An Interview with Lisa Ahlberg

Lisa Ahlberg is an exhibiting artist in PCNW’s 23rd annual juried exhibition, curated by Kris Graves.

C Rob, Lead Mechanic, from the series “On the Wing Line,” 2019
Archival pigment print
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Tell us about yourself, where you’re from, and when you first discovered your love of photography.

I was born in Chicago, Illinois and spent most of my childhood in a small town called Stillwater, Minnesota. I have been an airplane inspector and structures mechanic for over 20 years at Boeing. Working backwards from that I’ve been a photographer, gardener, floral arranger, truck assembler, textile machine operator, garment worker sewing swimsuits, terry cloth robes, women’s coats, women’s skirts and neck ties, knitting machine operator, sports jacket embroiderer and peanut factory packer. For many years, I was involved in the struggles of working people, unionists and family farmers. These experiences have always informed my work. I have little interest in celebrity culture. I am an industrial worker myself and it is working people I most turn to with my camera. 

I graduated from the Photographic Center Northwest. From 2009 – 2015, I served as a member of its Board of Directors and I continue to be an active member of the community of photographers it serves.

Tell us about the work that was selected to be included in Distinction by Kris Graves. 

This image is from my “On the Wing Line” series, a series of portraits of those I know from the factory floor of Boeing.  Some of them, like C Rob have been part of my life and routine for years. 

Charles Robinson started working at Boeing in 1989 and is now a team lead of mechanics and in his words is, “working with the younger generation encouraging them the value of building the best airplanes for the future to come”. He was born and raised in New Jersey. He said “my mother is and always will be the most significant person of my life. She raised eleven children on her own and kept us all together”.  C Rob joined the army as a young man and ended up at Fort Lewis. Later he was hired at Boeing.

I always knew C Rob was a fancy dresser. A factory is not the place for that. We wear jeans, sweats, leggings or company issued coveralls. But occasionally I would get glimpses of him leaving work all dressed up — ready to catch a plane to go out East to see family or to go golfing. He’d bring in clothes on hangers. He did not disappoint for this portrait. He chose the location as well as his wardrobe. That’s what I like about this series. None of us are defined only by our jobs. I want people to see the human beings I work with in the factory.

Is the selected work part of a larger body of work?

For 14 years I’ve worked on the Wing line in Renton, WA. We building the basic structure of the 737 wing. Up until recently, the factory pace was demanding. The pounding, drilling and blasting of horns were deafeningly loud. We worked hard at a fast pace. Some of us think the pace was too fast. 

These are dark days for Boeing. Of course production is temporarily completely shut down now due to the Covid 19 virus. But even prior to that, it was eerily quiet for those of us left on the assembly line in Renton due to the suspension of the 737 MAX. Production was suspended after two devastating crashes killing all 346 people aboard Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.  Many of my friends and coworkers were sent north to Boeing’s Everett plant and were working on other planes. We waited for the FAA and international regulators to determine if the Boeing Co. has made sufficient changes necessary to make the 737 MAX safe. Now it seems everything is on hold.

When we get past this moment, there’s a lot of work ahead before trust will be rebuilt. For some it won’t be. Lives were lost due to a series of conscious decisions that put profits before the safety of the airplane. No one wanted or expected this outcome. But still, decisions were made.

These portraits are part of a series that includes some of the people important to me over the years of working on the factory floor.  As I begin to plan for my own retirement, from the life of working a variety of factory jobs, I both can’t wait to get out of there and also fear the loss of relationships and social connections that have been a vital part of my life. Our work is a huge part of our lives. It can, in part, define who were are and how we see ourselves. But we are also more.

Who / what are your biggest influences? 

I have been most influenced by outstanding photographers such as Diane Arbus, Mike Disfarmer, Roy DeCarava, Milton Rogovin and Seydou Keita, artists who have all produced revealing portraits that capture a certain place and time as well as the dignity of their subjects.

Are you making work in response to the current pandemic?

I’m laid-off and staying at home. I photograph on my daily walks with my dog Sonny. But I’m mostly trying to stay at home and resist the urge to go out and interact with others. So, while I am shooting some I am not working on a body of work that I’d like to share.

PCNW’s annual juried call for entry provides exhibition opportunities for artists and directly supports our programs, scholarships, and labs at PCNW. This helps ensure access to photography for many future generations of creatives. We know you have many options for submitting your work, so please tell us why you chose PCNW? What are your thoughts and experience with submitting your work to different calls?

When I consider submitting an entry, I mostly think about the organization that is sponsoring the call and the juror. I submit rarely. I responded to PCNW’s call because it is my community and I care about PCNW’s survival. Entering is not cheap, so I enter where the money I give means something to me. And, of course, I look to see who the juror might be. Is it someone that will even be interested in my portraiture?

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