The room that holds George L. Kinkade’s work in the White River Valley Museum is not very big. It’s a simple room; green walls, a bench in the middle, and 32 black-and-white prints lining the walls that make up “Alpine Photography of George L. Kinkade.” But the small collection of his work provides a better sense of the prolific alpine photographer than his few self-portraits ever did. Not bad for a guy who didn’t believe in chair lifts or sleeping bags, lugging a camera and glass negatives around Washington mountains.
“I think [the exhibit] is very thoughtful; it shows who he was and an appreciation of what he did,” said Kinkade’s daughter-in-law Georgia, who donated more than 600 prints to the museum. “You could go in and not necessarily know George, but by the time you finish you have a sense of who he was, and the work he did.”
A lifelong Auburn resident, Kinkade worked by day as a typesetter at the now-defunct Auburn Globe newspaper. But in his spare time he was a pioneering mountain climber and photographer of the outdoors.
“It was a very different wilderness then; you didn’t have easy access, you couldn’t drive right up to Paradise like you can now,” said Hilary Pittenger, curator of the exhibit. “[And that] was invigorating for him. It was an experience he thought everyone should have … that’s where you really find yourself.”
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When Kinkade died in 1975 at age 69, Georgia and her husband inherited the bulk of his prints, which she donated to White River. The museum plans on having the breathtaking art on display until June, giving the public plenty of time to see snapshots of history: glaciers that have since moved or melted, areas now closed off and labeled as too dangerous for hikers.
But there don’t seem to be many things that were off-limits for Kinkade, whose photos blend frequent trips to the Cascades, the Olympics, and Mount Rainier with an enthusiastic love for art photography.
“Most of us could take photos like these with the available technology we have now, so they don’t seem that technically amazing,” said Pittenger, who calls Kinkade’s work groundbreaking. “He was really part of a front of photographers in the ’20s and ’30s who were starting to see photography as more than just a documentary activity, that it was really an artistic endeavor.”
Though Kinkade never saw photography as much more than a side project (his darkroom was a bathroom in his house) he was part of a generation of photographers whose new perspective on photography as an art form pushed the medium into a new age.
The exhibit is only a small fraction of the pieces the museum has from his more than 40 years of work, but does an admirable job of coupling each photo with fragments of essays he wrote for various mountaineering and photographic publications. It’s a gorgeous and cohesive collection based on the work Kinkade himself loved the most, taken from the 1930s-1950s.
Kinkade probably couldn’t have imagined that his work would find its way into a museum gallery, let alone one with QR codes on the wall to connect its audience to more information about the photographer and the places he shot. But the exhibit is clearly a portrait of a man being described purely by his own work, and even in its small room it doesn’t disappoint.
“He really preferred being represented by his work and showing what was important to him,” said Pittenger.” It’s pretty hard to go wrong with pretty much anything from his collection.”
Zosha Millman: firstname.lastname@example.org