A Northwest photographer who captured the untamed

Darius Kinsey began photographing the Pacific Northwest in 1896. Much of what he captured no longer exists, but his photographs, now on view at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, tell the story.
Crosscut archive image.

A Washington boltcutter poses with his two daughters and their dog. (Whatcom Museum of History and Art)

Darius Kinsey began photographing the Pacific Northwest in 1896. Much of what he captured no longer exists, but his photographs, now on view at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, tell the story.

You have to wonder what drove Darius Kinsey to sojourn away from the comforts of his stately 12-room Seattle home to enter the dripping, dark primeval forests of the Pacific Northwest so incessantly. Over the course of two decades, he was frequently finding excuses to jump a train or motor coach north out of the city to return to the logging camps, shantytowns, deep groves and snowy summits of the Cascadian back-of-beyond. Of course, he always packed along his large-format camera and crates of negatives with him. The tools of his art lent purpose to his wanderings.

Traveling through the untamed Northwest undergrowth, with its thickets of devil's club, vine maples and salal and ankle-twisting maze of downed and decomposing old-growth trees, was seldom an easy affair, and Kinsey didn't travel light. His 11x14 Eastman View camera weighed around 15 pounds, and the large 20x24-inch glass negative plates were both fragile and unwieldy. The Skagit Courier reports in 1902 that Kinsey traveled with over 250 pounds of photographic gear to shoot one remarkable Doug Fir.

Even though his Eastman View was advertised as "an excellent camera of strong and substantial construction," it is doubtful that many Kodak customers pushed their equipment to the extremes that Kinsey did: shooting in all manner of weather, crawling up and down fern-choked gorges, teetering across the goat trails of hard rock miners.

"For Kinsey," explains the Whatcom Museum of History and Art Web site, "finding the perfect shot sometimes meant dodging avalanches, crossing crevasses and jumping over rattlesnakes."

If he wasn't lugging around his camera, which occasionally was an even-heavier 20x24-inch model, he could be found next to waterfalls or a cedar shake cabin experimenting in the improvised arts of taking stereo-camera shots, making glass lantern slide images and capturing panoramic perspectives with his "Cirkut" camera, a self-revolving 50-pound behemoth that spooled out negatives 10 inches wide and 20 feet long.

The breadth of Kinsey's work gives off a sense of restlessness matched by an insatiable curiosity. I imagine a man who, so in awe of the raw landscape around him, couldn't sit still. The Whatcom Museum notes that even on family trips to the wood, Kinsey "was known to jump out of the car on a moment's notice, set up his equipment on the shoulder of the road or disappear up a trail."

Kinsey is most known for the record he created of the Pacific Northwest logging culture. His photos immortalize tableaus of mustachioed men in tin pants and suspenders, buckers crosscutting fallen cedars, horses slipping down skid roads, shake-splitters retiring to their smoldering stump huts, and steam engines traversing massive trestles.

"Through a fifty-year career in photography," museum archivist Jeff Jewell recently explained to me, "Kinsey captured the monumental interaction between men, machinery and mammoth trees that defined early logging in northwest Washington."

Though he created a visual history of our corner of the continent majestic in scope, Kinsey's work isn't simply about quantity or the dry assemblage of a historical record. There is a majestic, bold, and original artistic quality to the prints he produced that calls to mind the similarly stunning work of Ansel Adams. Both share the same palette of rich inky blackness and the thousand subtle shades of grey, the shockingly sharp detail and eye for dramatic composition. Much like Adams and his beloved Yosemite Valley, Kinsey's work presents the Northwest woods as a cathedral. There is a sense of architecture, space and depth, and a somber, serious light in many of his prints of the forest.

The Whatcom Museum, which holds and tends the world's largest Kinsey archive, has recently put on display 38 Kinsey prints, 21 of which have never been displayed in public before. Many of the "new" images are donations from locals who have found Kinsey pieces among their family possessions — large format negatives, photographs, and an extremely rare custom album of 11 by 14 original prints.

"The real star of the exhibit is a four piece panoramic of a lumber mill with workers and their families, circa 1910," says Jewell. "It's from four original photographs that revealed how Kinsey shot a series of 11" x 14" negatives that, once printed, Tabitha could match and glue together as a panoramic image. It was an aspect of the Kinseys' work that was unknown until the donation of these photographs to the Whatcom Museum in 2003."

"Some photographers take reality ... and impose the domination of their own thought and spirit," Adams once remarked. "Others come before reality more tenderly and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation." Kinsey, as revealed in his sensitive body of work, falls in the latter camp. Those of us fascinated by the history of the Pacific Northwest — and in love with the forest — are all the more fortunate for it.

A truncated version of this article appeared previously in Cascadia Weekly.  

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