It wasn’t a place that Seattle freelance curator David Martin ever expected to be.
Last November, he was the closing speaker at an international symposium about Pictorialism, the early 20th-century photography movement that explored the medium’s fine-art possibilities.
After struggling for decades to draw attention to Pacific Northwest artists and photographers who had flourishing careers between the 1910s and 1930s, Martin found himself at Berlin’s Museum of Photography, discussing Seattle-area photographers’ contributions to Pictorialism.
Martin wondered how the symposium’s organizers had even heard of him.
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“Your groundbreaking books,” they told him.
They specifically mentioned “Shadows from a Fleeting World,” his catalog for a 2011 Henry Art Gallery exhibit about the Seattle Camera Club, and “A Turbulent Lens: The Photographic Art of Virna Haffer,” about the Tacoma photographer whose ceaselessly inventive work was honored with a solo show at the Tacoma Art Museum (also in 2011).
“I’d never been to Europe,” Martin said in a recent interview. “Once I got there, my inferiority complex kicked in because I was the only one not a museum curator, the only one without a PhD.”
One Frenchwoman, who particularly connected with the work and told Martin they should collaborate, turned out to be head of the photography department at the Louvre.
These are heady heights for someone who’s had a tough time persuading local institutions there’s a 20th-century art history here worth exploring beyond Mark Tobey, Morris Graves and their fellow “Northwest Mystic” painters. Recently, however, key museum figures have recognized how dramatically Martin has enhanced our sense of our region’s art and photography heritage.
TAM curator Margaret Bullock calls him “kind of a walking file-cabinet on Northwest art history.” Patricia Junker, at the Seattle Art Museum, enthuses, “He is my go-to man in a lot of ways. … He didn’t have any blinders on; he didn’t have any preconceptions.”
Retired University of Washington Press director Pat Soden, who worked with Martin on “Shadows from a Fleeting World,” observes, “Not being a part of the academy, I think, in some ways has worked to his advantage. He has had to be much more careful and methodical. … I think he’s done a remarkable job.”
Martin, 60, grew up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where he could hear the falls from his bedroom at night. He caught the art-collecting bug in 1981, after moving to Phoenix, Ariz., and growing homesick.
His remedy: buying himself a canvas of Niagara Falls.
“I found a painting by this artist named Claire Shuttleworth when I was in an antique store in Buffalo,” he recalls. “It was $25. But it looked like Monet did it. I mean, it was gorgeous.”
But who was Shuttleworth?
He inquired at Buffalo’s regional art museum, the Burchfield Penney Art Center, and got a brushoff answer: “Oh, she’s just a local person.”
“She was in the Paris salons,” he says. “But her reputation was gone. And that’s when it started sinking in about reputation — that there were good artists, and they weren’t just the famous artists.”
The good news was that Martin could afford their work. The bad news was that these artists merited rediscovery and no one seemed interested in taking on the task.
“I started noticing the pattern,” Martin says. “They were almost all women.”
After he and his partner Dominic Zambito moved to Seattle in 1986, he began tracking down forgotten Pacific Northwest artists. His first quarry: Yvonne Twining Humber whose offbeat depictions of urban scenes he’d seen in some East Coast museums. No one here had heard of her. Digging through the archives, he learned her husband had died in 1960. He assumed the painter herself, born in 1907, was also dead — until it occurred to him to look her up in the Seattle phone book. And there she was.
Next day he called her, asking, “Is this Yvonne Twining Humber, the artist?”
With a laugh, she said, “I guess so.”
Through Humber, Martin began to pick up on a whole circle of regional artists who’d fallen off the radar. He and Zambito began showing their work in a space on Capitol Hill’s East Pike Street in 1989. (Martin-Zambito Fine Art is now located in Historic Seattle’s headquarters on First Hill.) Zambito did the bookkeeping and worked in local hospitals to support the couple. Martin, when he wasn’t running the gallery, did research and tried to share his exciting discoveries with local curators.
Their standard response: “If these people were worthy, they’d be known already.”
His big breakthrough came in 2005, when he organized an exhibit at Bellingham’s Whatcom Museum of History & Art about Women Painters of Washington, an arts organization founded in 1930.
The catalog he wrote for it, “An Enduring Legacy: Women Painters of Washington, 1930-2005,” was distributed by UW Press and included eye-catching work by Humber and Z. Vanessa Helder (whose striking oil portraits and hyper-precise watercolors of the Grand Coulee Dam under construction later anchored a 2013 TAM show devoted to her, “Austere Beauty: The Art of Z. Vanessa Helder”).
“An Enduring Legacy” also led Martin, indirectly, to Haffer and the Seattle Camera Club.
“At the time,” he says, “they were just in storage.”
One look at Haffer’s work convinced him she deserved a major exhibition, which she later got. But the Haffer show also illustrated how precarious the timing for researching and mounting these exhibits could be. Haffer’s son, Gene Randall, was 88 when the show opened at TAM, and was able to give interviews about his mother’s remarkable work. He died two months after the show closed.
Martin is currently looking into the work of Seattle Camera Club member Soichi Sunami (1885-1971) who in 1930 became staff photographer for New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Sunami’s iconic 1930 portrait of choreographer Martha Graham, Martin says, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Whidbey Island painter Peter Camfferman (1890-1957) is on Martin’s radar too. His small, colorful oils on paper from the 1920s confound the notion that Tobey was the region’s earliest innovator in abstract realms. He deserves a major revival.
TAM’s Bullock sees Martin’s persistence as a major asset for our regional art history.
“We really started paying attention recently, and it’s just wonderful,” she says. “People are recognizing these artists he’s been talking about for years.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com