This content was published: January 8, 2018. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.
Al Monner’s Roma Photographs
Rock Creek Helzer Gallery
Show Dates: January 8 – February 2, 2018
Photographer Al Monner worked for the Oregon Journal from 1939 to 1974, making images of famous people, including Senator Robert Kennedy, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Richard Nixon. He photographed beauty pageants, murder scenes, and rodeo bull riders. But perhaps his most unique body of work is a series of pictures he made of the Roma (Gypsy) families who lived in some of the storefront buildings in Southwest and Northwest Portland during the 1940s and 1950s.
As Monner later wrote, “I often walked past their dwellings on my way to or from photographic assignments for the Journal. With some of the families I developed a kind of speaking acquaintance. One day a young woman, whom I had often seen, was sitting in front of their house holding her baby, and she greeted me with the request, ‘Take a picture of my baby, please?’”
Monner returned the next day with his cameras, photographed the baby, his sisters and brothers, and the mother and father. Thus began his relationship with several Roma families. Over the course of the next few years, they invited him not only to make portraits but also to document funerals, birthday parties, feast days, and other celebrations. These pictures are a selection from that body of work.
Roma (Gypsy) people trace their heritage back to India: migrating first to Eastern and then to Western Europe by the 1300s. They acquired the name “Gypsy” because of a mistaken belief (one of many that has dogged them) that they were originally from Egypt. The word “Gypsy” became a derogatory one, associated with the fear and distrust they have always encountered, and is no longer in use.
In Europe, Roma were evicted, persecuted, and enslaved over the centuries. Thousands lost their lives during the Nazi Holocaust, and their condition is still frequently grim, particularly in the Eastern European countries where many live.
Today, Roma can be found in every country in the world. They arrived in the Americas as early as the 1500s. Portland’s Roma population dates back to the 1800s and many came, along with African-Americans, to work in the Kaiser shipyards during World War II. Like African-Americans, they were frequently persecuted in Portland and forced to leave as a result of prejudicial policies and the “gentrification” that altered neighborhoods and drove them out.
Like any culture, the Roma have changed and adapted to the times and to the places where they live. Yet, despite the lack of a homeland or a written history, their fundamental traditions and their identity have been kept alive because of strong family bonds and shared values, language, and beliefs.