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An exhibit brings Van Olinda’s Vashon to life
When Ray Pfortner moved to Vashon 16 years ago, he was struck by the photography of Oliver S. Van Olinda — images the pioneer historian had taken a century before.
These weren’t beauty shots, Pfortner noted. Van Olinda, a journalist and writer, was out to capture the everyday life of a hard-working Island — weddings and picnics, baptisms and burials, ferry workers and berry pickers.
He was also prolific. Van Olinda, who with his father founded Vashon’s first publication, The Island Home, left behind more than 400 photos — a body of work that provides a window into Vashon’s pioneer days, when the Island was a place of strawberry fields and chicken farms and the biggest dry dock north of San Francisco thrived at Dockton.
“His work has been an inspiration to me in all my own photography on the Island ever since,” said Pfortner, a well-known Vashon photographer. “I constantly remember that here I am, about 100 years after Van Olinda, always hoping to help leave as good a view of our Island today as he did for us from his time here.”
Now, Islanders will be able to get a glimpse into Van Olinda’s Vashon when the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum unveils its first exhibit dedicated to the Island historian. The show, which opens Friday as part of the Gallery Cruise festivities, is curated by Pfortner, an experience that he said was both gratifying and inspiring.
“I really admire that he didn’t overlook where he lived,” Pfortner said, noting that lots of photographers “put their cameras away” when they come home. “That’s lesson No. 1 from Van Olinda: Don’t ignore the place that you’re at.”
Bruce Haulman, a Vashon historian who has played a key role in creating the exhibit, agreed.
Van Olinda was a man of his times and “dismisses the native population and the Japanese-American population,” Haulman noted. At the same time, he added, “He brought the lens of a pioneer settler and told the story from that perspective. ... He captures the Island in multiple ways.”
The Van Olinda exhibit, called “Island Home: The Vashon Photographs of Oliver S. Van Olinda,” will run from July 2 to Sept. 30. Funded with a $5,200 grant from 4Culture, King County’s cultural arts agency, the exhibit marks the museum’s premier annual show — the biggest undertaking of the year for the organization’s all-volunteer crew.
It also marks the first time an exhibit has been dedicated to the Island’s first newspaperman and only pioneer historian. Haulman said it’s a tribute that’s long overdue.
Pausing from his work at the museum last week, when he and Jean Findlay were beginning to hang the show, Haulman pointed out some of the remarkable shots Van Olinda captured and the beauty and depth of his work. One of Pfortner’s favorites, Haulman said, is a picture of a four-master sailing ship at Dockton, a well-composed shot that shows how the four-master — a dinosaur that would soon set sail for the last time — dwarfs the steamboats at its side.
“That’s just a magnificent shot,” Haulman said. It captured “the end of an era.”
Van Olinda was overshadowed by Vashon’s most famous photographer, Norman Edson, whose beauty shots of Mount Rainier were highly acclaimed at the time, Haulman said.
“But when you see some of Van Olinda’s work, they’re journalistic and literal, but some of them knock your socks off,” Haulman said. “There are some great images in the show.”
Van Olinda — born in 1868 in a small town in Illinois — came to Vashon in August 1891 and was soon employed at the original Vashon College, where he taught stenography. He and his father, E.E. Van Olinda, started The Island Home, a monthly, in 1892 (it ended a year later) and founded Vashon’s first newspaper, Vashon Island Press, in 1895.
He was lured away in 1897 to helm other newspapers, Haulman said — first The Stanwood Press on Camano Island and then The Island County Times in Coupeville on Whidbey Island. Van Olinda, then the father of two, returned with his family to Vashon in 1910 and took on a number of other jobs — working for the telephone company and running a machine shop. He never worked as a newspaperman again.
But he continued to photograph, Haulman said,
both on Vashon and throughout the region. He has numerous photographs, for instance, of the building of the Ship Canal in Seattle. Much of his work has been catalogued and archived by the University of Washington, which has more than 400 of Van Olinda’s shots. He published his book “The History of Vashon-Maury Island” in 1935.
Interestingly, Pfortner noted, many of his photographs were never published. Indeed, the newspapers he ran used little photography. “He wasn’t recognized for it,” Pfortner said of Van Olinda’s photography. “He was recognized as a writer and a historian.”
The show is special to the museum, in part because of how little play Van Olinda’s work has gotten. And even though Van Olinda has excellent shots from throughout the region, the museum chose to dedicate the exhibit to his work on Vashon.
It’s not a large show. There will likely be 30 to 40 shots on the wall when they finish hanging the show this week, Haulman said.
But what it will show is a story about Vashon’s early agrarian years — a time when a forest was meant to be cut down, land was meant to be tilled and community (weddings, baptisms, funerals and festivals) made life rich.
“What I love is that nothing escaped his lens,” Pfortner said.
And therein likes the second photography lesson from Van Olinda, he added: “Don’t ignore the everyday.”