We recently had the opportunity to connect with Christopher Dibble, photographer, and weaver based in Portland, OR. In conversation with Stephanie Sun.
Applications are now *open* for our 2021 New Traditions Festival and close on July 30th.
S: What does the phrase ‘New Traditions’ mean to you?
C: ‘New traditions’ is a phrase that people use so often, but actually having to sit down and think about what it actually means to me was kind of fun.
I think the phrase ‘new traditions’ can be a little bit of a paradox, but that’s one of the reasons why I like it. It leaves a lot of room for interpretation and having space to interpret that is important. It makes me think a lot about 2020 and all the holidays that I celebrated throughout 2020 that I normally spend with family. Each one involved ‘new traditions,’ because it was just my husband and I. During the pandemic, it was difficult to hold onto traditions – old traditions – which for me involve a lot of family and friends and food and gathering. So the new traditions that I explored in 2020 were a way that I could connect to the past while also thinking about the future.
New traditions are important, because old traditions can turn into habits or obligations and they can lose their significance rather easily. Not that old traditions are worth giving up – I have a lot of old traditions that I really enjoy. But the new traditions give a lot of flexibility and that keeps things interesting.
S: You touch on a relatable point when you talk about how the context of living in a pandemic has forced this consideration of new traditions. Questioning what traditions we’re holding onto is something that many of us are having to really reevaluate, how we celebrate things, how we behave in different ways. It’s a universal reconsidering of all these traditions that we carry forward.
C: What I find really interesting is the idea of traditions being rituals or things that are performed yearly. In general when speaking with other people about traditions, it’s about these events that happen on certain dates. But there is a lot of tradition also in craft and textiles. When you look up what ‘tradition’ means, it is a lot about teaching and passing things down. For me that was really eye-opening, recognizing that there’s a lot of tradition apart from holidays and celebrations.
S: Thinking about traditions in regard to the arts and to craft, for me, it brings up the idea that there’s a way that things have always been done and how they ‘should be done.’
C: Absolutely, and this idea of breaking rules, when can I break rules…My career is in photography and it’s what I’ve been doing for 15 years. I was always so happy that I went to school for it, because I was really able to learn all of the rules, learn all of the traditions of photography. With a strong understanding of those traditions, then I’m able to break them, or experiment with them or change them to create these new traditions.
S: It speaks to what we’ve all heard some variation of, that you have to learn the rules of whatever you’re doing before it’s acceptable for you to break them. It gets to the idea that everything new and experimental comes from a place that’s grounded in this historic knowledge and these traditions, and we’re just moving them forward in these different ways.
C: That’s why it’s so interesting. I’m all for experimentation before knowing all of the rules – I think that’s also an important exploration. But it is nice to know the traditions and know the specific ways of doing something, so that you can use that information to figure out how to achieve the outcome you want to achieve.
S: Even across different fields and industries, we’re all encouraged to start out at a certain point, to build this universal basis of knowledge, which allows us to connect from the outset.
C: Allowing us to be connected is something that’s so important with tradition. I feel that there can be a connection between me and a photographer who is taking portraiture one hundred years ago or when I’m weaving there is a connection between me and a weaver from a century ago, but also there’s a connection between me and my friend now who’s a weaver.
That connectedness is really interesting. And just as important as being connected and having similarities as other people, is the importance of having differences from other people and celebrating that as well. Through tradition, we can figure out our similarities and our differences, which is exciting.
S: It makes me wonder about how your creative practice has changed or transformed during the pandemic. And if the connection points that you’re talking about, the connections that we can find through similarities as well as the differences, have maybe been exacerbated during the pandemic?
C: Well, I think so. I know a good deal of people personally who have been trying new things, learning new traditions because of the pandemic. If the pandemic hadn’t been around, then they wouldn’t be playing with ceramics or trying weaving or whatever. The pandemic has definitely pushed that.
In terms of how my creative practice has grown or transformed…with photography it was totally put on hold. When the shutdown happened, all of the projects were paused. It picked up later on, just with a lot of protocols and new traditions. When I do a photoshoot now, there are waivers to be signed and everybody’s wearing masks. It’s a skeleton crew, me and the designer maybe, so there’s all sorts of new traditions there.
With weaving, the pandemic has given me a lot more time to explore and experiment with weaving and just play around because I had more time to do that. It allowed me to put my creativity to other projects, like the film that I produced about contemporary Diné weavers, and allowed me time to begin Makers Union PDX and PDX Window Shop where we’re working with local makers to try and sell their goods and donate a portion to Black Resilience Fund. So it hasn’t changed my drive at all, but the drive has been dispersed into several different areas. I really enjoyed having that variety.
S: It’s great to hear you talk about the different ways in which your practice has diversified. I’m curious to learn more about Makers Union and Window Shop, because they feel like they really speak to the moment and are so well suited to living in a pandemic and finding ways to support small businesses and artists. From a business or entrepreneurial side, they seem like a really smart pivot to be able to operate in this context.
C: Makers Union PDX started a year ago. It started with my friend MC Lemay, a builder of MC Lemay Designs. She’s a total badass builder who welds and cuts steel and does awesome stuff. MC reached out to me, saying “I want to do something, I want to help and I want to help the maker community.” She knew that I had done a lot of pop-ups and exhibitions through Stockpiler. We started talking about that and we hooked up with another friend of ours, Jubal Prevatte, of Carpentry PDX, who is this incredible builder who built a ton of restaurants and bars in town. And he had the exact same idea which he had been thinking about even before the pandemic.
So the three of us got together and we formed Makers Union PDX, which is an online marketplace where we host makers throughout Portland and we sell their goods through this marketplace. 85% goes directly to the artists and 15% goes to a charity – the charity that we’ve been working with is Black Resilience Fund. That was a really great way that we could help build community and help support makers who either didn’t have their day job anymore or weren’t able to go to markets anymore. We just wanted to figure out a way that we could all come together and support each other, so we started Makers Union PDX.
When the holidays and 2020 came around, we started thinking about ways that we could do more. In-person markets and pop-ups still weren’t happening, and boutiques were open, but there weren’t a lot of people out and about shopping. At the same time, there were a lot of window spaces becoming vacant throughout the city. When we were thinking about doing pop-ups, I started reaching out to several boutiques and asking what they were doing for the holidays. I spoke with the owner of Woonwinkel, an awesome little shop downtown, and she was going to do these curated displays of Woonwinkel products in the vacant windows on her street and I thought that was a really incredible idea. We started talking about doing the same thing in different areas throughout Portland. We started talking to the makers from the Makers Union site and one of the makers, Sarah Lonnquist from Olander Earthworks, suggested we connect with Meghan Sinnott over at PortlandMade because she was talking about the exact same concept.
So we reached out to Megan and ended up combining our forces and kicking this thing off, making it bigger than it could be if we were doing it on our own. And it’s been a really amazing project. At first we did three windows in November and we’ve done three windows in 2021. And we have four windows coming up, which is really great. We’ve been meeting a lot of new makers, half of the windows are BIPOC makers. There’s no fees to the artists and Window Shop doesn’t take a percentage. It’s a lot of looking for donations, for support from the building owners and local organizations. It’s definitely a labor of love and something that we’re all still really excited about.
We teamed up with two designers, Shana McCullough and Elise Klein. They’re taking on the creative and art director role, respectively, curating windows and whatnot.
S: It sounds like you’ve tapped into this way of building new traditions and new opportunities while also creating accessibility and community support and advocacy. It’s so many great things rolled into one.
C: Yeah, it’s a new way of online shopping. We’re putting QR codes onto the windows to encourage passersby to scan the QR code and they can shop directly – they can do literal window shopping in a way, which is something new – as opposed to being at home and going to an online store. This is a new way of looking at buying online: you’re seeing the actual product and you can go and buy it on the sidewalk.
S: There’s something really generous about it. It’s not just you coming up with this new way for yourself to operate in this context, it’s also something that you’re sharing and encouraging communities to be a part of.
C: Yeah, that’s been a super important component, especially through the pandemic. I think promoting community in any way that we can is important.
S: I’m thinking about how tradition fits into your creative communities. You’re part of the photography community, textiles, weaving, entrepreneurship… How do those work together for you? And how do you see traditions and traditional ways of doing things weaving throughout those?
C: I definitely have my fingers in a lot of pies, I really enjoy being around people and working with people. Thinking about old traditions, with weaving it’s performing the same tasks that have been practiced for centuries. Same thing with photography – like what we were talking about before – how I’m able to have this connection with people who have done the same tasks and motions and practices before me.
With creating new traditions, I like the idea of gently disrupting the status quo. With photography, I enjoy prompting people to stop and think about an image.
S: I was thinking about your photography practice, with portraiture and interior design and how that might’ve changed during the pandemic. We’ve all been wearing masks for over a year now and also the majority of us have been spending so much more time at home than we used to. We’re much more deeply embedded in our living spaces, and I wonder if those factors have impacted how you approach photography or if that’s changing how you’re thinking about it.
C: Yeah, it’s really interesting because portraiture is what I started with when I started photography and then I transitioned into interiors. Those are two areas that don’t necessarily go with each other: one is dealing with humans and expressions and how light falls on the face and creating a story in a single image, and the next is shooting a space and inanimate objects and things that are not going to talk and react to me. That’s been a really fun and interesting way to work, because I want to bring the way that I photograph people into how I photograph spaces.
I’ve had several portrait shoots during the pandemic and what I’ve found interesting is everybody wants to shoot without a mask. I enjoy making a point to photograph people from a very safe distance, outside, while I’m double-masked, but I want to photograph them with their masks on as well, because to me, photography is a recording of history and that is important to me.
I want to capture these images of people wearing masks; that’s been a way that the pandemic has affected my work as well, going back to new traditions of wearing a mask.
S: I think it’s interesting that you’ve emphasized taking portraits with masks, especially thinking about how much more social weight seeing peoples’ faces carries right now.
C: I’m invested in this idea of the importance of seeing people’s entire faces. It’s what we – people who are all over a certain age – have always seen. That’s how we recognize people and it’s been a really interesting thing to experience and witness.
S: It’s like finding a balance between normalizing the way that we see each other now while still holding on to these traditions, these old ways that we’ve always relied upon for getting to know each other.
C: Yes, exactly. What I find fascinating as a photographer and want to explore more is how can I create a portrait of someone with a mask and still have that image be impactful and not just tell a story about the time that we’re living in, but tell a story about that person. It’s an interesting challenge.
S: The last question that I’d love to touch upon ties back into what we’ve talked about already. What are some new traditions that you’ve learned or incorporated into your life personally and creatively, entrepreneurially that you would want to share with others?
C: There are so many new traditions that I’ve had to learn and incorporate and embrace.
With photography it’s all about new ways of working with people. I love producing imagery, but for me, one of the biggest joys of photography was being on set, the camaraderie, the collaboration, seeing friends that I only work with. That’s definitely been something that I’ve had to learn, incorporate, and embrace, because in the beginning it was like all the joy was taken out of photography, because it was just me and one other person and we’re trying to get the job done as quickly as possible so that we can not be in a house for hours and hours on end. But through shooting more and really thinking about it, there is still so much joy there. It just took a little bit to think about and get to.
It can be difficult and lonesome, but if you think about it, you can turn it around – I can think, wow, it is actually amazing that I can produce this work on my own. It’s something that I can feel proud about.
I recently had a book come out called ‘Modern Americana’ that I did with a designer, Max Humphrey, and a co-writer, Chase Reynolds Ewold. The fact that we were able to produce something like 75 images over the summer of 2020 is mind blowing to me.
This is something I want to share with others – try and look at the adversity that you’re facing and see if there is a way to pivot that.
Pivot, that’s been the word of the pandemic, hasn’t it? Maybe you can pivot it and look at things from a different way that makes you feel really good and really proud. That’s something that I would share, looking at obstacles in a different way and turning them into something positive.
Don’t we all need that? Don’t we all need some positivity and levity in our lives right now? And sometimes we have to find that within ourselves.
S: One hundred percent. I think a lot of the new traditions that we’ve been forced into logistically – wearing masks, having to adjust how we do our work, how we see our friends and our family – are just new traditions that we’ve, by necessity, been needing to pivot to. But what you’re talking about is so important, the mental and emotional reframing, reevaluating and pivoting and creating our own new traditions about how we’re approaching these things.
C: Totally, and when you mentioned how we see our families, I was realizing a new tradition that my husband and I have been doing is twice a week we do a Zoom call with my mom and my sister and we chat for 15 or 20 minutes. And then we all watch a TV program together, which is something we would never think to do before the pandemic. Because of that, we have spent more virtual time with my sister and my mom than we ever would have before. It’s definitely something that we’ll continue to do even when we can see each other. That’s been a really great new tradition that we formed.
S: Yeah, that’s wonderful, and it’s exactly those new ways of connecting that we’re building which feel like some of the most hopeful pieces that we can hold on to moving forward.
C: Totally. And that will be something that’s really interesting moving forward. When the world opens up a little bit more, what will we take, what traditions, what new traditions will then become old traditions or just don’t happen anymore? For me, I kind of love the idea of when I get on a plane, when I go on a flight putting on a mask and instead of loading up on Emergen-C and getting sick after a flight. I think it’ll be interesting to see what carries over post-pandemic.