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Dec. 3, 2022

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Vancouver photographer makes magic by improving on reality

Raymond Klein, 84, won a Popular Photography contest for his luminous portrait of Portland and Mount Hood

By , Columbian staff writer
9 Photos
Local photographer Ray Klein, 82, talks about his career at Gallery 360 in Vancouver.
Local photographer Ray Klein, 82, talks about his career at Gallery 360 in Vancouver. (Natalie Behring for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Raymond Klein has spent a lifetime making the world look better: richer colors, shinier sheens, sharper details and neater patterns than nature usually provides.

“I’m not a purist,” he laughed. Klein, 84, likens creating an ideal photograph to writing a symphony: it’s up to the artist to organize everything into the best possible whole. Rarely is it a glimpsed moment. More often, it’s complicated labor that takes hours or days.

Check out Klein’s recent, prizewinning vision of the east Portland cityscape and Mount Hood, as photographed from the hilltop tram station at Oregon Health & Science University. When you’re done admiring the blend of distant, glowing mountainsides with nearer headlight streaks and detailed buildings, you might want to fact-check the composition.

This view of Portland doesn’t really exist. The winner of the Cities and Architecture” category in Popular Photography’s 23rd annual reader photo contest is actually a composite of three different photographs — and many more attempts — taken with two different lenses over the course of nearly an hour, one day in November 2016.

Klein was up at that tram station on a field trip with Vancouver’s Film Pack Camera Club. He started out training a telephoto lens with fast shutter speed on the mountain only, which was unfortunately bathed in a “gray haze” at first; when the light changed and Mount Hood suddenly took on the rosy glow of sunset, Klein hurried to take more photos.

Then he switched to his widest-angle lens to capture the reddening, darkening clouds and sky. Five exposures in two minutes. Back to the telephoto lens to record moving traffic and headlights on the Marquam Bridge. One particular 4-second exposure turned out to be “an almost magical portrayal of speed,” he said.

Here’s what’s also magical: If you stand where Klein was standing, you wouldn’t — couldn’t — see this view. Mount Hood doesn’t line up with the Marquam Bridge like that; it’s actually much farther off to the right.

Not a problem. Klein moved the mountain.

Rising rockets

Klein first caught the shutterbug at age 12, when he discovered his father’s complex, folding Kodak camera. The gadget-loving boy was fascinated; he was also fascinated by Life and Look, big, glossy magazines that published great images by famous photographers. When he discovered a magazine called Popular Photography, Klein’s course was set.

His father encouraged the interest with an $8 film-processing kit. But a darkroom was what he really needed, and the resourceful Klein realized that the disused, 5-by-7-foot coal bin under his front porch was perfect for that job. His buddies started bringing him their film to develop, he said. Klein’s self-taught skill eventually landed him a starter job processing mass quantities of personal pictures from rolls handed in at drug stores. Remember those pre-digital days?

In the Air Force, Klein made films and photographs of subjects such as squadrons of B-52 bombers. Those images were headed for morning meetings of “military bigwigs and congressmen,” he said, and developing them overnight was a hectic, deadline-driven job.

That experience eased Klein into photography work with the fledgling space program in the late 1950s and early 1960s. If you ever watched the slightly wobbly TV coverage of a launch from Cape Canaveral in those days, now you know: it was Klein and his peers who had the task of struggling to keep whole banks of lenses trained on fast-rising rockets. That job was actually the very picture of near-endless tedium, Klein said — until it was interrupted by a cry of “Ignition” and a few seconds of frantic photographic activity.

Magnifying glass

The friendly, eager Klein doesn’t seem like a character in TV’s “Mad Men,” a chronicle of sleaze, angst and alcoholism among advertising executives in the swinging 1960s. But he played a key role in that world, working his way up from photographer to director of photography at a commercial Chicago studio — his home base from 1965 to 1995.

Parading through the studio were copywriters, product managers, art directors and stylists from advertising firms and retailers such as Kleenex, Cobra Electronics and Sears. In consultation with them, Klein’s job always was bettering reality. Plastic packaging had to gleam like crystal; stickers and labels had to be sharp and proud; the products themselves had to look irresistible. That often meant coming up with big concepts and ideal backgrounds.

Klein’s greenish “Soft as a kitten’s purr” magazine spread features shaggy Sears bath rugs, all apparently floating in space. A relaxed cat reigns amidst it all. What you can’t see is how the rugs and other props are stapled to camouflaged green cardboard. The professionally hired cat was sedated — otherwise, after just one flash of the gigantic studio lights, Klein would have had to peel the cat off the ceiling, he said.

The shoot took a whole day to set up. “You’re always working with other people,” Klein said, and those perfection-seeking art directors and ad executives would often examine drafts of the work under magnifying glasses before giving their final OK.

Gadgetry and poetry

Meanwhile, Klein’s own photographic curiosity never stopped prompting creative experiments.

He knew that Cadet Records, a jazz label, was a few blocks away from his studio, so he started playing around with multiple color-gelled exposures of musical instruments. He was “ecstatic” with the final result, a slightly psychedelic scattering of translucent blue, red and gold saxophones. Cadet used the image as the cover of “Lou Donaldson at his Best,” an album released in 1966.

Decades later, Klein’s experiments still lean toward the abstract and illuminated. His self-published book, “Visions of Light,” explains how one commercial assignment led to a brainstorm about the infinite effects he could make with “exploding bursts of light.” Since then, Klein has worked with deceptively simple materials — darkrooms, tiny lights and lightboxes, color gels, different lenses and exposures, and yes, plenty of manipulation via Photoshop — to create dazzling portraits of geometric light.

But because those portraits speak in light, not words — and because Klein admits he’s more into gadgetry than soulful interpretation — he sought collaborators for the book. When his work was juried into an exhibition at downtown Vancouver’s Angst Gallery, Klein discovered the poetry community that has developed there. He enlisted area poets Toni Partington, Daedra Pfeiffer, and Lori and Zoe Loranger to contribute the verses that appear alongside his abstract “Visions of Light.”

Klein is a member of Gallery 360 in downtown Vancouver, which recently showed some experimental works by Klein’s young students at local Boys & Girls Clubs. For years now, he’s been whetting kids’ interest in photography by showing them the effects you can generate with equipment as simple as a lightbulb swinging inside a dark box.

“They get all excited,” he said. “And I get all excited, too.”