Avant garde” and “early Tacoma” aren’t terms that we usually think of together, but the current show of the work of pioneering woman photographer Virna Haffer at the Tacoma Art Museum may help to change that. Haffer, who grew up in a free-thinking Utopian community just south of Tacoma, was at the same time a rule-breaking bohemian, a visionary artist, and a respected portrait photographer, whose clients represented the mainstream of Tacoma society. Her startling work is just now coming back into view after years of neglect, and KUOW's art critic, Gary Faigin, says it’s well worth the trip to TAM to see.
The work of photographer Virna Haffer is a revelation. Thirty-five years after her death, the strongest possible case has been made for her reconsideration as an important Northwest artist by a landmark exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum.
Haffer’s biography confounds our stereotypes of the cultural backwardness of the Seattle region in the early 20th-Century, not to mention the possibilities open to women artists. She came by this expectation-busting naturally, having been raised in a radical, utopian community by culturally-aware parents, and dropping out of school at age 15 to pursue a career in photography, opening her own studio at age 18, in 1917. If Haffer felt constrained by the geographical isolation or limited exhibition venues in the early Pacific Northwest, there is no trace of it in her work, and she pursued an ambitious career - which included wide recognition - without ever relocating to a more developed center.
She was confident enough in her own abilities to produce creditable work in multiple realms, and the current show includes as well as photography block prints and bas relief sculpture (an excellent, moody portrait of her husband); the catalog adds oil painting and pottery (a series of mugs with nude male torsos as handles) to the list. She is also said to have been active as a musician and writer.
The exhibition organizers had their job cut out for them trying to give order to a body of work that is so various as to defy easy categorization. The strategy they settled on, organizing the pictures by type – pictorialist, documentary, portrait, photograms, not to mention “experimental” - works well enough, and if we don’t get a sense of Haffer’s progression through time, it’s partly because she was equally audacious and eloquent at nearly every stage of her career.
I was fascinated by several drawers of photographs that were the product of Haffer’s day job, a Tacoma portrait studio that she ran for many years. From the evidence of these black and white prints (there is almost no color work in the show), Haffer approached the task of shooting babies, families, and dogs with the same theatrical flair and intensity she deployed in her art photography. She uses dramatic shadows, unusual camera angles, active poses, and eccentric cropping and composition, to enliven what might otherwise be routine studio shots. A dog is dwarfed by its giant shadow, like the wild beast of its imagination; a young boy stares out from the bottom of the frame, while his hand-lettered name looms above the background, a star in his own world; young women stare pensively off into the distance, mature beyond their years.
Nearby a book has been left out by the museum to collect personal recollections of Haffer’s many local clients, and the pages are filled with warm testimonials to her engaging personality and ability to put her subjects at ease, not to mention her production of photos that have been long treasured as family talismans.
One can’t help but wonder what these presumably everyday folk would have made of Haffer’s personal work, photographs whose content is frequently erotic, apocalyptic, or bizarre? Her fascination with sexuality is unusually equal-opportunity; if there is a difference in the atmosphere of excitement and desire that wafts about her photographs of both male and female bodies, I couldn’t detect it. A blissful, young woman floats in lily pad choked pond, the water sensuously framing her perfect breasts; a naked couple embraces, only their torsos visible, a shadowy zig-zag running between their bodies, like a human embodiment of the yin/yang. In the same series, produced to accompany a suite of erotic poetry written by a close female friend, there is a nearly blank print in which a tiny, naked male figure points out at us, crouching and laughing like a taunting satyr. Even more suggestive of a satyr is another young Haffer friend, who in the late 1920s was photographed romping naked through woods and swamp, with his body painted in geometric patterns, as though in search of nymphs to ravish or gods to challenge.
The most original work in the exhibition is the “experimental” pieces, and it is those which leave the most lasting impression. Perhaps as a foil to her straight portrait work, Haffer puts the human face through its paces, distorting heads in multiple ways, splitting them in half, printing them in multiple images, and coming in uncomfortably close, as though wanting to separate that impenetrable barrier that separates one of us from another.
The most unusual work dispenses with straight depiction entirely and is entirely a darkroom creation. One set of images, created when the artist was in her 60s, uses a sophisticated technique of shadow printing to conjure dreamlike scenes suggestive of expressionistic stage sets like those in the film classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In one picture, a highly-anthropomorphic leafless tree ( in fact the shadow of a tiny branch) gestures like a mourner at a funeral in a smoky, blasted landscape entitled Aftermath. Terrifying skeletal creatures populate a similarly grim setting in the related dystopic vision Tomorrow’s World. In another image, the tiny, nude silhouette of Haffer herself wields giant tongs to extract a black shaft from an enormous pelvis, actually an x-ray of the artist’s own hipbone at the time of an operation.
Other prints manipulated from existing images feature a hybrid male figure with muscular arms and torso and a tiny, insect-like head, or a circle of backlit arms, making a shape like a windmill, a cross, or a swastika. In another picture from this period, a line of nude men parade downhill, diminishing in both size and apparent age, like a descent back into infancy.
There is something both daunting and exhilarating about the exhibition. Exhilarating, because Virna Haffer comes alive as a major artistic force, a woman with a clear sense of mission and the technical ability to pursue it, who forged a life on her own terms and with her vision and integrity intact. Daunting, because such a remarkable body of work (there are said to be 30,000 images in her archives) could so quickly fall into obscurity, a reminder that artistic reputation is, like so many other things, subject to the vagaries of time, taste, and chance.