Camera With Wings

January 18, 2011

By Claire Sykes

We live life at ground level, held firmly by gravity. From here close up, as we walk or wheel through our days, we can feel the asphalt’s roughness, see the spiny veins of a leaf and hear an approaching siren’s wail.

But from a helicopter—leaning way out the side as Portland photographer Bruce Forster does, his camera aimed below—streets form a crossword-puzzle grid, parks patchwork themselves between neighborhoods, and traffic scurries like mice. Up here, we see the city as a whole, a living map.

Burnside Bridge

Hovering at skyscraper height and soaring close to clouds, Forster takes us on an aerial tour of Oregon’s largest city and its outlying areas, in Above Portland (Cameron + Company, 2010). The 143-page coffee-table hardbound book joins the publisher’s Above series that includes San Francisco, New York, Paris and 14 other cities around the world. Its 150-some full-color photographs accompany essays by six local historians and experts on Portland’s history, architecture, urban planning, transportation and sustainability.

“[W]e can see the layers of Portland’s story unfolding beneath us…we can see how the landscape shapes what we build; how city blocks, roads, and tracks have directed development; how buildings reveal Portland’s past tastes and present aspirations…,” writes Chet Orloff, adjunct professor at Portland State University, in the book’s Introduction. “And we can see how one photographer takes all this in.”

Forster’s lens gazes down at buildings and bridges, rivers and roadways, fields and forests, capturing postcard-perfect Portland-area scenes. Nearly every page in this book is a clear day, unlike the gray, drippy skies here much of the time. But then who wants to go up in a copter and shoot in the rain?

Portland International Airport

Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area

So you bask in Above Portland’s sunshine. And, if you know this city, you delight in the familiar: The urban skyline’s boxy geometrics, like toy blocks. The beloved Willamette marked off by bridges—a tailor’s tape measure. That braid of freeways in Southwest. A clump of Southeast city-park deciduous. Bands of trees marching between rows of houses (and is that mine down there?).

Hawthorne Boulevard

However, some of Forster’s best photos in this book do more than document a specific place in time. They make the most of the medium, of what only photography can show from such an elevated perspective. You may traverse concentric circles when visiting the Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial or curve in traffic while crossing the Vancouver Land Bridge (designed by architect/artist Maya Lin, by the way), but until you see them in Forster’s photos, you may not fully appreciate the elegance of their annularity.

Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial, Washington Park

The book is divided by “Downtown,” “Bridges,” the city’s quadrants (named after the four points of a compass plus the suffixes, “east” and “west”) and “The Region.” Above Portland is as easy to get around as the city itself. Once between its embossed covers, you’ll find the occasional coincidence, like the colorful stripes of a tulip field mimicking the rows of parked cars at the Port of Portland, both running at an angle within the photos’ frames. Or contrasting pictures side by side—one river carving out the Gorge, another cutting through the city.

Bonneville Dam

Fremont Bridge

Meanwhile, Rob Bennett, executive director at Portland Sustainability Institute, in his essay, “Sustainability,” says, “Looking down on the city, we can witness sustainability in all facets of city building, the economy, and collective consensus. It has taken physical form as represented by transit lines, bikeways, and reinvigorated local business districts. It comes to life in the lively plazas, farmers’ markets, and college and university campuses.”

Nike Campus

In “Green Portland,” Mike Houck, executive director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, says, “From an eagle’s perspective, Portland is both a city in a garden and a garden in the city. Our city is embedded in nature and nature is interwoven throughout the city, at every scale, from regional landforms to the streetscape . . . Acres of ecoroofs top many downtown buildings and bioswales line neighborhood streets.”

Jamison Square

Architect and urban designer, Paddy Tillett, FAIA, FAICP, with Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects (ZGF), leads us down Portland’s streets and across its bridges in “Getting Around the Region: An Urban Designer and Transportation Planner’s Perspective.” He describes the city as a “tightly woven urban fabric—and a place full of interest for those on foot or bicycle, with something new around every corner . . .”

The livable grid of Portland’s 200-by-200-foot blocks “dictates that the streets and sidewalks play a major role in the usability and accessibility of the city and its neighborhoods . . . [M]ost streets are restricted to two moving lanes of traffic, parking on both sides, and sidewalks sized for ease of pedestrian movement,” says Donald Stastny, architect and urban planner with Stastny-Brun Architects, in his essay, “Planning the City: Portland, an Urban Laboratory.”

Writer and photographer Brian Libby sums it all up in his essay, “The Portland Way,” which kicks off the book’s lively conversations: “No matter whether one prefers the local government’s official slogan, ‘The city that works,’ or a local bumper sticker urging ‘Keep Portland Weird,’ this Pacific Northwest metropolis is closer than most to finding that coveted alchemy between built and natural environments. Today Portland is not just a clearing but a way of life.”

Like pages from some hymnbook, those in Above Portland praise this “way of life.” As you wing through it, looking down onto roadways and waterways, cityscapes and landscapes, you see views you otherwise may never get. And, whether you live in Portland or not, you see your city in a way you may’ve never seen it before.

You can buy a signed copy of Above Portland online at Powell’s Books. Also, look for the 2011 wall calendar.

For 40 years, Portland’s Bruce Forster has been photographing “the way the world works”—from aerial urban views and underground coal mines to architectural details and agricultural concerns. Please see his website, at

The very talented, and warm, Bruce Forster

(This write-up also appears on the Portland Architecture site.)

Photos © by Bruce Forster. All rights reserved.
Words © by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

Published in: on December 8, 2010 at 2:22 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What a lovely break in this gray Portland day. I sooo appreciate the change in perspective.


    • Well, Bill, with Bruce’s book, you can fly there anytime.

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