The 1980 Seattle Arts Commission Photo Survey
Updated: May 20, 2020
In late 1979, the Seattle Arts Commission issued a call for five photographers to participate in an “investigation” of Washington State. Interested parties were invited to submit a proposal for a project of their choosing to be carried out during an in-state residency of up to five weeks. The project offered a stipend of $2,500 per person, plus airfare to Seattle and reimbursement for travel expenses, film and darkroom costs while in Washington.
A selection panel reviewed the 120 portfolios that were submitted. The panel included Carole Kismaric, Managing Editor for Aperture Magazine; Ray Meuse, President of the Seattle Art Museum Photography Council; and Terry Toedtemeier, co-founder of the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and later, Photography Curator at the Portland Art Museum.
Among the five who were chosen for the project were three already well-known photographers—Larry Fink, Lee Friedlander, and Emmet Gowin. The remaining two were Ingebord Gerdes from California and Tod Gangler from Seattle.
Over the late spring and summer of 1980, the five photographers carried out their respective projects in their own styles and ways. They did not meet as a group, and only two (Gangler and Gowin) met each other during their work on the project. Gowin did not have a specific project in mind when he made his proposal, and it was only by chance that as he was preparing to fly to Seattle, Mount Saint Helens erupted on May 18. Upon hearing the news, he immediately found his way to the blast zone. where he created aerial and on-the-ground photos of the devastation. Gangler also took aerial photos of Saint Helens, but he decided not to use them for his project images.
Each photographer was required to submit two sets of at least ten archivally matted prints of their work from the project. One set went to the Smithsonian Institute, a requirement since the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) helped fund the project, and the other set became part of the City of Seattle’s permanent art collection.
In 1981, the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington exhibited most of the prints from the project in a group show dedicated to the project. There was no catalog of the exhibition, which was titled simply Portfolio of Photography. Tod Gangler, the only one of the five project photographers to attend the opening and otherwise see the exhibit, said the show received mixed reviews.
“Most people came thinking they would see images from the big three photographers [Freidlander, Fink, and Gowin] that represented on their previous styles,” Gangler said, “ but what they saw was nothing like they expected. Fink showed pictures of loggers, Friedlander had these muddy prints of roadside flowers, and Gowin’s were aerial landscapes. Plus, most people had not heard of Ingebord or me. The reviews were uneven, the show closed, and that was the last time anyone heard about the survey.”
The reviews were indeed mixed. In the local arts paper Spar, Diane Neumaier wrote, “The exhibition at the Henry reflects the lack of vision with which the entire project was conceived. No new issues were considered; the photographs are consistently stripped of context, ripped from their world origin, eliminating photography’s power to inform, consciously mystifying to maintain photography’s status as a fine art. Defending this tentative position is hardly worth the price of impotence.”
Perhaps the most unusual review was by Victor Gardaya, who, although he applied for but did not win a spot of the survey, was still given a platform to critique it. Writing in Northwest Photography, he said, “A. D. Coleman warned us about photographers with resumes as long as your arm, about recycled artist-academics for whom multiple Guggenheim and N.E.A. fellowships, and obsequious tributes from the provinces, and professorships up the ying-yang are but sinecures—prerequisites that come with the star on the door. What he didn’t tell us is that this leavening process occurs within the images themselves, that they can lose their pungency and go stale literally right before the eyes.”
The only positive viewpoint came from Daphne Enslow Bell, who not coincidentally wrote her review for Seattle Arts, the newsletter of the Seattle Arts Commission. She gave confident perspectives on each of the photographers, writing such praises as Gerdes’ “prints glow with a special warmth and life”, Gowin’s images reflect “the center of mystery of the blast at St. Helens”, and Friedlander’s flowers are “the things a child would remember and treasure and the adult return to record.”
In the funding proposal to the NEA, the Arts Commission said it was their intention to publish the results in a book, but they were not able to find funding for a publication.
In 2015, Larry Fink published many of his photos from the project in a book called Opening the Sky, and some of Gowin’s photos have been published in books about his work. For the most part, however, the photographs taken during the 1980 Photography Survey remain buried in obscurity.
If you'd like more details about the creation and execution of the project, here is a compilation of related documents from the Seattle Arts Commission.
All of the above images are from prints submitted to the Seattle Arts Commission as part of the terms of the project. Additional copies of the prints are part of the original NEA files now at the Smithonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.