Support Local Journalism!      

Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



Photographer Jason Hill's portraits of Black Portlanders dazzle at the Portland Art Museum

COURTESY PHOTO: JASON HILL - Jason Hill used Rosco gels on a strobe light to highlight the eyes of his subjects in In My Skin, on through Feb. 27 at the Portland Art Museum. Here Phayrahh rocks a blue background.

Jason Hill is a portrait photographer with a specialization in studio lighting. He used his talents to focus on the skin of African Americans to show them in a way he does not believe they are usually shown. Hill's work is showing now at the Aux/Mute Gallery within the Portland Art Museum.

Hill says his show was inspired by Afrofuturism in the Black diaspora. "I did art for a track by I$$A and I was thinking 'How can I make this unique, powerful?' I chose to do portraits, close and tight, to show the beauty of everyone involved. It was really like Afrofuturism, where I wanted everyone to kind of look like superheroes and have their own special power."

COURTESY PHOTO: JASON HILL - Jason Hill used Rosco gels on a strobe light to highlight the eyes of his subjects in In My Skin, on through Feb. 27 at the Portland Art Museum. Here Jo rocks a green background.

He held two one-day shooting sessions, seven months apart. The first was in September 2020. The second had more women, to balance the genders. He encouraged people to express themselves through clothing and accessories, then added one special feature: A mail slot-shaped slit of light over their eyes. This brings out subtle tones in brown eyes and also adds a freaky vibe of Geordi La Forge from "Star Trek."

Aux/Mute curator Tyra Lovato explained that bringing in Hill for a show was easier than happens in normal gallery planning, which is notoriously slow. Two female artists of color recommended him.

"We're able to do things quickly, because we know each other versus doing things just because it's the way that art is done," she said.

DJ Ambush, who is a resident DJ in the gallery, said that Black and brown people are often washed out when photographed professionally. "The lighting isn't right, the colors aren't right, the representation that you see Black people in television and movie, it's in predominantly white spaces that are lit for white people," he said.

COURTESY PHOTO: JASON HILL - Izzy, a subject in Jason Hill's In My Skin now at the Portland Art Museum.

Lipstick and chains

Hill added, "I had some magazine ask me what I do to Black skin. And I said 'Nothing at all. I let it be.' I'm very much in camera. A lot of those shots at the museum, there's not very much post-production involved."

The portraits are striking, cropping close to heads and shoulders, usually with directional lights, and jewelry motifs that recur, especially chains and large hoop earrings.

The detail is powerful. As well as pores and wrinkles you can see individual eyelashes and the texture of lipstick.

Hill teaches photography lighting workshops. "Lighting is my specialty but I'm a street photographer at heart." He used Rosco gels on a strobe light to vary the color of the light strips across the eyes, depending on the color scheme of the subject's clothes.

"I've always played with gels and I just wanted to go all out. I shoot very sharp in the studio. It's very controlled but loose. I let people do their thing, but I am a very controlled photographer."

COURTESY PHOTO: JASON HILL - A self portrait by Jason Hill, which is not part of his show In My Skin.

Hill's shooting method is consistent, and he connects with the person by talking.

"We have little conversations a lot of times and I just take shots of them. I might ask them certain questions and get certain emotions. I do like to tell people to close their eyes and give them something to think about."

DJ Ambush said their partnership with the museum is about "working on different ways to engage the black and brown community. The museum has always been kind of hoity-toity, be quiet, don't touch type of situation. The intent of the photos is speaking to our individual power. It's important that people come see this show because Black people don't often look like this. It allows us to see ourselves the way we actually feel."

He said being shot by Hill is interesting.

"Jason is my favorite photographer to shoot with. He has shown me images of myself that I'm like 'Who is this?' I didn't want to use my phone anymore. You're walking onto the set, you're having conversations with other people, and Jason is shooting every single moment of your interaction," DJ Ambush said.

Then when it's time to pose … "By that time, Jason has already shot you 30 times. He's having conversations with you and knowing when to hit that shot, as you're stopping to take a breath, as you're turning to think about something he asked you. That's where those amazing shots are coming from. Maybe five minutes of that and Jason says, 'Okay, we're good.' I'm like, 'What? What?'"

COURTESY PHOTO: JASON HILL - Jason Hill photographed dancers from "The Lion King" rehearsing in Eugene, one shot at a time. He had them repeat their movements until he got the perfect shot, which he prefers to shooting at 20 frames per second.

Hey Eugene

A second part of the show is called "A Day in Eugene" where Hill shot dancers from the "Lion King" stage show in a studio. The images of athletic dancers, caught mid jump or pose, are also unique.

Instead of blasting away at 20 frames per second, as modern digital cameras can, Hill times his single shots.

"The big shot that you see was actually them warming up. I didn't have an assistant that day either. And I was like, 'Whoa, I need to get this. I need to hurry up and get this in.' That's still probably one of the most epic photographs I've ever made. We spent eight hours together that day, and I only chose five images for the gallery, but there's quite a bit there. It was magical day for me."

COURTESY PHOTO: JASON HILL - Jason Hill photographed dancers from "The Lion King" rehearsing in Eugene, one shot at a time. He had them repeat their movements until he got the perfect shot, which he prefers to shooting at 20 frames per second.

Hill shoots a lot of dancers, while admitting he doesn't know a lot about dance. He asks the dancers to make their move — whether it's doing the splits in the air or jumping together in perfect unison — then he hits the shutter.

"It's all about planning with me. It's all 1-2-3, boom, 1-2-3 boom. I find the rhythm. Each person has a different rhythm. I think it's more precise, because you can do those 20 frames per second, and you'll still miss that critical moment. Sometimes you'll get it, sometimes you won't. But if your timing's right, in everything, in your lighting, you can nail the shot."

It comes down to rapport and communication, as well as control and freedom.

"I set up everything in my little world. I set it up and I let them do their thing."

"In My Skin"

Photographs by Jason Hill

Now through Feb. 27

Aux/Mute Gallery

Presented by The Numberz FM

Portland Art Museum

1219 S.W. Park Ave.

Phone: (503) 226-2811


$25 adults, minors free

Aux/Mute Gallery

Aux/Mute refers to the auxiliary input on audio devices: It's the place people look for first when they want to connect their music to someone else's sound system. For DJ Ambush and Tyra Lovato, the curator and administrator for Aux/Mute, the aux gives people the opportunity to share their experience, usually sound, but in this case visual art. Lovato says mute refers to art space where black and brown people are not always welcome: "Our contributions have been muted," Lovato told the Portland Tribune. "We use the gallery to elevate and uplift communities that have been muted within the art space traditionally." She added, "Black people are not used to seeing themselves reflected back in such a powerful and beautiful and artistic way. It's not just art, it's also empowering ourselves. And also feeling that pride and seeing yourself on the wall."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Portland Tribune
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Follow us on

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.

Have a thought or opinion on the news of the day? Get on your soapbox and share your opinions with the world. Send us a Letter to the Editor!

Go to top