Stumptown shooter stalks the sexy and the strange

Grab a camera when the zombies come. They won’t eat your brains — they’ll strike a pose.

It’s a trick photographer Luke Olsen learned when he was surrounded on the streets of his hometown. His shots from the Portland Zombie Walk showcase the lean and mean side of his stylish but macabre portraiture.

The organized chaos of events like the zombie walk offers comic relief from formal photography sessions filled with intricate lighting, staging and models. Any opportunity to capture inspired lunacy is technically practice, but Olsen gravitates toward flash mobs to cut loose with his camera-wielding compatriots. He’s thrown himself into the thick of SantaCon, the infamous alcohol-fueled rampage that grew from absurdist San Francisco street theater into a national headache. The moribund Portland Urban Iditarod, where teams of costumed runners dragged tricked-out shopping carts from bar to bar, has also been shutter fodder.

“It’s a great deal of fun to wander into a large event with a group of friends, shoot the event and reconvene later to see what everyone got,” says Olsen. “It’s like The Bang Bang Club, just 100 percent less deadly.”

Even when surrounded by hordes of shambling undead and blitzed Saint Nicks, Olsen finds ways to compose a scene. His zombies come out looking glamorous and set a good example for others wanting to add a little class to their street photography. All it takes is practice, experimentation and a wicked sense of humor.

Photographers pack light when they’re chasing a crowd. Olsen showed up for the Portland Zombie Walk with his Canon DSLR, a couple lenses and extra batteries. He also showed up early for the calm before the storm.

“Obviously participants want to be photographed and usually it’s as easy as going up to someone and asking them,” he says. “Most zombies are either wandering around on their cellphones or taking selfies before the walk starts. That’s the best time. Once the walk starts, it’s more about shooting the event itself than taking zombie portraits. I prefer the latter.”

An eye for lighting distinguishes Olsen from the thousands of iPhoneographers in corpse paint and fake blood. He used an off-camera flash for extra flair, taking advantage of the quiet moments before the walk. His gear adds an element of style usually reserved for fashion shoots.

The effort pays off. The street portraits hold up next to his more elaborately orchestrated work, where multiple flashes are firing. Despite the professional gloss, photography remains a hobby; Olsen works a 9-5 designing financial software.

In fact, his passion for photography was a later development, initiated six years ago with some classes and growing as he signed up with local groups of shooters. For now the process is the reward.

Absurdity is also a passion of Olsen’s. He dressed up to cover SantaCon and owns a hazmat suit, which he sometimes wears wandering the streets outside of parties. He’s also dressed a model in the outfit, pelting her with eggs for a shoot.

“I love weird,” says Olsen. “My daughter just won an argument with her friends on who had the weirdest dad. I found that awesome.”

Images: Luke Olsen

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Brendan Seibel

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