Cities and urban life have always been a curious concept for me. I find a certain satisfaction with observing my own and others' routines in urban environments. The cafe staff have been fans of Portland's public transportation Instagram (@ridetrimet) for some time now and we've finally talked to the person behind the camera.
In a busy Saturday morning cafe, I met with Brian K. Lum to learn more about his views on transportation and photography while bonding over our taste for coffee and Tehuana.
Can you begin by telling us how you got into photography?
I remember seeing Liz Kuball’s photo “Untitled (Santa Barbara), 2009,” which shows a lemon tree hanging over a blond wood fence. I grew up in Santa Barbara, and that picture immediately stirred some really wonderful feelings and memories in me — stuff I hadn’t thought about in a long time. That got me thinking about how photography can have a special resonance, and I’ve spent a long time since trying to achieve something like that.
How did your interest in photography find its way to an urban public transportation agency like TriMet?
I was really happy to get a job doing web and social stuff for TriMet. They didn’t have an Instagram account, so of course I made that a priority. I’m always taking pictures, so it was the perfect project.
You successfully depict Portland in a very unique way through TriMet's social media accounts. Do you think your view on Portland shines through your photographs?
Thanks. I really wanted the TriMet feed to have its own look from the beginning, and since it was really just me keeping it going, my perspective has become a big part of it. I try to be mindful of that, and I hope what it conveys more than anything is a love for this place. I want it to be like an open-hearted love letter to Portland.
What kind of feedback do you get from some of the older folks at TriMet regarding social media and some of the more abstract images you post?
Ha! Since the Instagram account hasn’t been around that long, I would guess that most of my coworkers haven’t seen it. There are something like 3,000 TriMet employees, and I’m sure there plenty of them would wonder why I posted a picture of windshield wipers. But more are coming around to Instagram, and I have gotten some great feedback, which means so much to me. I should also point out that not all the photos I post are mine — I’ll post shots from contributors every once in a while.
What's your daily routine like at TriMet? Coffee in the morning or coffee in the afternoon?
Definitely coffee in the morning. I try to make it at home — I like trying different roasters and I finally got a V60, which I am crazy about. It’s so cute! But if I’m running late I’ll go to the Ole Latte cart up the street. They’re super nice. And then once I get to the office it’s a lot of tying things together: writing, editing, designing web stuff, making promos, monitoring social channels. And my treat at the end of the day is doing the Instagram — if I’m lucky, I’ll have taken photos that day on the way in or during lunch.
What's been the most rewarding part of being able construct the way a typically boring and conservative public transportation agency is represented on the internet?
It feels really good to work toward making TriMet’s image match up with its importance to the Portland region. We don’t usually think of infrastructure and transit as glamorous, but it’s such a huge part of why people love it here. Even if you don’t ride, transit makes your life better. So being able to show that transit is just as wonderful and vibrant as the communities it serves — in fact, it’s a big reason why these communities are wonderful and vibrant — is hugely rewarding.
Can you speak on the transit fanatics that heavily interact with the TriMet accounts spouting historic Portland factoids in a semi-troll fashion?
I’ll say this: At the heart of the die-hard transit fanatics, and even some of the trolls, there’s a desire for things to be better. I appreciate that. Sometimes I wish some of the zealotry translated better as advocacy.
Some of your photographs are taken from elevated vantage points and portray a bus or a MAX train in an almost voyeuristic sense, what's your favorite vantage point in the city for photographing your subjects?
It’s always kind of novel to get “aerial” views of the city. I don’t feel like we have many opportunities because buildings here are so low. Otherwise, if I’m on board, I try to be really careful about not seeming voyeuristic and creepy. Transit’s a public space, but it’s also where people turn inward and do their own thing. I don’t want to intrude on that. But I love on board shots because there are so many lights and surfaces, and opportunities to play with depth and focus on certain things. Plus they’re familiar to people who ride the bus or train.
What's next for your own personal photography? Any upcoming shows we need to know about?
Compared to the TriMet stuff, my personal photos feel especially scattered. Doing such focused work has inspired me to organize my pictures somehow, so I might be able to show some. I hope to make some progress toward a show this year, whatever that looks like. Maybe it’s the transit stuff — honestly, it’s all work I’m proud of and feel a personal connection to, so that would be cool, too.