One of the final photographs taken by Ray Pfortner before the pier was closed — taken on Nov. 28, 2019, after midnight— showed the ghostly lights of squid fisherman at work. The pier closed to the public on Dec. 2. (Ray Pfortner Photo)

One of the final photographs taken by Ray Pfortner before the pier was closed — taken on Nov. 28, 2019, after midnight— showed the ghostly lights of squid fisherman at work. The pier closed to the public on Dec. 2. (Ray Pfortner Photo)

As new year dawns, an island photographer looks back

Ray Pfortner writes how the Tramp Harbor dock and Vashon Theatre have brought him inspiration.

  • Friday, January 3, 2020 12:42pm
  • Arts

For its first issue of 2020, The Beachcomber asked island photographer Ray Pfortner to reflect on the closing of Tramp Harbor dock — an iconic spot he has photographed throughout the decades. Here is Pfortner’s resulting “arts-ed,” expressing appreciation not only for the beauty of the old dock, but also for another photogenic island landmark, Vashon Theatre, which has been protected and preserved. In the quiet, early days of 2020, we believe it important to reflect on what has been lost and saved in the rush of time on Vashon. — Elizabeth Shepherd, arts editor.

By Ray Pfortner

For The Beachcomber

I have photographed my island home for nearly 26 years now.

There are so many spots that inspire me on our beautiful islands. But two very different locations stand out as my inspiration: the Vashon Theatre and Tramp Harbor pier.

The theater continues to inspire me with storytelling, music, amazing photography — and a chance to get totally lost in art for a solid few hours.

Tramp Harbor has been my canvas almost from the day we arrived on the island. It is filled with big water, big sky, birds, fishermen and reflections. Juxtaposed is a graphic man-made structure that points almost due east, perfect for this sunrise photographer.

I have hundreds of photographs taken of the pier in all kinds of weather — brilliant sun, driving rain, heavenly fog. Often there are fishermen salmon fishing at dawn or squid fishing a night — a glorious ballet I can only choreograph by when I press my shutter release.

I, of course, have favorite photographs of Tramp Harbor:

• A glowing orange sunrise over the pier made all the more colorful not with software by the intense air pollution that morning. It was taken in September 1994.

• A graphic vertical sweep down the pier right into the rising sun with the most ephemeral clouds I have ever seen there. This was taken in June 2008.

• A view from below the pier after midnight with squid fishermen lining the rails, their intense lights illuminating the scene and serving up a glorious star-burst in the midst of it all. This was taken in November 2019.

One of my favorite experiences at the pier was photographing on an absolutely bleak morning — rain, no decent fog, cold, wind and no light worth painting with. All of us in the scene seemed to be shuddering from the cold and damp and hopelessness of no good light and no fish. Suddenly, as if the chef turned on the oven, the sky turned vivid red. Everyone gasped out loud. The sun had found a sliver of sky. The sunrise lasted no longer than a minute or so and the bleakness returned, but not without leaving us all filled with hope all over again.

The closing of the pier earlier this month is a huge loss for all of us. No more fishing, especially for the handicapped. I see the squid fishermen now have a dangerous workaround, fishing below the tip of the pier in the dark from small boats packed with fishermen. No more summer classes out on the pier with their colorful umbrellas. No more tourists and islanders alike stopping for a family photograph or a selfie out on the fabulous “L” of the pier. Perhaps not even any more driving by, in awe of the graphic of that pier jutting out boldly into the broad bay in such sharp contrast to all the commotion of the mainland beyond.

Photographing below the pier at low tide I could see the damage — erosion of the pilings, some altogether gone. And we all know the creosote in these aging pilings is yet another concern for the health of our Salish Sea and the food chain culminating with our beloved orcas.

We know of the tug of war between our own park district and King County and how stretched the district can be with all they manage and the immense costs of demolition and then reconstruction.

So I return to my other inspiration — the Vashon Theatre. It too was to be closed not so long ago. The costs of updating to the full digital capability required of any movie theater today were so daunting there seemed no hope at all.

Vashon Theatre, as seen through the lens of island photographer and educator Ray Pfortner in 2005, as the theater’s current owners celebrated two years of running the historic theater (Ray Pfortner Photo).

Vashon Theatre, as seen through the lens of island photographer and educator Ray Pfortner in 2005, as the theater’s current owners celebrated two years of running the historic theater (Ray Pfortner Photo).

Islanders imagined an alternative reality for the theater and stepped up. Island Greentech helped raise the funds to makeover the theater. Today the weekly Greentech Tuesdays at the theater allow nonprofits to share so much with the island. Two of my favorite evenings ever on Vashon were among those Tuesdays with middle-school photographers from the Harbor School and McMurray Middle School talking about their own photography on the biggest screen on Vashon, overcoming their jitters to be so incredibly eloquent. Talk about inspiration!

We should all dream and scheme an alternative reality for the Tramp Harbor pier and give the park district as much support as we can muster.


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