Art review: Tacoma Art Museum's "A Turbulent Lens: The Photographic Art of Virna Haffer" does a stellar job of bringing a forgotten Western Washington artist to light.
Strolling through the Tacoma Art Museum’s thrilling retrospective of work by photographer Virna Haffer is a little like being exposed to a protean force of nature.
Here’s an artist who experimented so vibrantly, on so many fronts, so prolifically, and over such a long period of time, that there’s little point in trying to characterize her — except to say, as the curators of the show do, that hers was a “turbulent lens.”
Haffer first jumped out at me last year at the Henry Art Gallery’s group show, “Shadows of a Fleeting World: Pictorial Photography and the Seattle Camera Club.”
The exhibit focused on a group of local photographers who, in the 1920s, were bent on persuading the public of the fine-art possibilities of the camera. They used careful composition, soft focus and darkroom wizardry to create atmospheric human portraits and still lifes, as well as Impressionist-like visions of city streets and bucolic landscapes.
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While “pictorial photography” adequately described many of the works in the show, however, it came nowhere near accounting for the fascinating Haffer.
Now with “A Turbulent Lens: The Photographic Art of Virna Haffer,” curated by Margaret Bullock, Christina Henderson and David Martin, it’s possible to get a better grasp on her. Bullock, Henderson and Martin have also published a catalog of the same name (TacomaArtMuseum,144pp.,$19.95) that sheds much insight into how Haffer, from her teenage years until her death in 1974, felt so free to push photography in so many directions.
Born Virna May Hanson in 1899, Haffer was raised in the anarchist-utopian community of Home on southern Puget Sound.
When she was 10, a cameraman visiting the colony triggered her interest in photography, and by age 15 she had left school to apprentice with a professional photographer in Tacoma.
Haffer was clearly eager to rush out and embrace the world. By age 20, she had married briefly and divorced, founded her own photography business and failed.
A second marriage — to socialist and labor advocate Paul Raymond Haffer — lasted a little longer and led to the birth of her one son, Jean Paul Haffer.
In the mid-1920s, Haffer relaunched herself as a commercial portrait photographer in Tacoma and made her first foray into fine-arts photography, thanks in part to her connection with the Seattle Camera Club.
“By 1930,” Henderson writes in the catalog, “she had been identified in ‘The American Annual of Photography’ as one of the most recognized pictorial photographers in America.”
Pictorialism was just one aspect of her work, exampled by her moody “Eleventh Street Bridge” (c. 1928), her nudes (“Male Beauty,” for example, also from the late 1920s) and her distinctive portraits of young children (“His First Growth,” from c. 1924, which renders the back of a baby’s head with a gauzy, pencil-sketch delicacy).
At the same time, she ventured into surrealism, using subtle staging and in-camera tricks to produce strikingly distorted portraits of herself, her young son, her friends and, by 1935, her third husband, Norman Randall. An especially haunting image shows Randall’s eerily-lit head hanging in a black void as he breathes silky smoke from his lips.
Haffer’s treatment of the male nude includes an unusual series, shot outdoors, of printmaker Corwin Chase with his body painted in batik-dye patterns. Limbs and torsos, in multiple exposures, also served as fodder for abstract images. Her attraction to geometric pattern for its own sake manifested itself in her studies of bridges as well.
While Haffer was game for any kind of experiment, she also had formidable command as a portrait and documentary photographer. Her shots of dancer Lee Foley and artist Mina Quevli couldn’t be more glamorous. Her gelatin silver print, “Old Tacoma Hotel Fire,” c. 1935, is a thing of shadowy grandeur. Haffer memorably shot the Hoovervilles in Seattle and Tacoma, too.
The 1960s found her as innovative as ever, as she explored the possibilities of the photogram: a camera-less process that captures the shadows of objects on photosensitive paper. Haffner, by laying her objects on multiple glass plates at different levels, created a 3-D sense of depth. Some of her photograms are purely abstract; others are apocalyptic landscapes reflecting the heightened nuclear-war fears of the era. Still others are nature studies in extreme close-up: a curling millipede, a flying ant’s wings, a flea in giant silhouette (in a photograph drolly titled “Performer”). Haffer’s mastery of the form was such that her 1969 book about it, “Making Photograms: The Creative Process of Painting with Light,” remains “a sought-after reference manual,” Martin writes.
While Haffer concentrated most heavily on photography, she also created and widely exhibited block prints. One of them, “Family” (c. 1929), shows a mother, father and child clinging together in a towerlike formation that seems, by its very air of desperation, to be on the verge of falling apart.
While Haffer had a respectable national reputation in her lifetime, for whatever whim of fashion or fate, she came to be almost forgotten. Martin only became aware of her through a photographer friend 20 years ago.
As he researched her for the Seattle Camera Club show, he was, he said in a recent email, “shocked that she had been forgotten when the work was of such high quality and so innovative. I have to say that the international reaction we are getting from the show and book reinforces my belief that she was a major talent in U.S. photographic history.”
Bullock notes that she and her co-curators faced a formidable task in winnowing Haffer’s archive of 30,000 photographs and block prints down to a selection of several score.
She could, she says, do at least four entirely different versions of the show “with equally good examples from those time periods … and still probably not have mined it all.”
Bullock was familiar with 30 or so Haffer images before starting on the project but had learned, from her research on other neglected artists, to lower her expectations.
“There’s always some nice work,” she explains, “but there’s usually not a bonanza.”
Haffer was a bonanza, and there are whole chapters of her career not even covered in the show, including a series of photographs of Celilo Falls taken before the famous salmon-fishing spot was submerged by The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River in 1957 (the photos are posted on Washington State Historical Society’s website, www.wshs.org/wshm).
Finally, there’s Haffer’s commercial work. Generations of Tacoma families had their portraits taken by Haffer, and visitors to the exhibit, when I was there, volunteered their memories of being photographed by her.
It makes perfect sense that one of her child portraits is of another Tacoma artist who later made something of a name for himself: Dale Chihuly. In an exhibit of Chihuly’s glasswork in another gallery at TAM, you can see him and his brother smiling for the camera in a standard studio portrait.
Still, it’s the long obscure noncommercial work that’s so dazzling.
“She’s missing,” Bullock says, “and we’re trying to get her back.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org