Architect Harley Cowan is preserving Oregon's historic buildings, one photograph at a time

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Architect and photographer Harley Cowan shows B&W images he took of the Hanford site in Washington State.

As an architect, Harley Cowan expects to spends his days in front of a computer screen.

But when the longtime photographer found he was spending almost as much time at night on a computer editing the digital images for his hobby, he knew it was time for a change.

"At some point, (photography) had stopped being fun," Cowan said.

A chance encounter with what Cowan describes as a "brick" of a medium-format camera not only helped him rediscover the thrill of photography, it also set him on a new path. Now, using film rather than pixels to record images, Cowan is being recognized as part of an elite group dedicated to preserving the built environment through old-school photography.

Even as he continues in his day job as a laboratory planner with TVA Architects, he can claim bragging rights as a guest lecturer at the Portland Art Museum and the University of Oregon Preservation Field School, where he has talked about how use photography as a tool for architectural historic preservation. A photograph he took of a historic house on Sauvie Island now rests in the archives of a national building preservation program. More recently, in April, a series of his photographs from a four-day session spent documenting the Hanford Reservation in Washington state earned him entry into the Atomic Photographers Guild.

While it might be easy to assume Cowan's interest in historic preservation stems from his career as an architect, that's not necessarily the case. His training as an architect may make it easier for him to identify important structural components of a building once the camera is out. But the initial attraction stems from a natural curiosity to explore historic and largely abandoned places that most people tend to not even notice in the first place.

"It's kind of interesting that these things exist, and they're not widely visited," Cowan said. "They're places that are hidden in plain sight."

Big rig

These days, Cowan's photographic work almost entirely involves film, which he processes and prints himself. He rarely goes anywhere without a camera, usually an old medium-format camera that produces a square negative.

When he's shooting a historic preservation project, though, he relies on a large-format camera. Although heavy and bulky, the 4x5 format allows him to adjust film and lens planes to avoid the skewing of vertical lines that often occurs when photographing a building.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Architect and photographer Harley Cowan uses his 4x5 camera to document old and abandoned historic buildings.

That feature is especially important when Cowan is photographing a building for photos that might end up in the archives of the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey, the federal government's oldest preservation program.

"They're looking for a 500-year standard for (images) for archive-ability, so they're really technical about how things have to be done," Cowan said.

In order for a photo he took of the historic mid-19th century Bybee-Howell House on Sauvie Island to be accepted for the program's archives, for example, he had to verify that in addition to being shot with a large-format camera, the resulting image had been printed by hand from a negative and that only certain archival toners had been used.

The knowledge Cowan gained from that experience came in handy when he received a $5,000 research grant for a self-assigned project to photograph three historic Pacific Northwest sites.

The first two sites were Cloud Cap Inn, a circa-1890s building that sits at nearly 6,000 feet on the northeastern side of Mount Hood, and the Kam Wah Chung & Co. Museum, an 1870s building that offers insight into the history of the Chinese community in eastern Oregon.

The third location was the decommissioned B Reactor at the Hanford Reservation, a site that had fascinated Cowan since he was a boy growing up in Richland, Washington.

"I think anything that's inside a fenced off boundary is always a mystery," Cowan said. "And then, when you get to an age where you kind of understand a little bit of the history, it just makes you want to know more."

As Cowan grew older and learned the role Hanford played as the site where the plutonium was manufactured for the atomic bomb the U.S. detonated over Nagasaki during World War II, he found himself even more fascinated by the site's history and the role it played in what he describes as a combination of mankind's highest highs and the lowest lows. Although he had toured the reactor, which is now part of the Manhattan Project National Park, he had never had a chance to take pictures inside the structure.

As it turned out, Cowan was more successful getting onto the nuclear production complex site than gaining access to the Kam Wah Chung building, although the former still required a little luck and a lot of patience.

An inside view

Cowan wrote several letters seeking permission to photograph Hanford's reactor, with no response. He'd almost given up when, while attending the Preservation Field School program offered by the University of Oregon, he happened to meet a Seattle-based National Park Service employee on whose desk one of Cowan's request letters had come to rest.

Several months later, armed with one large-format camera, a tripod and 49 film holders, Cowan found himself on the grounds of Hanford with permission to spend four days photographing the site.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Architect and photographer Harley Cowan prints B&W images in darkroom at his home in SE Portland.

Most of the auxiliary buildings that made up the Hanford complex when it was in operation have been removed, but a few of the original structures still stand. While on the grounds, Cowan photographed the Bruggeman Warehouse, listed as one of Richland's most endangered buildings by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, and a few other site features. But he saved for his first image the largest of the still-standing structures — the B Reactor. The moment he released the shutter for that picture, he says, was a memorable one.

"The building is purely utilitarian, but it has this really interesting sense of sequencing and drama when you walk in this low corridor with pipes overhead, go through a pair of doors and you enter into this big space," Cowan said. "It was this really unique moment because I'd been there before, seen it before ... but this was the first time without other people around."

The massiveness of the reactor is evident in many of his photos, but Cowan also made sure to focus on details that a visitor might miss during a tour. While photographing in the control room, for example, Cowan asked one of the workers who maintains the site what he thought was the most interesting part of the room. The worker went over to a panel and flipped open a small door, revealing a maze of wires.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Architect and photographer Harley Cowan uses his 4x5 camera to document old and abandoned historic buildings.

"It was the backside of a big thermometer with wiring inside, tied with wax string, all of the soldering done by hand," Cowan said. "It was fascinating, just beautiful work. I wouldn't have found that if I hadn't asked."

Emerging history

In a nod to the 75th anniversary of the Manhattan Project and the B Reactor going live in September 1944, Cowan has worked with the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Energy on an exhibit of his photographs that will run through October at the Hanford Reservation's visitor center in Richland. He's also working with the Historic American Buildings Survey program to have some of the images entered in the program's archives.

Closer to home, an exhibit of his Hanford photographs will be featured in August at Camerawork Gallery in Portland. It's all part of what Cowan sees as helping preserve pieces of history from which future generations can learn.

"It feels really good to be from this community, to have this interest and then to maybe do something that ultimately ... might help somebody else doing research or whatever," he said. "It's a fun thing to just feel like maybe this is something that could have a little bit of a life of its own down the road."

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