative nature of the group. “We’ve only started meeting in person this year, about three months ago,” he says.

O’Brien says the Emerald Art Center show is the first one for the group in about a year. “When I joined, we had a gallery,” he says. O’Brien admits that this arrangement had its drawbacks, as the photographers paid a steep rent for the space, making membership less accessible. With no official gallery, they have more members but exhibit their work less frequently. 

Although the collective faced obstacles in the past, Weese maintains a positive outlook regarding PhotoZone’s future. He only has kind words to say about his fellow photographers and the progress they’ve made. “Our quality has just gone up over the years,” he says. “It’s amazing. It’s not the equipment; it’s the people getting better.” 

The PhotoZone Gallery’s group exhibit runs 11 am  to 4 pm Tuesdays through Saturdays through Feb. 3 at the Emerald Art Center, 500 Main Street, Springfield. More information at PhotoZoneGallery.com.