Joel Rogers' Seattle: Not just a pretty picture book

The longtime Seattle photographer sets out to capture his city's soul. The tourists should like it, too, but it's not meant just for them.
Crosscut archive image.

One of the many beauty shots a Seattle skyline can capture.

The longtime Seattle photographer sets out to capture his city's soul. The tourists should like it, too, but it's not meant just for them.
Photographs and text by Joel W. Rogers
Graphic Arts Books, $19.95

One of the things that has always made Seattle an engaging, genuine (if somewhat insular) place is that we keep our really good stuff for ourselves. Greater Seattle's true attractions are not for tourists, but for, by, and/or about us. If tourists show up that's okay, but we don't really care. Like our professional theater, which survives thanks to season ticket holders, not bussed-in groups from the big hotels.

Or Bumbershoot. It's become a much more big money operation than it used to be, and many of us Northwest old farts mourn that loss of the True Funky. We wouldn't cross the street to hear Lupe Fiasco "keep his edgy street cred" (from the Bumbershoot 2007 web site), but thirty years ago we stood for hours watching the Bumbernationals art-and-gravity car race. We admired the street cred of Bumbershoot's genius-in-residence Clair Colquitt, whose Festival-commissioned Quintcycle looked spectacular on the street. But even with the preponderance now of semi-big name acts, Bumbershoot is still a festival for the home folks.

In the 100 color photographs in Seattle, Joel Rogers doesn't include the standard shot of face-painted youths frolicking at Bumbershoot, but you will certainly find other de rigueur souvenir-book pictures: the Space Needle; sunset on Elliott Bay; an all-dressed-up Waiting for the Interurban; and those gleebs who throw fish at each other in the Market. From these images, you might assume Seattle is a book for the in-laws to carry back to Lompoc at the end of their Northwest vacation, a book more likely to be found at SeaTac than Bailey/Coy; a book, in other words, that has little either in image or text for those who live here.

But take a closer look. The fourth picture in Seattle is of a woman doing warm up stretches on the end of a pier, with houseboats in the background that look like regular people actually live in them. Right before the Interurban shot is a full page of a yard sale in Greenwood, the lawn covered with items that I suspect didn't sell all day long and are dump-bound. Mr. Rogers says his favorite shot in the book is from 1981–Pasqualina Verdi, selling basil at her stall in the Market. Pasqualina was a legend in the Market for more than half a century, even without throwing basil around for the amusement of tourists. These and a dozen other images in Seattle won't mean much to the Lompockian in-laws, but they'll make you smile and say with some pride, "Yeah, Seattle; I live there." What Mr. Rogers has generally succeeded at doing is a difficult thing, something only a local photographer/writer could do. He's created a coffee-table book about Seattle that belongs on Seattle coffee tables.

The accompanying text includes interesting sidebars and sometimes lengthy quotations from others who've pondered the city's appeal – Tom Robbins, Jonathan Raban, What's-his-name Brewster. Otherwise it's a series of essays by Rogers about the city, some factual, some fanciful. They include "City With a Gray-Green Heart":

It is a city healed and nurtured by conifer and salal kept moist and verdant by a persistently wet climate, as if the region has a rain forest for a godfather. Seattleites appreciate the grayness of fog and cloud cover: they nose into books when the light pearls and the wind moves through improbably tall trees we call evergreen.

"A Natural Romance":

I grew up on Phinney Ridge in a house my grandfather built that looked west on a children's book view: wood-frame houses sloping down to cedar mills and machine shops, railroad trestles and drawbridges raised for the fishing trawlers and tugboats moving through the ship canal to Puget Sound. But it was the Olympic Mountains rising majestically beyond the Sound that fascinated me the most.

And "Future Work, A Seattle Ethic":

Talking to Dan Cook up at Herkimer's coffee shop one morning, we got to thinking about the ability of this relatively small city to create an impact on the nation and the world. We quickly went to the why of that, which came down to four truths: a perennial pioneering optimism, the attraction of bright people to Seattle's natural and work environments, the region's remove from the centers of culture and commerce forcing us to stand alone, and an elasticity and resiliency due to a young history and a lack of hidebound tradition. Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Boeing, REI are here because of these talents. But where will these talents take Seattle into the future?

Among the other essays is "Listen to Your Elders," about those who were here 40,000 years before the Dennys, Borens and Blaines showed up. The featured interview is Duwamish tribal member/orchestra leader/Bud's Jazz Records owner James Rasmussen, a local treasure if ever there was one.

Mr. Rogers' writing occasionally teeters along the edge of treacly boosterism, especially for an audience that's already sold on the area. Indeed, if some of the things he's written in Seattle were penned by a hack from Chicago knocking out a contracted "local" picture book for Rand McNally, the fraudulent sincerity would be infuriating. But Mr. Rogers is a neighbor, a Seattleite, a true Northwest old fart. He can be forgiven an occasional lapse into swooning, because he's one of us. And in both Seattle and Seattle, that makes all the difference.

(Joel Rogers will be appearing on 12/5/07 at 7:00 PM at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park)  

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