He comes from a family of famed politicians and accomplished siblings. Now he’s making a national name for himself as a photographer documenting life, and death, on Seattle’s streets.
Near a bus stop where I have stood many times, outside a Whole Foods that is crawling with people, a girl sat against the wall with her head back.
She was dead.
Tim Durkan saw her from his car. The strange white of her pallor. The way she didn’t budge while there were so many nearby, and so much happening around her.
‘The Pretty and the Gritty’
The Photography of Tim Durkan, Sand Point Arts and Cultural Exchange, 7448 63rd Ave. N.E., Seattle. Opening reception Saturday, March 26, from 5 to 8 p.m.; exhibit runs through April 23.
He shot a quick photo, then dialed 911 before driving away.
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Months later, we’re both looking at the photo on his laptop, open on the table between us.
“There are people everywhere,” Durkan says incredulously.
“They went down and checked on her,” he recalls. “Said it was too late. Dead. Done.”
Durkan, 50, is making a national name for himself with his iconic photos of Seattle’s beauty marks. His “Super Moon” photo of the Space Needle was picked up by CNN and USA Today, and viewed some 15 million times.
But his photographs of the city’s street life — the homeless, the addicted and occasionally the overdosed — are gaining notice for chronicling the struggle the city is having with its success. The haves and the have-nots; the new construction and the cracks it has created, and into which so many have fallen.
“The pretty and the gritty,” is how Durkan put it when we met for coffee recently at Capitol Hill’s Cafe Solstice. “Two sides of the same coin. This is the story I’m trying to tell. This is the same (blanking) town.”
A gallery exhibit of his work, titled “The Pretty and the Gritty,” opens with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday, March 26, at the Sand Point Arts and Cultural Exchange. The exhibit continues through April 23.
Durkan’s 30,000 followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and at timdurkan.com receive almost daily, often graphic images of what happens when much of Seattle is home, warm and dry; tucked into a restaurant booth or buying groceries.
Durkan is just outside, or around the corner, where people are panhandling, shooting up heroin, or already high and nodding off against a Broadway storefront.
“You can buy heroin in front of the QFC for less than a rotisserie chicken,” he said, clicking through his photos. “You want junkies? I’ve got live junkies, dead junkies, junkies shooting methadone.”
He kept clicking, while shaking his head.
“Needle, needles, needles.”
Durkan has seen the grip of heroin tighten over the past few years.
“In 25 years of walking around this neighborhood, I have never seen so much dope, addiction and depression,” he said. “If it doesn’t impact you directly, it impacts someone you know. It’s an equal opportunity destroyer.”
He has also watched more people take to living on the streets, which he has captured all over the city and, more recently, in visits to encampments like Camp Dearborn.
These days, Durkan is focused on helping a homeless couple, Bella Barger and her husband, Erik, find permanent housing before their baby is born in two months.
“Tim has helped us more than anybody else we’ve met out here,” Barger, 34, said as she stood holding a sign outside the Broadway Market. “Not all of us are crazy or dangerous or … just want to use drugs and don’t give a damn about society.”
Durkan has given them money, food and time.
“I give it all away,” he said. “Money, clothes, the jackets off my back. That was my dad. He stuck up for the underdog. He was a voice for those who might not otherwise speak up for themselves.”
Durkan’s father, the late Martin J. Durkan, was an influential state senator, former chairman of the state Senate Ways and Means Committee and a powerful lobbyist who twice ran for governor. Tim’s mother, Lorraine, raised their seven children in a big house on Capitol Hill, and was once executive editor of the Ballard News-Tribune.
Durkan’s sister, Jenny, is a former U.S. attorney; brother Martin (“Jamie”) is a local government lobbyist; sister Kathleen is a former NBC News foreign correspondent.
“You look at my family and the footsteps are large,” he said. “The shadows are tall. ‘You’re Jenny’s brother. You’re Martin’s son.’ I want to leave my own mark on the city.”
He has worked as a special assistant to Mayor Greg Nickels, and works as a liaison under the Department of Neighborhoods.
But his best work, he said, is done on the streets from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
“That’s when the streets come alive,” he said. “That’s when you get the flavor of what’s going on. That’s when the personality of the street comes out.”
It started 22 years ago, when Durkan quit drinking. Instead of hitting the bars, he would walk. Broadway to Madison, then down to the waterfront, over to Broad Street and back home to Capitol Hill.
“It was a way to keep my mind occupied, and my camera was always at my side,” he said of the Canon point-and-shoot be bought at Glazer’s for $150. “It was camera therapy with walking.
“I kept seeing things and telling people stories, and nobody believed them,” he said. “It’s fascinating. Junkies, prostitutes, drunks, encampments. The forgotten.”
He saw a man jump from the Aurora Bridge. Another man once stopped him on the street, panicked, asking for help, then led Durkan into a vacant building that turned out to be a shooting gallery filled with heroin addicts — one of them gone.
“They’d rather be in there than on the street,” he said. “Crazy.”
During a windstorm, he came upon a naked guy perched on a fallen tree.
One Broadway regular never let Durkan photograph him, and cursed him out whenever he raised his camera. Durkan later found out why: He was Gary Raub, wanted for stabbing his landlord dozens of times. It was one of the city’s longest cold cases.
Durkan listens to the police scanner on his iPhone and carries a tape recorder that looks like a Taser. And he walks.
Over the years, the political scion has built his own constituency.
“This is my public service,” he said. “This is where my passion lies.”
There are thousands of people who take pictures here, Durkan said. But Seattle isn’t just ferryboats and the Space Needle.
“It’s under the onramps and in the doorways where people need their stories to be told,” he said. “They have a much bigger impact on us as a whole.
“If Seattle is going to live up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” Durkan said, “it has to own up to its dark side.”