Seattle photographer Jini Dellaccio, 92, re-emerges as the doyenne of 1960s rock photography in the Pacific Northwest. A sampling of her work is on the walls of Seattle's Crocodile Cafe.
In 1964, when she was living near Gig Harbor, photographer Jini Dellaccio was asked by a friend if she’d be up for shooting something or someone called The Wailers.
“Living in Gig Harbor with all the fishermen,” she recalls, “I heard ‘whalers’ and I said yes, I’d be happy to do that. I could imagine going out and seeing them in their whaling boats.”
The day of the shoot, she got a surprise: “Here came five of the straggliest kids you ever saw, all wearing black leather coats and boots and long hair … and my heart turned over. I said, ‘Boy, this is a band — what am I going to do?’ “
It was the beginning of a decade that made Dellaccio, then in her late 40s, the unlikely doyenne of Pacific Northwest rock ‘n’ roll photography. She shot classic local acts — the Wailers, the Sonics, the Daily Flash, Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts — as well as such out-of-town visitors as the Who and the Rolling Stones.
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And she loved every minute of it.
You can see a sampling of her work on the walls of the Crocodile Café, where she celebrated her 92nd birthday in April. The shots range from kickily energetic to coolly stylish, many of them suffused with a transcendent Puget Sound sensibility.
As local pop-culture impresario Larry Reid puts it, “Her imagery at once complements and contradicts the unbridled energy, dissonant distortion, and dark provocation of the Northwest sound of the time.”
Kerri Harrop, who handles public relations for the Crocodile, also detects contradictions in Dellaccio’s work: “Even the ones that are so obviously posed,” she says, “do not seem contrived.”
What explains the obvious connection between Dellaccio and her rock ‘n’ roll subjects?
One factor may be her own early career as a saxophonist, including a stint with an all-female band, the Sweethearts of Swing, before she met her husband, Carl.
“I traveled for 12 years or so with various groups,” she recalls. “It was such a good part of my life. … I thought I was going to do that forever.”
After they’d married and Carl enrolled at the University of Chicago, Dellaccio continued to get gigs in Chicago nightclubs. But Carl was uneasy about her coming home alone at 2 a.m. She said not to worry — she’d find some other line of work.
“Being in love,” she says, “you just make all kinds of promises like that — but I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
First she studied art, then became a freelance graphic artist. She wanted to start keeping a photographic record of her artwork. So when a friend of her husband’s took her to Chicago’s Altman Camera shop, a whole world opened up to her.
“I didn’t know there was such a place,” she says with wonder.
The salesman talked her into buying a secondhand Leica for $70. As she wondered aloud how she was going to learn to use it, he gave her some excellent advice: “Watch the street — the people walking, any action or animals or anything that you see out there … Follow them around and get different ideas of what looks good in the camera. … You do it until it feels like the camera is an extension of your arm.”
Only then, he declared, do you put any film in the camera.
“And that’s exactly what I did,” Dellaccio says.
In the 1950s, she and Carl moved to California where, at a shopping-mall fashion show one day, Dellaccio’s eye was caught by “the cleanest, sweetest, most sunny-faced girl that I’ve ever seen.”
Dellaccio shyly asked about photographing her: “I said, ‘I’d like for you to come and bring your clothes, bring a wardrobe. Spend a day. … And we’ll just do whatever we feel like doing.’ And she said, ‘Oh, that would be fantastic.’ “
The resulting photos, Dellaccio says, were “absolutely gorgeous.” The model, as pleased with the shots as Dellaccio, showed them to one of her Hollywood connections, who said, “Now he is a photographer.” The model took great pleasure in telling him, “This happens to be a lady.”
Within a month, Dellaccio had models coming from all over Southern California to work with her.
The fashion gig lasted 10 years, ending when her husband got a job offer in Tacoma he couldn’t pass up. Eventually they created the house of their dreams in Gig Harbor, on a bluff overlooking the Tacoma Narrows. “Every room had a view, with all floor-to-ceiling windows,” she recalls, “so any place you were, in there, you were living outdoors.”
Dellaccio already had hit on a fruitful way of working with models. Now she had a striking setting at her disposal. A show of her photographs at the Tacoma Art Museum alerted the locals to her talent. And it brought the Wailers to her door.
At the time, the band’s music wasn’t familiar to her. “To my knowledge,” she says, “I’d never heard rock ‘n’ roll. And the kids were kind of scared of how I was going to react to it. They couldn’t imagine that I could like it — that I would be allowed to! And lo and behold, I love it.”
Two distinct veins run through her rock photography. One consists of shots in which the bands are acting up, performing antically for the camera. The other is more somber, more meditative.
In both cases, Dellaccio took full advantage of the Gig Harbor house’s spectacular setting: the madronas, the far-shore views, the mist. The mist, in fact, is a key “prop” in Dellaccio’s rock photography. It was often foggy along the Narrows, she recalls, “and I always felt: Oh, it’s ordered for me.“
Dellaccio’s success with photographing the Wailers, the Sonics and other local bands soon opened up opportunities for her in Seattle. Music promoter Pat O’Day asked if she’d like to come to the Coliseum (now the KeyArena) and shoot the touring bands there. She wound up documenting all the top acts of the day.
A lot of her joy, she says, was in the people themselves as much as the music. “When I was photographing them playing, I would hear the music, of course — because you couldn’t not hear it — but it never registered with me because I was so intense with what I was photographing. When I quit taking the pictures, then I could hear the music.”
By the 1970s, the rock photography was winding down for Dellaccio. Getting up to Seattle for gigs had grown difficult, so she moved into doing architectural photography and portraits of prominent Tacoma citizens. Still, her rock-era work kept attracting attention. A 1987 retrospective of it at Seattle’s Jackson Street Gallery prompted longtime Seattle Times rock critic Patrick MacDonald to call her “a pioneer in rock photography.”
By that time, Dellaccio and her husband, now retired, had moved to Sequim. But Carl wasn’t happy there, so they moved again in 1991 — this time to Arizona.
“Oh, boy, that’s when our world fell apart. Bless his heart, he was the most wonderful man. … He said, ‘I would like to go some place where I can play golf every day, ’cause I’m never going to be a golfer that can play golf in the rain.’ And we went down there, and he didn’t make it.”
Soon after the move, he suffered an incapacitating stroke, and Dellaccio took care of him until his death in 2003. This year, she returned to the Pacific Northwest.
In her apartment, she has samples of her latest work on the walls. She’s embraced digital photography and seems perfectly at home with her Mac computer, shaping and tinting shots to her taste. Her 92nd birthday at the Crocodile, she says, was one of the high points of her life.
“I feel pretty happy about myself,” she confesses. “If you don’t know already, your happiness comes in being busy. It doesn’t come in sitting, taking a nap and putting your feet up. I feel so lucky.”
If only she could get a real paying photography gig, she adds, she’d be “in heaven.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com