Handforth exhibits posthumous retrospective of Tacoma photographer Virna Haffer

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This shot of a tower is part of Haffer’s “Abstract” series, Chapter 4 of her “18 Chapters in Photography.”Photo by Virna Haffer

Handforth Gallery, located within the hallowed halls of the main branch of Tacoma Public Library (1102 Tacoma Ave. S.) is hosting a show of photographs by a Tacoma photographer named Virna Haffer (1899-1974). The show is called “18 Chapters in Photography,” after Haffer’s working habit of dividing her photos into 18 different themed categories. These were given titles like “Reflections,” “Abstracts,” “Shadows,” “Doorways” and “Pictorial People.” 

An example from Chapter 10, “Out-of-Place-Things,” is a picture of an old bathtub, half full of rainwater, which is inexplicably placed on a rocky beach. Chapter 14, “Alaska,” has some amazing pictures from the rustic, northernmost state of the union. Some of Haffer’s gauzy nudes date back to the 1930s. 

The exhibit spans the entirety of Haffer’s long career. Born in Home, Wash., Haffer’s family moved to Tacoma just after the turn of the century. She attended Stadium High School and became an apprentice photographer, setting up her own studio in Auburn in 1919 at age 20.

She was influenced by Alfred Stieglitz’s “pictorial school of photography,” in which photographs were given a fuzzy blur that was meant to imbue them with emotional content. This is apparent in some of Haffer’s early nudes.

Haffer’s work continued to evolve through the decades of her long career. From 1964 through 1973, Haffer’s pictures were regularly featured in the pages of the Tacoma News Tribune. Haffer’s photos were exhibited all over the country and locally, including exhibits at PLU and UPS. She also had an exhibit at the Handforth Gallery itself in 1970.

The retrospective at the Handforth Gallery features 29 photos that have not seen the light of day for more than 40 years. The exhibit includes a ring binder that has copies of Haffer’s type-written essays that accompanied each chapter of her collected works.

A visit to the Handforth is often an adventure. The show space is situated between the library’s main desk and the security area and bathrooms. A variety of personalities pass through the space, often making meditative musing upon the art work a challenge. When I was in the gallery, there was a woman who was angry that her cell phone vanished after she left it unattended at a charging station. The woman proceeded to spew a stream of profane language at the library staff, presumably because they had not prevented the theft of her phone. In a nearby room, meanwhile, a religious gathering of some sort was going on and the voice of a sermonizing preacher was bleeding out into the gallery.

Haffer’s pictures capture the human drama even as it unfolds in the little space of the gallery itself. At the Handforth, you can get an art exhibit and a live show: two for the price of one. (Actually, you get it all free of charge.)

“18 Chapters in Photography” runs through May 12. For more on the Handforth Gallery visit www.tacomalibrary.org/handforth-gallery. (Unfortunately, this website no longer has an accurate listing of upcoming shows or even much information about current exhibits. Between the retirement of long-time Handforth Gallery Director David Domkoski and the library’s having changed its website, it is difficult to stay apace of this important artistic resource of Tacoma.)

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