Virna Haffer is simply one of the most interesting people ever to make photographic art in the Pacific Northwest. Among other things, she photographed: a woman named Mina Quevli clutching a long lit cigarette, shadowed eyes cast downward, lips dark, hair slicked back (circa 1930, when Quevli was known to travel with an entourage including a wolfhound, monkeys, and pretty boys); a naked man cavorting in nature, white spirals covering his skin; a greased-up naked woman casting a giant shadow on a blank wall; herself, in a convex mirror, looking like a demented midget queen; her third husband, Norman, passed out drunk; Norman's bent elbow, multiplied into a butterfly-like psychedelic pattern; a skyful of lips, floating; the town of Juneau, Alaska, in the middle of the night with one corner lit up, like Edward Hopper's New York; the raging Tacoma Hotel fire of 1935; the exposed teeth and gums of a mouse; an expressionless man in Seattle's Hooverville, the Smith Tower rising in the distance; a shadowy figure emerging from the slimy concentric architecture of a seashell.
This sampling doesn't include the photograms Haffer made from 1960 until her death in 1974. In one, she smushed her face onto the photographic surface. In another, she is seen nude and interacting with her own X-ray after a hip surgery. Haffer is a giant of local art history: It's time to absorb her imagery into the collective consciousness. You will enjoy this task.
Born in Illinois, Haffer moved when she was still a toddler to the utopian colony of Home, Washington, a place for anarchists, freethinkers, people who wanted to paint their bodies and cavort nude in nature. An itinerant photographer came through when Haffer was 12, and she was hooked; it was all self-teaching from there. She supported herself with a commercial studio in Tacoma while making her art, which was influenced by modern movements (surrealism, cubism, expressionism) but maintained its essentially saucy Hafferness (she once created a publication with a poet friend called Abundant Wild Oats, as in, she had them).
"I wish I could flip over some of these pictures and show you their backsides," said Tacoma Art Museum curator Margaret Bullock, walking through the museum's survey of Haffer's six-decade career, A Turbulent Lens. On their backs, the pictures wear labels from their travels on the photo-salon circuit. "It will say 'Iowa,' and then it will say, 'Czechoslovakia.'"
Despite the breadth, depth, and sheer terrificness of Haffer's art, and her high profile when she was alive, this is her first museum survey. It includes about a hundred pieces, culled by Bullock and historians Christina Henderson and David Martin from 30,000 negatives, prints, and woodblocks mostly held by the Washington State Historical Society (all but four of the prints are vintage). A star is reborn.