Disappearing West

Remembering Dick Garvey

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The late Anacortes photographer Dick Garvey enjoys a thoughtful retrospective in his hometown at the Scott Milo Gallery, devoted to his eye-popping, large-format photos. These celebrate the “Disappearing West”—Washington, Montana, California, and Oregon.

The first to catch my eye is the gorgeous “Bristlecone Storm,” a 38” x 48” portrait of a rugged, nearly prone but very much alive pine, scoured by 1,000 years of wind and ice, in the searing light of high altitude and dark storm shadows. This almost three-dimensional portrait brings to memory my many solo hikes in the high Rockies (although the photo was shot in California). 

Garvey’s prints have a visual presence you get only with a large-format camera, which allows the photographer to control perspective and achieve a great depth of field. The Library of Congress requires this technique for their documentation of American landmarks. Think Ansel Adams & Eliot Porter—both masters of the technique, along with Garvey. But before you run out and buy the expensive equipment, beware!  There is one way to get it right and 1,000 ways to go wrong.

Garvey was a much-revered teacher and colleague among photographers in the Skagit Valley until his untimely death from cancer in 2011. He often said, “Sometimes you have to run to catch the light.” He had a great eye for the abstract and could make a memorable composition with the corner of a window looking onto an empty field. 

Garvey’s’s prose is as direct and eloquent as his photographs, and he accompanies many of them with a few lines. Next to a bleak image taken in Wyoming, he writes that a woman told him: “You’ll notice nobody out here grows a garden. When we moved here they said the growing season was 12 days—what they didn’t tell us was that it ain’t 12 consecutive days.”

His portrayal of the West is unashamedly celebratory and nostalgic; his eye for the abstract, unerring. Take “Lower Monumental Rd.,” near Walla Walla—some farmer plowing his field got fancy with the furrows and Garvey waited until the shadows were just perfect. 

“Mile Post 51” (Mayville, Or.) is a 14” x 48” scene of a few weathered buildings on a street in a light of amazing stillness. “Main Street” (Bannack, Mt.), an equally wondrous discovery, looks even more wind-blown and deserted. It makes you want to get in the station wagon and go see whether anybody lives there. You won’t see people in these photos. That’s either Garvey’s personal choice or the difficulty of composing shots with the large-format camera.

Not every composition is equally compelling. A lake and sky with the land line straight across is too predictable. And Garvey had a love for weathered wood or brick walls with cracks and flaking paint, which seems out of fashion. But the huge photo of a rusty truck grill is a masterpiece.

You can scan Garvey’s work on the Scott Milo Gallery website, but there’s no substitute for standing before them to bask in their sheer, vivid magnificence.

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