Your first impression when you see photographer Ray Gordon at work is that he’s a bit intimidating. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that his subjects include rock ‘n’ roll musicians, vintage cars, motorcycles, and just about anything else on wheels. Or maybe it’s because he cites Larry Clark’s visceral and intense Tulsa as the main reason he picked up a camera in the first place.
Whatever the case may be, behind the revved up engines and rough exterior is an extremely likeable guy whose photographs of vintage cars, custom bikes and hot girls peel away a layer of Portland’s culture that’s unfamiliar to most.
Although many of Ray’s photographs represent an authentic American quality with a bit of danger and a lot of noise, there’s also a bit of romance and nostalgia to his subjects. “Even if it’s a car,” explains Ray, “I want radical whimsy or humor or sex or pushing that machine to its breaking point. I want some form of energy that’s really hard to reproduce, so that way I know it’s mine.”
A professional photographer for seventeen years, Ray’s portfolio goes well beyond the commercial car assignments and burning rubber featured in his successful photo exhibit “Throttled.” With an archive of portraits that spans Zach Galifianakis, ZZ Top, M. Ward and the never ending selection of colorful characters Portland is known for, Ray’s approach has remained simple: “Live your life and the photos will make themselves.”
THOR DRAKE: Did you grow up knowing you wanted to be a photographer?
RAY GORDON: I don’t know, man. I was never good at academics and I just knew, “This isn’t working out for me.” I always did great in art classes, and it was something that I gravitated towards. As I got into high school, I took every art class I could, and I would ask the art teachers if I could sit in on their classes and work on my projects.
TD: But you grew up in the man’s place of the country, where men were expected to be union guys.
RG: Yeah, both of my parents worked at General Motors for 35 years, and my grandparents worked there as well. My aunts and uncles were machinists, and then there’s me, this dude who wanted to go to art school.
TD: It’s almost as though it’s come full circle for you, working with Detroit car companies and photographing cars as your subjects.
RG: I just did this Dodge shoot and I was super passionate about it because of that reason. Our dinner came from General Motors, one of the big three. My dad and my uncles are all car guys and they were always in the garage, so I was always around cool cars growing up. My dad was also a semi-professional drag racer and a competition engine builder, so some of that’s bound to rub off on you. I couldn’t stay there and punch a clock, but it’s ironic how the bridge was built between the two.
TD: One of the great things about your work is the emotion in your subjects, no matter what that subject is.
RG: For me, nine-tenths of photography is what I choose to put in front of the camera. When you find these characters like I do and put them in front of the lens, it makes for really great photos that have electricity. It’s almost impossible for me to take a good photo of someone I don’t respect or have a chance to get to know. Fortunately, I’ve been good at being a chameleon throughout my life and melting in. People take me under their wings and want to show me their lives, and the more time I have with someone to get inside, the better my photos are. Portland’s a great place to work because there’s never a shortage of characters.
TD: How did you end up in Portland?
RG: My wife and I moved to Colorado after college. Being from the Midwest and never leaving there, Colorado seemed like another planet at the time. We got jobs at a ski resort to pay some bills. There was a really cool upstart snowboard manufacturing company that had just got off the ground and we worked our way up quickly—not bad for a couple of derelicts. But as fast as it happened, it was over. There was a mismanagement of funds. Besides just flat out panicking, we were frantically looking for some kind of related work so we could survive. We got a call from a guy in Portland who was starting a new snowboard company and a week later we were in Oregon. Three months after moving there, the investors backed out and we were stranded in Portland. It was a dark time for us, but after the storm cleared and we realized that we couldn’t afford to move or go anywhere, we stopped freaking out and realized how beautiful Oregon is. What a great fucking place to be stranded. I had graduated with a degree in photography and decided that’s exactly what I was going to do. I started at the bottom and was assisting. Hard to believe that was over sixteen years ago.
TD: When did you turn that corner where you comfortably called yourself a legit artist?
RG: I had a hard time even saying the word “artist” and I still do. I hold such high regard for the people I consider artists and I don’t even consider myself in that category. I think of myself as a machine operator. It’s not that I’m protecting myself, or the art of it, but I’ve been doing this for 17 years and I’m just starting to feel comfortable with it. Maybe it’s my ego, or my selfishness, but I just create shit I want to see. Man, I’d probably be in jail if it weren’t for photography.