"Franz Brasz, the Artist." A Virna Haffer photo from 1937. Collection of the Washington State Historical Society/Gift of the Virna Haffer Estate
Tacoma photography legend Virna Haffer
The Weekly Volcano, July 13, 2011
The exhibition of photos by Virna Haffer at Tacoma Art Museum is a marvel. I had no idea what to expect heading into the gallery to see these works by an artist I had never heard of, and it was like wandering into a studio shared by the greatest photographers of the early modern period, including Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus and Man Ray.
Haffer, a self-taught artist from Tacoma whose career began in the 1920s, gained international prominence and then was lost to history. The TAM curatorial team of Margaret Bullock, Christina Henderson and David Martin searched through more than 30,000 of Haffer's negatives, prints and woodblocks to put together this astonishing exhibition.
Other than the overall excellent quality of the work, two things impressed me: first, Haffer's wide range of styles and her wild innovation and second, the graphic quality of her photographs. There is a brittle quality to these mostly high-contrast black-and-white photographs that make them look like drawings or etchings. This graphic quality is enhanced because there are some woodblock prints in the show and at least one photo of an artist, Franz Brasz, posed in front of one of his drawings. The Brasz portrait looks more like graphic art than photography, even though his face is clearly a photo. The artist's pained expression and wildly mussed hair, along with his pose in relation to the drawing, make this photo a precursor to the work of more recent portrait photographers such as Annie Leibovitz.
Haffer produced documentary photographs and almost conventional portraits and beautifully composed studio nudes with washed-out features and dark edges that make them look like strong contour drawings or dramatic silhouettes. And she produced a range of amazingly inventive surrealistic photographs.
She created many photograms, a process of creating images without a camera by placing objects on chemically treated paper and exposing them to light. Haffer called the process painting with light. Some of the photograms are surrealistic, and some are purely abstract, such as "Abstract #2," which looks like a Franz Kline painting with a big eye in it.
She also experimented with many odd angles and light effects and distortions, thus making many of her photos look like modernist paintings. Some are so wildly distorted that they seem to have been Photoshopped before there was any such thing.
Some of the more experimental works look a little dated now but were obviously out there on the edge when first created. The best works in the show are not the more experimental works, they are the portraits and the nudes, which, although apparently conventional, are beautifully and dramatically composed. One of the most striking of these is "Mina Quevli," a 1930 portrait of a beautiful woman with short hair lighting a cigarette. This image seems to me to capture the spirit of the jazz age.
This is a wonderful show, and it is just one of three new exhibitions at TAM. I'm also told, although I haven't seen it yet, that there is a catalog available. A catalog of Haffer photos would be something wonderful to have and hold.
A Turbulent Lens
Through Oct. 16, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
10 a.m. to 8 p.m. third Thursdays, $8-$9
Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma