When I found myself stopping again and again in front of Paul Hedlund's photographs on a sidewalk, losing myself in their rust and rain and offbeat shapes, I wondered what it was that made them so compelling. I was curious, too, about the artist. How did a homeless photographer come to make art that has an edge, yet so much tenderness and wonder?
"I take photographs at all times — in my mind," Hedlund told me. "I get up in the morning and I'm already looking, and if I spot something I get the camera out. It's just part of my all-day routine."
Outside Trader Joe's in the University District, he is a familiar sight, with his crumpled hat, kindly smile, Real Change newspapers, and the beautiful photographs he displays atop cardboard boxes flattened on the sidewalk.
The sidewalk isn't an easy place to operate for someone who cares about his art. Hedlund's constant worry about his color prints (priced at $5-$10) isn't that the homeless life he leads might get them wrinkled or wet. "The big problem is street grit," he said. "At the end of the day I have to wipe them off carefully or they'll get scratched.
"And sometimes people walk on them. Purposely, can you believe it? The last guy who did that called me a beggar. Living homeless is good for taking pictures, but not for doing other things with them."
Hedlund started taking photographs when he was 15. "I grew up in New Jersey near New York City, where there were lots of things to shoot — Grand Central Station, guys playing chess in Central Park. It was great taking pictures in New York." Not long afterward he dropped out of high school.
"Troubles at home" was how he quietly summed up his life at the time. His father, who had left the family when Hedlund was small, stopped sending child support payments, his mother had to go on welfare, and Hedlund got a job.
Troubles didn't diminish in the years that followed, but Hedlund is proud of having always stayed on the windy side of the law through hard times. There were good times, too. "The summer of 1970 was one," he said. "I was only 17, but I had a dream job doing photographs for a carpet textiles corporation. I had a great girlfriend and my own car. I told myself there will never be another summer like this." He grinned wryly. "And there never was."
As time went by, photography-related jobs often came Hedlund's way. "Working in a commercial darkroom I learned black-and-white contact photography and printed up Edison Museum glass plates." Later he was hired by a company that made batteries, where managers discovered his exceptional skills in mechanical reasoning. "I'd take machines apart that didn't work and build new things from the pieces. It's like experiments with an Erector Set: if you have enough parts you can build anything. Finally the company just paid me to putter around and make stuff. I doubled their production."
But he also left jobs behind, restlessly moving around the country — to San Francisco, Florida, L.A, and back to New Jersey more than once. He lived in Atlanta several times, too, where his mother had landed a good job as a nanny for the babies of a wealthy couple who let her go when the kids were in their teens, and where Hedlund nursed her the year she was dying. "It was a bit of a helter-skelter life."
Hedlund was married for over a decade — "my wife's named Judy, by the way." He's glad they didn't have children. "I never had to tell my kids 'Mom and Dad are splitting up,' which happened 11 years later."
Arriving in Seattle around 1994, Hedlund operated a big industrial robot for an electronics company in Lynnwood. Later he worked for a sonar company in Ballard and then at a hardware store. "Some of those places had the worst kind of internal politics. I've never seen job conditions like they have in Seattle. It's a little crazy, compared to back East. There's a lack of certain social and workplace norms here." Finally he left mainstream employment entirely and started selling Real Change.
For seven years it's been impossible to find (as he put it) "an affordable rental without crack addicts down the hall." So he has slept in Ravenna Park most nights. "Living in the park I feel like I’m outside Seattle completely. It has its moments of terror and its moments of great happiness." Hedlund paused reminiscently before adding, "But usually moments in between."
Three years ago Hedlund started selling his photographs. "I hadn't taken pictures for 10 years, but then somebody sold me a really old digital camera for $20. I sold pictures taken with it and saved up for a nicer camera. Recently I bought a Pentax, my favorite camera ever. It's real pocketable."
He pulled it out of his jacket pocket, cased in a clean old sock, and showed it to me. "I carry it at all times. Nice and small. Dustproof. Waterproof under water or in the rain."
Does he ever go on focused shoots with his camera out and ready, instead of waiting to pull it from his pocket when something grabs his attention? "Rarely do I set out to take pictures unless the weather's interesting. I might go out on a photo-mission if it's snowing. The picture of the bench on a foggy day (it's my biggest seller — I think the concentric circles draw people in) is one of the few I took when I was on a weather mission. Yesterday it was such a nice day! I went on a mission and got pictures of water bugs on a pond."
What kinds of things in general catch his artistic eye? "For me it’s all about lines, colors, shapes, lighting, and things people just walk by because they don't notice." He reflected a moment. "I'm satisfied enough with my photographs to print and show them, and I'm dissatisfied enough to keep taking more.
"I get great compliments, but I need customers! It's hard to sell art on the sidewalk."
A slideshow of Hedlund's work can be seen here.