Karen Peterson

News photos capture moments that help preserve history

The News Tribune photographer Dean J. Koepfler has chronicled the life of Tacoma’s iconic Ivan — from the lowland gorilla’s pen in an eclectic Pierce County shopping mall to his final home at Zoo Atlanta. A 6-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Ivan was unveiled Thursday at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.
The News Tribune photographer Dean J. Koepfler has chronicled the life of Tacoma’s iconic Ivan — from the lowland gorilla’s pen in an eclectic Pierce County shopping mall to his final home at Zoo Atlanta. A 6-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Ivan was unveiled Thursday at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. kpeterson@thenewstribune.com

From time to time, one of our news photographers shoots a picture we consider a work of art.

But Wednesday was the first time I recall that one of our photographs was literally turned into an art piece unveiled for the masses. It happened at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium when artist Douglas Granum pulled the cover off his new bronze statue of Tacoma’s iconic gorilla, Ivan.

The statue was based on a picture of Ivan taken by News Tribune photographer Dean Koepfler in 1995, on the day the animal first walked out into his new enclosure in Zoo Atlanta.

The western lowland gorilla spent the first 30 years of his life with a local family and then at the B&I shopping center on South Tacoma Way. Brought here in 1964, when exotic animal exhibits were more commonplace, he lived in an enclosure and was visited by generations of Tacoma families.

Eventually, animal rights activists would persuade the Irwin family, which owned the B&I, to move Ivan to Zoo Atlanta, where he could live in a more natural setting. He became a favorite there, as well, and died in 2012.

Shortly thereafter, a small group of folks organized to build a memorial and wanted to use Koepfler’s photo as the basis for a statue. We agreed, asking only that the TNT photo be credited.

“Here at The News Tribune we are really excited that someone might want to use that photograph as the model for a sculpture of Ivan,” wrote TNT publisher David Zeeck in his note granting our permission.

Koepfler was all for it as well. He had spent many hours covering this iconic animal for the paper.

Koepfler recalls shooting photographs of Ivan for a month or two before the gorilla left Tacoma. Ivan underwent a medical evaluation, and his trainers from B&I and Zoo Atlanta worked together to plan the complicated move.

“I got to see Ivan behind the scenes, got to see his daily routines,” Koepfler said. “He was very playful, almost a little bit of a prankster.

“As an outsider, when you came in with cameras and received attention that maybe got in the way of Ivan getting attention, he would take issue with that.”

Ivan would step back and let Koepfler get close to the bars, and then jump up and violently rake his knuckles across the cage.

“He did that numerous times,” Koepfler said. “I wasn’t afraid. I was intrigued.

“He was a great subject, a beautiful animal. You were awestruck in his presence because of his physical size and abilities. He was very agile and intelligent.”

The TNT flew Koepfler and reporter Sandi Doughton to Atlanta so they could witness Ivan’s release into his new enclosure.

Ivan had been in quarantine for a few days when handlers finally opened the door into his new home, a lush, rolling landscape with rocks and trees and shrubs.

“He didn’t burst out like you might expect,” Koepfler said. “He was slow to get out of his cage.”

He ambled around, checking out his new environment. He ate some food the handlers had left out.

“Then he came upon this magnolia tree, which had these beautiful pinkish blossoms,” Koepfler said. “It was nothing like he probably ever saw before, and it attracted his attention.

“He went over and with his huge hand he delicately plucked this one blossom off the end of the branch. It was totally intact in his hand. He was so careful. He examined it, and you could see he was reflecting on what it was.”

That’s when Koepfler snapped his picture. He knew it was a special shot when he took it.

“I knew because I had seen him in his former home, which was concrete and steel, and at that moment he was looking at the natural beauty in that blossom. It was symbolic of his new home and his new life.”

The photo was wildly popular with TNT readers, who rushed to buy copies.

“People were really worried that Ivan wouldn’t do well there,” Koepfler said. “The picture was a comfort to people.”

It was fitting that Koepfler also shot the Ivan statue unveiling Wednesday.

On Friday, Koepfler shared with me another bit of insider info about Ivan on the day in 1995 he was immortalized.

What did the gorilla eventually do with the beautiful magnolia blossom featured in the photo and the statue?

After much contemplation, Koepfler said, Ivan popped it into his mouth, chewed on it a bit and spit it out.

COFFIN PHOTO NAMED ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL OF ALL TIME

In 2004, our colleagues at The Seattle Times broke a government prohibition on publishing photographs of the coffins of American soldiers killed in action. They ran a photo on their front page, obtained from a government contractor working in Kuwait, of flag-draped coffins being secured on an airplane for their flight home.

Within days, The New York Times obtained other coffin pictures through a public records request. Newspapers across the country, including the TNT, published the photos prominently, believing they illustrated an important part of the war on terror, that American service members were dying.

This month, Time included The Seattle Times photo in its book, “100 Photographs: The Most Influential Images of All Time.” Other photos include Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and the flag-raising on Iwo Jima.

“I feel honored,” Tami Silicio told The Seattle Times. She was the contractor who took the photograph shared with the newspaper and subsequently lost her job for doing so. “The photo was honest. It captured the respect for the dead, and that’s what it should have been about. That photo stirred up a whole lot of stuff around this nation. People’s emotions were touched.”

“Some were critical of the Times’ decision to publish, assuming political motivation,” Times reporter Hal Bernton wrote in his recent story about the photograph. “But most were positive, including several from parents of fallen service members who did not want to conceal the sacrifice their children had made.”

The Obama administration in 2009 lifted the military’s 18-year ban on allowing pictures of flag-draped coffins, as long as the families agreed.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434, @TNTkpeterson

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