Through her lens: 50 years of photos from Jini Dellaccio
Jini Dellaccio has done extraordinary things during her 95 years. She created a career as a self-taught photographer, befriended young garage rock musicians 20 years younger than herself, set the scene for contemporary portraitists such as Annie Leibovitz, and picked up a digital camera at age 86.
Now the relatively little-known artist who created iconic black-and-white shots of 1960s rock bands on her Gig Harbor property is featured in a local retrospective at the Harbor History Museum, with a biographical documentary to follow.
“She’s an extraordinary woman with a very distinctive approach to photography that has stood the test of time,” said Karen Whitehead, a British filmmaker whose Dellaccio documentary “Her Aim is True” will have preview screenings in Seattle in late May. “She brought fine art to rock ’n’ roll photography.”
The upcoming museum show “With a Loving Eye: The Photographs of Jini Dellaccio” bears this out. Although the show contains only four of Dellaccio’s rock photographs, they’re all eloquent in their portrayal of the musicians and sounds that emerged in the 1960s, particularly in the South Sound. The Wailers relax backstage, smoking and drinking coffee with an electricity crackling between the nonchalant boys and perfectly coiffured girls. Merrilee Rush peers wide-eyed at the camera from behind long tresses and thick mascara. Don and the Goodtimes stand in top hats and tails with backs to the camera, dwarfed by trees and staring out over a misty Gig Harbor bluff. And a youthful Neil Young hunches moodily next to his guitar, avoiding the camera’s gaze.
They show the kind of eye Dellaccio brought to this new music, an eye trained in the hauteur and stylishness of fashion photography and the sympathetic scrutiny of portraiture – both equally important in her career. In the museum show, her rock photography is displayed alongside large-format prints of a sweaty Fijian firewalker and an elegantly hatted model.
But it’s the backstories that show what kind of person Dellaccio is. Sitting in her Seattle apartment, dressed impeccably in a black turtleneck, beige jacket, Panama hat and animal-print throw, the photographer is as perky, gracious and articulate as she was when she won over those nervous rock musicians in the ’60s.
It all started with a Tacoma Art Museum show in 1963. The Indiana-born, self-taught Dellaccio moved to Gig Harbor in 1962 and was exhibiting her portraiture and fashion work. A local designer saw the show and asked Dellaccio to do an album cover shot of Tacoma band The Wailers. The group had just started to make it big on the local scene.
“It was work, so I said yes,” Dellaccio recalled. “But I heard it as ‘The Whalers.’ I thought it was a fishing group, that they’d be playing banjos, mandolins, that kind of stuff.”
Dellaccio, who lived with her husband, Carl, on a big piece of forested property overlooking the bluff, invited the band to do the shoot at her house. When they drove up, she saw “five handsome young boys get out wearing black leather and boots, very serious-looking,” she said. “I felt so scared. What was I going to do? They marched in slowly, and I knew they were as scared as I was. No one said anything. We kind of stared at each other. So I said, ‘Let’s go outside.’ They all jumped up and started spreading out, looking at the flowers, the trees, the beach, and I started shooting. That’s how much I thought about it. I didn’t even know what rock music was then.”
She was to have a similar experience later with a youthful, moody and worried Neil Young, who refused to talk to her during the shoot.
Dellaccio had played sax in a touring jazz band and knew how musicians thought. She also had shot fashion, and that’s how she approached these new musicians. “I wanted them to look wonderful, distinguished,” she said.
But when she went along to a rehearsal for the first time, she also realized what their sound was like.
“It was so loud, I actually felt a vibration in my chest,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is wonderful.’ I’d never heard music that loud.”
In her late 40s, Dellaccio began doing what rock photographers now take for granted: shooting live at concerts and nightclubs. One of her photographs shows The Who on its first U.S. tour, launching guitars wildly in the air; another shows Mitch Rider of the Detroit Wheels slumped mid-concert, exhaustedly transparent. It was pioneering stuff, especially for a woman.
“They were wonderful, wonderful kids,” Dellaccio said.
After leaving Gig Harbor in 1983, Dellaccio lived in Arizona for 20 years, caring for her husband after a stroke and making no pictures except of the wild animals that came to drink water she put out for them. When she returned to her photographic career, things had changed. At age 86, she learned how to use a digital camera. She moved back to Seattle in 2009, and still meets up with old rocker friends such as Young. She even attended The Wailers’ reunion last year, just weeks before lead singer Kent Morrill’s death.
One thing she might not do anymore, though, is shoot photos.
“In the last few weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s over,” she said calmly. “My eyes are failing me.”
Mobility is another issue for the artist, who uses a walker.
But Dellaccio will be at the opening for her Gig Harbor show, having curated the 25 images from about 1,000 from her collection. She also is looking forward to Whitehead’s film.
“Here is a woman who’s been on the sidelines and needs recognition,” Whitehead said. “She was a pioneer, years ahead of Leibovitz. She’s an unheralded American master. ... Her indie spirit matched the spirit of the bands she covered. She loved people, and it comes out in her photographs.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, firstname.lastname@example.org