Living in Portland,
photographer Jeff Luker has a steady supply of “weird” in front of his lens. For our first readers’ choice city guide, Jeff gives us a tour of all the places and people that “Keep
Where are you from and how did you end up in Portland?
I grew up in Massachusetts originally, and then I was in New York working for photographer Ryan McGinley as his assistant. I came out to Portland about two years ago because my friends were out here and there was this girl on the West Coast I wanted to visit. I kind of ended up staying out here.
What about Portland convinced you to stay?
It’s really mellow here and the quality of life is super nice. People have this huge interest in the city all of the sudden, but it’s funny because some of the people I know who have lived here for a couple months are like, “I can’t take it anymore, I have to leave!” because it’s so chill they can’t handle it. Coming from New York, it was strange for me because I was so ramped up to get out here and kill it and go crazy, and when I got here I had to get used to everyone being really chilled out. It takes a while to get things done—if you want to get anything done you have to really push the envelope.
How did you first get into photography?
Just as a kid, always taking photos on family road trips. My dad gave me a SLR camera for my birthday, so I kept taking photos of my friends skating and stuff. I was really into making skate videos and I went to film school, where I took photo classes at the same time. I was way more into the idea of taking a photo and the whole individuality of it.
How does living in Portland shape your work?
Being out here, you can be more immersed in the landscapes and the colors and the way the light falls upon the streets. The proximity to beautiful places is great too– drive an hour and you’re in lava fields or a high desert or a mountain with a huge waterfall.
What’s the best shoot you’ve ever been on?
Well, I just shot the Levi’s global campaign last month in L.A. It was crazy because my work is so personal. I usually just do things with my friends, so to try and recreate that in this huge mass group of people with all this money and production was insane. A lot of my ideas that I wanted to shoot as a kid but couldn’t make happen could suddenly happen, so I was like a kid in the candy store.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m finishing up the Levi’s stuff, which is coming out in the fall. I’m shooting something for PIG Mag and I’ll be travelling all summer working on a new book coming out next year.
So back to Portland– there’s an episode of IFC’s Portlandia where they say that “the dream of the ‘90s is alive in Portland.” Is there any truth to that?
Oh dude, totally. It’s so ‘90s here. There’s this thing that happens on the street I live on called Last Thursday, which is seriously this mini Burning Man every month: fire jugglers, a burlesque show, a weird tribal, industrial steam-punk movement. It’s very strange—Portland is like Never Never Land and no one wants to grow up.
What are some of the other weird trends?
One thing that’s kind of crazy is that a lot of people just go barefoot here all the time. You’ll be in a supermarket and people will be walking around in their bare feet. It freaks me out when I’m in a restaurant and people aren’t wearing shoes. Have you heard about the group of people who have pet rats?
Really? We prefer cats.
Ha, I know! You don’t see it on the East Coast. People come here because they want their own complete identity and there are no stigmas attached to anything and if want to walk down the street with multi-colored dreadlocks, bare feet and a rat on your shoulder, no one cares because you see it everyday. It’s a non-stop show that’s always going on.
Will you get a rat?
Nah, I don’t like rodents.
If you had a friend visiting for the weekend, what would you take them to see?
One of the cool things about Portland is its proximity to everything. You can drive half an hour and you’ll be at these beautiful waterfalls where you can go hiking. A lot of people come to visit me in Portland, and if they come in the summer, they just fall in love with it. It’s this ultimate dream spot, with perfect weather for three months and all this food. Powell’s Books is the biggest independent bookstore in the country I think, with rows and rows of books. We have food pods, which are little carts all over the city that serve up bizarre food—someone’s always pushing the bar. Everyone likes Voodoo Donuts. There’s bacon on donuts!
So what’s the best thing about living in Portland?
The coolest thing about Portland is that rent is super cheap. Food and beer are super cheap and you can just do whatever you want. If you don’t have a lot of money but you have a lot of dreams, you can come here and just start it up. They really encourage people to start their own projects here with some great tax breaks. It’s so green here, so close to nature—we reuse, ride bikes, recycle—and everyone is friendly and encouraging. It’s pretty European. I have friends from France who say this is their favorite city in the States because it reminds them of home.
On the flip side?
Because there is that attitude of being chilled out, it’s hard to make work that’s going to get beyond the “Portland Bubble.” It’s that idea of being too insulated. Everyone’s an artist, so you can never tell on a national or global scale if you’re actually creating something or it’s just being facilitated by this shiny happy town. Unemployment is high here—it’s so hard to get a job because everyone out here comes from a creative background and has a college education, so everyone has the same qualifications.
How do you throw a good party in Portland?
Everyone in Portland has these crazy houses because rent is so low. Your friends have these old Victorian mansions with yards where you can have a huge bonfire and barbeque. There are tons of awesome bands that play house shows. Add friends, a big space, music and beer and you have a party!
If you got a tattoo to pay homage to Portland, what would it look like?
Oh man, definitely a bird. Maybe it would have a bird holding a beer and eating a cheeseburger, probably with a banner that says “Forever Young” in an old Pirate font. There are a lot of tattoos out here, big tattoo culture. There’s a huge steam punk thing going on, all these homeless teens walking around barefoot with leather jackets. It looks like Mad Max and there are tons of tall bikes too. Ever see those huge bikes people weld together that are six-feet-tall? When I first got here, my mind was blown. I thought I’d stumbled onto the set of the Road Warrior.
This sounds like a fun vacation.
Dude it’s such a good vacation spot! People come out here for two weeks and think it’s the best place on Earth. When you live here through the winter though, when it rains every single day, you understand why Elliot Smith and all these other sad singer-songwriters are from here. You start to lose your shit; you’re like, “Oh my God, gray skies everyday.” You have to take vitamin D or you’ll get way too depressed. We’re all pale, hung-over and depressed all winter long. It’s funny when summer comes—you go to the beach and everyone is super pasty white. The reaction people have to sun is super crazy too. As soon as it comes out, it’s like crack. People run around without shirts on with crazy smiles, all bright-eyed going “Finally, it’s here! I’ve waited so long!”
If you had to rewrite Portland’s slogan, what would it say?
I don’t want to sound depressing here, but maybe “The City of Forgotten Dreams.” No wait, “City of Excessive Eating and Drinking.” Wait! “City of Consumption”—the whole place is based on this service industry culture where all we do is drink the best coffee, the best beer, eat the craziest food. It’s pretty great.
2727 Northeast Glisan Street
Pine State Biscuits
2204 Northeast Alberta Street
3226 Southeast Division Street
2839 Northeast Alberta Street
925 Northwest Davis Street
1452 Northeast Alberta Street
5339 Southeast Foster Road
4039 Mississippi Avenue
215 Southeast 9th Avenue
Taquiera Los Gorditos
1212 Southeast Division Street
1014 Southwest Stark Street
The Bye and Bye
1011 Northeast Alberta Street
3967 North Mississippi Avenue
511 Northwest Couch Street
938 North Cook Street
2026 Northeast Alberta Street
A Roadside Attraction
1000 Southeast 12th Avenue
600 East Burnside
8635 North Lombard Street
2742 East Burnside
1013 Southwest Washington Street
Ampersand Gallery and Bookshop
2916 Northeast Alberta Street
Blue Moon Camera
8417 North Lombard Street
House of Vintage
3315 Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard
4000 North Mississippi Avenue
1005 West Burnside
4007 North Mississippi Avenue
The Spare Room
4830 Northeast 42nd Avenue
315 Southeast 3rd Avenue
1001 Southeast Morrison Street
316 Southwest 11th Avenue
2530 Northeast 82nd Avenue
8371 North Interstate Avenue
4099 Northwest Thurman Street
Blue Sky Photography Gallery
122 Northwest 8th Avenue
1301 North Fremont Street
15000 Northwest Sauvie Island Road
4001 Southwest Canyon Road
Oregon Museum of Science and Industry
1945 Southeast Water Avenue
Oaks Amusement Park
1 Southeast Spokane Street
4000 Southwest Fairview Boulevard
Last Thursday (of each month)
Northeast Alberta Street
First Thursday (of each month)
Pearl District and Old Town
4200 Southeast 82nd Avenue
1022 Southwest Stark Street
Naked Bike Ride (annual)
Pioneer Courthouse Square
715 Southwest Morrison Street