AMONG THE many photographs hanging in Michelle Dunn Marsh’s modest house near Sea-Tac Airport is a beautiful print that Graham Nash gave her. That’s the same Graham Nash who was once one-fifth of the Hollies, and who is still one-third of Crosby, Stills & Nash. It is a portrait of the equally celebrated musician Joni Mitchell that Nash took in 1969 when the two of them were lovers. Taken surreptitiously through the back of a kitchen chair, it reveals Mitchell not just as a beautiful young woman but as a musician absorbed in her art.
This, Dunn Marsh explains, lies at the heart of its power. “This is one of those moments when two artists see one another in a way that very few people are able to: when an artist sees a colleague, recognizes her moment of creation, and captures the essence of that moment with his camera.”
Last summer, Michelle Dunn Marsh became executive director of Seattle’s Photographic Center Northwest — a 30-year-old organization dedicated to promoting the photographic arts through education, exhibitions, lectures and other public programs. Though she is not a photographer, she knows more about photography than anyone you are likely to meet, and is convinced it has a unique capacity for human communication. No surprise, then, that she surrounds herself with the finest examples of the photographic arts. She reckons she has something like 600 photography books, 100 of which she has worked on herself. Through gifts, trades and the occasional purchase, she also owns about 50 very special photographs.
What is remarkable is the intensity of the relationship she has developed with these photographs. To her, they are far more than images — so much so that she’s uncomfortable with the very idea of “collecting” them. She prefers the notion of “living with” photographs, and talks with real excitement about “that moment when you bring something home and immediately it changes everything. You want to see how it visits with the other pieces in the house and the conversations that come into being. You want to see which ones like each other and which ones need to move.” It’s almost as if the works are other living presences with whom she shares her home.
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BORN ON Capitol Hill and raised with her siblings in Puyallup, Michelle Dunn Marsh is a local with humble roots. Her dad’s family were Irish settlers in Iowa, her mother, a Burmese immigrant. She sees her mixed-race heritage as fundamental to her character. Hers was not a typical Puyallup family. “We were both completely of the community we were in, and outside of it,” is how she puts it. “So I’ve always been drawn to people that are a little bit on the outside.”
Dunn Marsh figures she also acquired the collecting habit from her mom and dad, whose instincts might have had something to do with the experience of losing everything as children — her father when the Depression hit Iowa’s farm country in the 1930s, and her mother when her family fled to India during the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942.
So Dunn Marsh is scornful of the idea that only the rich can surround themselves with beauty. But she also knows that the sort of acquisitive passion she feels for photography comes at a literal price. This, too, is a lesson she learned early in life. To have the money for what mattered to them, like training their children in music or maintaining her dad’s car collection, her parents did without some other things. They saved, too, and repaired things instead of buying new.
In the same spirit, Dunn Marsh rather horrified her mother by going to school in shoes she’d repaired with duct tape to save money after a long family trip to Australia.
The first photographs Dunn Marsh bought were two of modern-dance photographer Barbara Morgan’s pictures of the great choreographer Martha Graham. They cost $150, which she recalls “was an enormous amount of money for me” in the late 1990s. One still hangs in her living room. It is a high-contrast image that catches Graham in one of her characteristically dramatic poses. Rather surprisingly it is in less than pristine condition. It has spot marks across the middle, and one corner has been bent and cracked. But this is not a problem for Dunn Marsh. Instead she says it is “glorious that it shows it has lived,” and adds, “Remember: life isn’t always pristine, either.”
Years later Dunn Marsh and her husband postponed buying a home so she could acquire a particularly important photograph, later saving up to buy the house she now lives in. In her mind, this is simply a question of priorities. “If you want something badly enough you can have it,” she says adamantly. “I’ve made some really impractical decisions along the way because of a desire to be transformed by an image on a daily basis,” she admits, “but I don’t regret any of them. Not one.”
DUNN MARSH’S love affair with photography started with photographs that were part of the printed page. (“You can’t talk about my photographs without talking about the books,” she says.) She edited her junior-high-school yearbook and went on to edit the yearbook at Puyallup High School, too. This was 1991, and she persuaded her teachers that it was time to computerize the process. They supplied the Macintosh computer; she taught people how to use it.
When she got to Bard College in upstate New York, one of the most prestigious liberal-arts colleges in the country, she discovered that they didn’t have a yearbook at the time. So she revived it, and though she was an English major, it was also the “incredible education” in graphic design that she gleaned as an intern in the college publications department that fed what would become her professional passion.
It was at Bard that Dunn Marsh became aware of the Aperture Foundation, which some of the country’s foremost photographers — including Ansel Adams, Minor White, Barbara Morgan and Dorothea Lange — had formed in 1952. Its intention was to promote photography as a fine art — an almost revolutionary idea at the time, and one that the foundation has remained faithful to ever since. Aperture began as a magazine — Dunn Marsh collects these, too, and has about 180 issues — and eventually became one of the world’s foremost publishers of fine-art photography books.
Just as important as encountering Aperture books was getting to know one of the authors. The husband of Ginger Shore, one of her publications department mentors, was Stephen Shore. He was (and still is) director of Bard’s photography program, and his first two books were published by Aperture. He is a pioneer of color in fine-art photography and a champion of the commonplace as a focus of contemplation.
The contemplation of photographs is at the heart of Dunn Marsh’s relationship with them. Perhaps slowing down to look and think is all the more important to her because she is one of those high achievers who seems always in a hurry to embrace life. From Bard she went on to Pace University in Manhattan on a scholarship for its Master of Science in publishing, completing two degrees.
There, one of her professors was Stevan Baron, head of production at Aperture. Baron had been a student of Minor White, and Dunn Marsh found herself connected directly to what she calls “Minor’s spiritual philosophy” about photography, one that Dunn Marsh embraces fully. Photography, she’s convinced, is the art form uniquely able to communicate and enrich the character of human existence; it is a vehicle “to live more fully and become better as a human being.”
Baron hired Dunn Marsh at Aperture, and much of her career was tied to that institution. She worked as a freelance designer there and quickly became its design director. She was also director of Aperture West, an outreach program this side of the Mississippi, and through 2011 was co-publisher of Aperture magazine.
While using her skills in the publishing world, she was also teaching them in the academic world for five years until 2004 as a professor in graphic design at Seattle Central College. Along the way, her own collection continued to grow.
ACROSS FROM that Nash portrait of Joni Mitchell in Dunn Marsh’s home is an Annie Leibovitz portrait of pioneering choreographer Merce Cunningham. Before he started changing the very meaning of dance in the 1950s, Cunningham grew up in Centralia, Lewis County, and attended Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Dunn Marsh met him at the celebration of Aperture’s 50th anniversary in 2002. So awe-struck were most of those assembled that the great man was left by himself for a few moments, so Dunn Marsh introduced herself. On learning that she was from Puyallup, Cunningham quipped, “Oh, you’re from the big city!”
Like its subject, the Leibovitz portrait has what Dunn Marsh calls “the most extraordinary presence,” and perhaps it’s an indication of the sort of relationship that she has with it that visitors to her home have sometimes taken it for a portrait of a family member. Dunn Marsh feels great photography can sustain this emotional relationship because it seems to change in response to the mood of the person looking at it. She calls this the “open-endedness” of an image, which she describes as “how it can mean different things in different situations.”
Sometimes this can make for a perplexing image. Along the same wall there is a photo by Mary Ellen Mark, who was once voted the most influential female photographer of all time by the readers of American Photo magazine. The print, a gift from the artist, is called “Elise Collins, Union, South Carolina, 1995.” Little Elise has been dressed up in just the right costume, but she seems far from certain what she is meant to do with those flags. Dunn Marsh says “It’s happy. It’s sad. It’s one of those photographs that I can look at and on any given day I will see different elements in it depending on my state of mind.”
One of the most open-ended images she owns is a 1991 Sylvia Plachy. It hangs in the stairwell of her home, so she sees it every morning as she comes downstairs. “That’s a very important piece for me,” she says, and explains that after she did some work for Plachy in 2007, Plachy offered to give her a print in trade. “I said that I’d like the picture with the goose. Sylvia was confused and clearly didn’t know which one I meant. Then the biggest smile broke over her face. ‘Michelle,’ she said, ‘that’s not a goose. That’s a swan out of water!’ We had just been talking about where we were in our lives, and she said, ‘That’s it. That’s the metaphor for where you are right now: the swan out of water. But don’t worry, you’re going to find your way back to the water.’ And of course I did.”
At the time, Dunn Marsh recalls, she was struggling to be “fully present” for her “two great loves — my husband and Aperture.” The struggle continued for the next four years until “it all came to a head” with her position at Aperture cut and her husband leaving. Seven years later, she says, she’s still learning things from that image.
WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY’S Green Warehouse taught Dunn Marsh another crucial lesson about the power of photography.
The image reminds her of the barn she grew up with in Puyallup, she explains. “It’s a place that I thought I would live again but I never did. So I was really happy when I saw this print for sale. I realized that I needn’t be sad that I didn’t have that barn and I didn’t have the house that I grew up in, because I could live with this photograph instead. That was a profound moment, realizing that you could free yourself from a sense of loss, because you can find an essence in a photograph that allows you to possess what you love again in a new form.”
Dunn Marsh has moved on from difficult times, finding new challenges and interests at Photographic Center Northwest and in publishing books. (She worked at Chronicle Books from 2008 to 2010 and has more recently launched her own imprint, Minor Matters Books, working with local artists.)
She sees the center having two principal roles going forward: To “keep supporting the people who are making work” and “to educate, to open the door to photography.” She knows there couldn’t be a better time for this because photography now plays a greater role in our day-to-day lives than it ever has.
“Almost everyone on the planet has a photograph that is precious to them,” she says. And “almost everyone on the planet carries a device that they call a phone, but it is actually a camera and personal computer. That makes photography extremely accessible and a dominant form of communication today. But there’s a lot to learn about literacy when experiencing information through images.”
Her vision for the center is to use this reality as a starting point to open up the whole range of photography to as many people as possible and to introduce them to their own opportunities to “live with” photographs. “Everyone has the right to live with beauty around them,” she declares. “Not everyone does, but they can if they give themselves room to do so.”
Robert Ayers is a freelance arts writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.