Duane Garrett's wit is as quick and precise as the shutter of a camera. Blink and you'll miss it. While previewing a collection of some of his spectacular photographs, soon to be exhibited and sold as part of a fundraiser at The Bishops' House, a 19th century landmark that now sits on Old Penitentiary Road, Boise Weekly matter-of-factly asked the 88-year-old Garrett, "When did you take some of these photographs?"
"Oh, about 2:30," he said.
Garrett looked up and never smiled. But the twinkle in his eye was laughing long and hard. The twinkle never left for the better part of an hour as BW sat down with the master to talk about his life behind the lens.
Joining in the conversation was Shaun Weston, managing architect for Boise-based Trout Architects and, as board president of Friends of The Bishops' House, curator of the exhibit.
It's my understanding that this exhibit happened quite accidentally.
Weston: In looking at some of the historical pictures of The Bishops' House, I said, "Wow. Who did these photographs?" And someone said, "That's a Duane Garrett photograph." And it clicked. I grew up in Boise, so I certainly knew the name. I asked, "Is Mr. Garrett still around? I would love to meet him and see if he has more shots of The Bishops' House." And that led us to our visit to his home out in Gardena. [Garrett moved from his hometown of Boise to Gardena 30 years ago].
Where did you find these photographs?
Garrett: In an old darkroom. It's more like storage now.
Weston: We were invited to his home and we found a box that was tucked into that old darkroom. It's a treasure. They were printed at the time the negative was made. That gives them even greater relevance and value. These images are some of the last remaining photographs that Mr. Garrett has.
Since you'll be selling these to the public, how do you even price them?
Weston: That's a good question. Some of the most recognizable photographs--The Alexander Building, The Eastman Building, Beth Israel Synagogue, the Egyptian Theatre--these are one-of-a-kind images.
Garrett: No one really ever saw these photos. The negatives were put into an envelope and shipped back to Washington, D.C. Almost all of them were part of a job for the Historic American Building Survey.
How many cameras do you own?
Garrett: I don't know; maybe eight or 10. I probably had another 10 over the years.
And what was your camera of choice in all those years?
Garrett: A Hasselblad 120mm. It takes a square picture, and it comes with many lenses. Each job dictated which camera I would use. Take for example, many of the photographs you're looking at here [Garrett pointed to the images that will be on display, and for sale, at The Bishops' House]. Many of these were taken by a large format camera.
Weston: And that's why we chose these photographs. They're so crisp and clear. It's because the negatives were so large.
Don't you think there's a particular magic to a black-and-white image?
Garrett: Now, there you go getting wordy. I don't go for the word bit. A lot more people are more eloquent about this. Basically to me, it was a job.
Who were some of your clients?
Garrett: Every company that worked around here: Simplot, Morrison-Knudsen, Ore-Ida, every law firm, the state of Idaho, the U.S. government. They all needed pictures. Sooner or later, I was the one to shoot them.
Did you take many portraits?
Garrett: A lot of business people. And pretty much everybody who was anybody who came through town; all of the presidents and presidential candidates.
Who was the most famous person you photographed?
Garrett: Probably FDR. He was touring the Pacific and he came through Kodiak, Alaska. I was requested to go shoot him... with a camera, of course [Garrett made sure to make eye contact to know that we heard the joke].
Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera?
Garrett: Oh... maybe. There was a neighbor who encouraged me. In 1939, I had a Brownie Hawkeye and I took pictures at the world's fair in San Francisco.
Did you have a sense that you wanted to take photographs for a living?
Garrett: Not right away. I just liked school so much. I went into the Navy and received seven different diplomas; I have a drawer full of certificates. It was in the service that I was exposed to more photography. [Garrett's made sure with another twinkle of the eye that we got the pun]. I went to school on the G.I. Bill, to learn more about photography, in Chicago and Connecticut.
And where did you work when you returned home to Boise?
Garrett: I worked as a salesman at a camera store in Vista Village and I worked for a while at Idaho Camera in downtown Boise. I worked for the Idaho Statesman for four years and the highway department for a couple more years.
When did you break out and begin working solo?
Garrett: Do you remember Bill Bach? He used to run Bach Photographs and he was a good friend of mine. Bill bought a studio in the Eastman Building. I worked there for several years, but I figured out that it was really Bill's corporation and I wasn't going to make too much money. I left and went out on my own. That was 1966.
I'm assuming that you preferred being a free agent.
Garrett: For 30 years. In 1996, I retired and sold off a lot of my cameras.
You just walked away from photography?
Garrett: Things were going to digital and I wasn't interested in going down that road at all.
You have no interest in digital photography?
Garrett: You can do things electronically, but it's not the same feeling as creating something on a piece of paper.
Weston: Black-and-white photography was basically a moment in time; a moment that you either get or don't get. Digital photography? Well, you can shoot all day until you get what you want and then you manipulate it.
Do you ever like to spend much time with other photographers to talk about your work and preferences?
Garrett: I was once a delegate to the Professional Photographers of America. I attended in Chicago once and I thought they were the most standoffish, cold people that I had ever met. I thumbed my nose and never went back.
How about contemporary photographers?
Garrett: No, not really. Photographers today are usually doing something very different. We don't even speak the same language.
Did you ever look at your work as being important?
Garrett: No, it was either good or bad. That's it.
I know you keep saying that this was job, but can you appreciate that it's also an art?
Garrett: That's you being wordy again. I'll say this: I'm pleased that people like my work. But I never had in mind, as I was taking a picture, that this was something I had a kinship with.
But you must have a favorite.
Garrett: There was a tiny little photograph of the old Coston Cabin [which now sits next to the Idaho Historical Museum in Julia Davis Park]. It was covered with snow, and St. Luke's used it on their Christmas cards one year.
That's really something.
Garrett: I continued donating a few photographs to them to use over the years. They were just personal photographs I took on my own. After awhile, they would come around and tell me what they wanted to be different. So, I thought that was getting a little complicated, and I chose to forget it.
This exhibit at The Bishops' House must be a very big deal for the nonprofit.
Weston: The house doesn't have a budget per se. It's the property of the state of Idaho but Friends of The Bishops' House is responsible for its maintenance and upkeep, and that's a heavy lift.
Boise came very close to losing The Bishops' House.
Weston: In 1974. St. Luke's Hospital, which owned the building at the time, announced plans to demolish it. A bunch of citizens got together and said, "We're not going to let you tear this down." That really spurred the preservation moment in Boise. In November 1976, it was moved to where it sits now.
And how do you keep the lights on?
Weston: We rent out the house, primarily for wedding receptions, just to keep the house open and operating. This exhibition is really a new opportunity for us to open the house in a different way. We're holding a special reception on Saturday, Nov. 2, when we'll have food, music and people can meet Mr. Garrett. The exhibit runs two weekends, through Sunday, Nov. 10.
Some of these photos are truly historic.
Garrett: I have to tell you that I would have tried harder if I knew all this was going to happen.
Are you going to be OK at that big shindig?
Garrett: As long as I don't have to do anything.SLIDESHOW: Preview some of Duane Garrett's photography at BoiseWeekly.com