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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 22, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 16
SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Photographer Paul Dahlquist gives form to his 'wows'
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Photographer Paul Dahlquist gives form to his 'wows'

by Ron Anders - SGN A&E Writer

With his Walt Whitman-esque white hair, beard, and piercing, playful blue eyes - and enough stories to fill volumes - Paul Dahlquist is a Seattle institution, albeit one I had not encountered before. He has been taking photographs for many decades, after discovering that photography - rather than drawing or painting - was his métier. His images range from the spare still life (a deserted lunch counter) to the gritty (pedestrians fighting a rainstorm with shaky umbrellas) to the playfully erotic (three young men entangled in sensual contact). Dahlquist works exclusively with black-and-white film, which he happily processes himself, claiming that he is 'not into computer-land.' He clearly likes the film medium, which lets him work at a slow pace.

I met him for the first time just as he finished hanging his latest show at the Alchemy Gallery in Pioneer Square. The show opened the following evening to an interested and interesting crowd. (There will be a closing-night party at the gallery on April 28, so mark your calendar.) He still had energy to spare to talk with me, and clearly relished revisiting the highlights, both artistic and erotic, of his 82-year journey.

Ron Anders: How did you become interested in photography?

Paul Dahlquist: I was in drawing and painting for years. I got my Masters in Fine Arts, but didn't make it as an artist. Since I'm not a good money manager, I realized I needed to get into something that would help me survive - and so went into teaching. After 20 years of teaching, the photography teacher retired and they needed someone who could teach those classes - so I did. It was like I opened a door that I had nailed shut. It felt so good. I took a course the next summer for teachers of photography and eventually helped teach that class.

Anders: So photography wasn't something you had thought about doing as art?

Dahlquist: No. I grew up when you didn't think about photography as art. Photography wasn't art - it was photography!

Anders: Did you have any experiences with other photographers?

Dahlquist: A friend who I was once staying with said, 'We're going to have a dinner guest. It's going to be Imogen.' He was talking about Imogen Cunningham! They were old friends for years. And it was just the three of us sitting around. And my friend suggested that I show Imogen some of my pictures. I had a little envelope of pictures that were relatively current - snapshots of Fort Lewis, nothing major. But she had really good things to say about everything I had in there. I was really impressed. Diplomacy! My friend persuaded Imogen to show us other photographs that she had with her. She was doing all these pictures of North Beach - people sipping sodas, waiting for the bus, drinking coffee, smelling flowers. Just wonderful, natural, beautifully observed people pictures. I was impressed. I asked her about how she got these marvelous images. She had a twinkle in her eye and said 'When I take a picture, it's a little 'I love you.' I thought she was putting me on. I didn't get it. But I do now. It is a little 'I love you' - you're freezing this instant because it is wonderful. You're giving form to your 'wow,' as it were. That's what I call it.

Anders: Is there a story behind the Rounds photo and subsequent poster?

Dahlquist: A friend told her colleague about an exhibit of mine. This person didn't say a thing to me for six months - and then told me that he really liked that image, Rounds. He wanted to use it on a poster for a new show he had in mind. So that was my first big whack at getting into something here in Seattle - in 1982. They printed up 2,000 of those in the first run and sold out in six weeks. It was fantastic. That poster gave me an identity in Seattle. The second edition sold out slower, but the Museum of Modern Art ordered 20 dozen at a time! So I got a kick out of it. Any time I heard of someone going to New York, I'd tell them to go to the Museum of Modern Art and ask to see my poster - and invariably they'd be so thrilled by seeing it there that they'd buy it, so they kept re-ordering it!

Anders: What was your career like after that?

Dahlquist: I retired from teaching, but I rehearsed for retirement! Since they have summer vacations for teachers, I would get into independent mode. I started hanging out with interesting people, including the guy that's in the Rounds poster. I overloaded on my drug of choice every summer. [Laughs.] It was sweet. But the fact is that you can keep going as long as you can keep going. It's a physical thing. It's not because someone gives you a gold watch and puts you out to pasture. You're not done just because you're 65 or 72, or whenever they're trying to change those numbers to. I retired at the ripe old age of 56, but I had the rest of my life to do and I'm living it, I'm doing it. I love having this opportunity to put a show up.

Anders: Tell me about the Tangled photograph, which appeared on the announcement of your show.

Dahlquist: They are a trio of young guys like no trio I've never seen. They were sweet, affectionate, loving. They are from Ohio and had seen some of my work in a mutual friend's collection. When they got to Seattle, we went to Glo's for breakfast, then walked over to my place.

Anders: So they came up to your place and asked you take pictures of them?

Dahlquist: No. They just walked in and they were naked in five minutes just like that. And that first picture - the one that was on the card - was taken within 10 minutes of knowing them. I was speechless. They were just so beautiful. They were loving and sweet and tender with each other.

Anders: You must have put them at ease right away. Do you have a talent for that?

Dahlquist: There's a lot happening around me. I just get dazzled by all the stuff that goes on and I don't feel responsible, but I love what goes on. As an artist, I believe in myself. I don't need to hear from 15 experts on my work who tell me what to do.

Anders: Did you identify as Gay in the years before Stonewall?

Dahlquist: No. I identified as sexual.

Anders: So the whole notion of being identified as Gay or homosexual didn't come into it?

Dahlquist: No. I didn't run around bragging about it because there were a couple of people in town that were notoriously Gay and nobody wanted that kind of notoriety. But I was just sexual. I was active. My advantage as a young man was that I was active, attractive and totally immoral. But I never thought of myself as homosexual or Gay - just as sexual. I liked it all. But when I was married, I was very married - both times. I had three kids. All of those were really wonderful, important pieces of my life.

Anders: Is there anything you want to tell me about what you're showing here?

Dahlquist: Just representative stuff of what I work at. I'm an artist whose medium is photography - that's how I give form to my 'wows.'

Anders: What kind of human subjects do you like to work with?

Dahlquist: You need to have physical poise, which isn't necessarily how you look. But if you feel comfortable with yourself & and ideally you're six feet, give or take an inch or two - eight inches, give or take an inch or two. [Laughs.] I love working with men who are comfortable with their bodies and I don't mind working with couples that are comfortable with themselves. Every show produces a smattering of people wanting to jump in front of my camera. Well, that's fine, but if you don't feel good about yourself, there's nothing I can do for you that will make you feel better.

The Alchemy Gallery is at 619 Western Avenue. To inquire about seeing the exhibit by appointment, contact Paul Dahlquist at (206) 322-1394. You can also get a sampling of Dahlquist's work at pauldahlquist.com.

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