Bob Doran: ‘The photo brain was always engaged’

Janine Volkmar
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – He’s a familiar sight around town.  Whether it’s at the Farmers’ Market, at Arts! Arcata or just another ribbon cutting, Bob Doran is there with his camera, taking photographs of people you may know. Maybe even pictures of you.

And he posts them on Facebook and Instagram, for everyone to enjoy. Now he’s working at collecting thousands of photographs for a new exhibit and a possible book.

PHOTOGRAPHER Bob Doran  displays a  book of photos he took when he was 10  years old, in front of his “Humboldt  Humans”  exhibit.  JV | Union

PHOTOGRAPHER Bob Doran displays a book of photos he took when he was 10 years old, in front of his “Humboldt Humans” exhibit.
JV | Union

His show opens during Arts! Arcata this Friday, Dec. 11 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Gallery Métier, 1034 H St. in Arcata. It’s a tiny little spot but it will be filled with his signature square format photos of “Humboldt Humans.”

Doran has already welcomed his first visitors to the gallery even though he’s not quite through hanging the show. A surfer from Chile walked in, said Doran. “He said, ‘Could you take my picture so I can send it to my mother?’ so I did,” Doran explained. The kind-hearted photographer even gave the man a mat for the photo and a mailing envelope. “When I take somebody’s picture, it’s a communication, a two-way street,” Doran said.

Communication is important to Doran, especially since a stroke in 2013 left him temporarily unable to speak. He was photographing graduation ceremonies at Humboldt State when it happened, and his life changed rapidly.

After stints in the hospital and rehabilitation, Doran ended up living in Timber Ridge in McKinleyville. Coincidentally, his elderly mother, Jean, lived down the hall. “I was still in a wheelchair when they released me from rehab,” Doran said. “The front door to our house was too small for a wheelchair. They gave my wife a list of places where I could go. The first had people six to a room. The second on the list had cockroaches.”

At Timber Ridge, he bent the rules, he said. “At night when nobody was watching, I’d be out wandering the halls taking pictures. The photo brain was always engaged.”

His coworkers at the North Coast Journal bought him an iPad. “I started instantly taking pictures of people.” Doran said that the speech part of his brain wasn’t working. “I could say ‘good morning’ and ‘how are you,’ but not much else,” he recalled. He was thinking other words but “they didn’t come out.” Photography became his primary mode of communication. “That urge to communicate never stops,” he said.

A particularly poignant photograph from that period hangs prominently in his current show. It is a portrait of Doran’s wife, Amy, standing at the beach,  looking out toward the horizon. Her back is to the photographer but her long blonde hair and her purse slung over her shoulder make her instantly recognizable.  “I was still living in Timber Ridge,” Doran said, looking at the portrait. “We took a drive and stopped at the beach,” he added but did not go on.

Doran made good progress after his stroke, going from “wheelchair to walker to walking,” he tells. He still has a slight hesitation in his speech but his conversation proves that he is firing on all cylinders.

His recounting of his life in Humboldt is full of self-aware humor and pivotal moments.

One of those life-changing moments came about because of a youthful indiscretion with alcohol.

“I wasn't even 21 yet, but I was drinking at The Boot [a bar on the south side of the Plaza]. My friend added some one hundred and fifty-one [proof] rum to my beer.” Long story short, Doran ended up in court, “lined up with about fifteen people, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.”

“I had to have a job to pay the $320 DUI fine,” he said. “Wesley Chesbro’s brother, Walt, ran the Jolly Giant dish room. He got me a job washing dishes.” Doran worked in food service for Lumberjack Enterprises for 10 years, eventually ending up as head chef at the old Silver Lining, a restaurant at the airport in McKinleyville, where he worked for nine years.

“I was always trying to find recipes to use up other stuff,” he said. “The former chef had trained in French cooking at Le Palais so all our cooking was done with clarified butter. There was always a bunch of whey left over from clarifying the butter. I thought, ‘What if I put shrimp in the whey for that buttery, salty flavor?’” Doran created a popular dish called Prawns Diabolique, which included prawns, cream, mushrooms, pepper, butter and whey. He worked at other restaurants, the Bay City Grill in Eureka most notably, and opened up the Wild Platter Cafe at Wildberries.

But he was always doing photography and journalism on the side. “I was still running Silver Lining and one of our customers, Guy Cross, was an older returning student at HSU. There was a barbecue contest in Trinidad and we did a fancy spread with grilled pawns and grilled quail. Guy said, ‘We should do a cooking show.’ He was taking a video class.”

“The next thing he took was a class on tabletop publishing,” continued Doran, “so he started a monthly newspaper called Edge City.” Doran was one of the photographers for that paper, and wrote record reviews, concert reviews, cooking stories “and this crazy column called On TV. Like ‘on drugs,’” he said with a laugh. “I had just gotten cable TV so this was a guide to what good things were on.” The paper was sold and the new owner liked interviews, “So I got to interview Mickey Hart, the guy from Phish, whoever was the coolest musician visiting the area,” said Doran. “I once interviewed Ray Manzarek and Michael McClure together, talking about how they knew Jim Morrison. This was an important transition for me,” Doran said. “It got me in the mode that I wanted to write.”

He ended up writing for the Union, the Humboldt Beacon, the Rhythm Review, the Times-Standard and the North Coast Journal, mostly while still cooking for restaurants.

At the Journal, Doran said, he started a music column, a food column, the Arts! Alive listings with features on artists, all during the transition at that paper from a monthly to a weekly. He worked there for “13 or 14 years.”

Doran could do all these things because he studied almost everything available at HSU, graduating with a Theater Arts degree with an emphasis in Film in the 1980s. “I went to school on the really slow plan,” he said. “It was so inexpensive – tuition was $52 a quarter. I looked at that as an entertainment budget. When they finally raised it to $100, I said, ‘I’d better graduate’.” Doran studied photography with the legendary Tom Knight, graphic arts and photography with Bill Thonson and, later, non-silver photography with Ellen Landweber.

“When I was done with college, I had no access to a darkroom,” lamented Doran. He isn’t dependent on darkrooms anymore; Doran’s become a wiz at the new technology that makes photographs instantly available, even around the world.  He’s delighted with a new wireless printer he got for $49. “That’s cheaper than ink,” he said. He’s got it set up in Gallery Métier and can print directly from his phone.

The gallery is lined with ledges upon which hundreds of portraits are displayed. Those whose photos are displayed will get the photo as a gift, “but I’d like a gift in return,” Doran said. He is open about what that gift could be.

What’s clear from looking at the remarkable variety of humans he’s photographed is that he has the gift of capturing the essential personality of each subject. The faces lining the walls engage the viewers and look back as if they, too, want to start a conversation.

Doran will teach iPhone photography while the show is up and is open to other projects as well. The best way to find oiut more and arrange that is to contact him directly through Facebook or email him at [email protected]


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  2. baptox said:

    What a fascinating man and a beautifully written story! Wish I lived a little further north so that i could take this IPhone photography class.

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