Barry Gfeller is America’s Atget. Where Atget documented the disappearing commerce and architecture of Paris on foot, Gfeller took to the road and photographed America. From the mid-1970’s until the mid-90’s, by pick-up truck and rented cars, Gfeller traveled the United States and Canada taking photos of old buildings.
Barry Gfeller (1933-99) was a lifelong resident of Camus, Washington. He lived and died in his childhood home at 1249 NW 10th Ave. Camus is a bedroom community just east of Vancouver, now a bedroom community of Portland, Oregon. He was the youngest of six children, four girls and two boys. He was a sensitive, introverted child with slightly bucked teeth. One of his sisters made fun of his teeth, taunting him to keep his mouth shut. He did just that and would only talk if asked a direct question. His favorite leisure activity was to sit under a walnut tree and read. He was a good student but left Clark Junior College after one semester because he didn’t like being around strangers. He worked at Crown Zellerback, the local mill, in the napkin packing department, walking the mile to and from work.
One might say that paper was his life. As a child, he collected labels and packaging. When he couldn’t get the label off a can, he’d crush it and keep the whole thing. His childhood collections remained in the attic until after his death. He collected paperbacks and magazines, carefully organized in wooden boxes of his own construction. After he died, the family recycled over 19 tons of paper that he left behind, sending the more collectible examples to auction. He read everything from Red Herring to Rolling Stone. Every Saturday he would drive to nearby Portland to hunt for more reading matter and take in a couple of movies. He also carefully carried a Canon 35 mm camera and took photos of old buildings, especially commercial and industrial ones and liked snapping old and company cars as well.
He liked signs. For some reason, in his forties, he began photographing America. He took vacations in May and August, probably for two weeks at a time, driving and photographing and collecting over 50,000 examples. When he traveled, he stayed in motels and YMCAs. He didn’t usually eat in restaurants because he was too shy. According to family members, he was detained by the police on several occasions, suspected of casing buildings with his camera. He organized his photos in long wooden boxes (19) alphabetically arranged by city and state. He loved this collection and whether or not he built it for any good purpose, it stands as an incredible and inspiring body of work.
There’s a lot about Barry Gfeller we will never know. He never married. He had one friend, a co-worker, who borrowed money from him and always paid him back. He left no will, that would have involved talking to a stranger. His collection notes, many on odd pieces of paper, and assorted receipts were thrown out after his death.
Ken Appollo [Photographic Historian]