One of the most innovative photographers ever active in Washington State, Virna Haffer’s work exemplifies the wide and varied range of the Pictorialist movement.
She was born Virna May Hanson in Aurora, Illinois and moved with her parents to Washington State’s Home Colony in 1907. This Utopian enclave on Puget Sound near Tacoma, attracted many political and social radicals who created an environment that was suited to the personalities of her father, a labor union organizer and her mother, a teacher. While attending Stadium High School in Tacoma, she lived in her own apartment and began supporting herself financially from the age of fifteen. She apprenticed at a portrait studio around this time and although it is undocumented, it was likely Wayne Albee’s as he was the most noted artistic photographer in the city. A substantial collection of his photographs in her estate indicates that the two were probably acquaintances at the very least. She established her own studio at 122 N. Cedar Street in Auburn, Washington but it was unsuccessful and she returned to Tacoma. In 1919, Virna had a very brief marriage to Clarence Schultz, a fellow Home Colony resident but divorced within the same year. Shortly afterward, she married Paul R. Haffer, the State Executive Secretary for the United Producers of Washington. Haffer was considered an “active radical” and was convicted of libel against George Washington from a letter that he wrote published in the Tacoma News Tribune on March 18, 1916. Accusing the first President of “Drunkenness”, “Profanity” and “Slave-Holding”, he was sentenced to four months in prison in a case heard by the State Supreme Court. An outspoken voice for workers rights, he wrote a regular feature called “The Colyum” for the Tacoma Labor newspaper writing under the pseudonym “Septimus”.
In 1924, they had a son, Jean Paul who was the subject of many of her earliest experiments in photography. These innovative and sensitive works caught the attention of other parents who sought out her services for unique portraits of their own children.
Haffer was an extremely creative woman who worked in a variety of mediums such as drawing, painting, sculpture, fabric design and blockprinting. She had also been a working musician, playing saxophone in an “all-girl’s orchestra” called Fausetti’s Jazettes.
Her exhibition history began in 1924 in the Fifth Annual F&N Salon of Pictorial Photography. She had six works accepted including one titled “Fraid-Cat” for which she won a $5.00 Prize. Another work in the same exhibition was titled “His First Growth”, an unusual depiction of the back of her infant son’s head.
In June, 1928 she exhibited one work in the SCC’s Fourth International Exhibition. In October of that year, her attendance at the club’s monthly meeting was recorded in Notan by Dr. Koike, “Our Forty-fourth meeting was held at the Gyokkoken Café on October 12th. Twelve members were present and our guest was Mrs. Virna Haffer of Tacoma Camera Club, who came here to attend the meeting. She brought her eight prints of various subjects, to ask the opinion of some of our members about her pictures. We take off our hats to her earnestness and modesty.”
While attending SCC meetings, she befriended fellow member Yukio Morinaga and began a lifelong collaboration with him serving as her main printer. Her earliest extant works show the influence of another SCC member, Frank Kunishige. These images include nude studies of her friend, the writer Elizabeth Sale who acted as her main model. Around this time, she also met the visiting Chinese artist Kwei Teng (Kwei Dun) and made several interesting bromoil portraits of him in the late 1920’s.
She began experimenting with darkroom techniques that would enable her to produce the unique and dark imagery that would later become a hallmark of her work. Some appear to have been influenced by Man Ray (1890-1976) and especially California’s William Mortensen (1897-1965), an ardent proponent of creative pictorialism. Mortensen’s series of technical books and his school of photography in Laguna Beach had a wide-ranging effect on the pictorialists of her generation.
Coinciding with her photographic output, Haffer also produced an impressive body of work in the blockprint medium and sometimes exhibited her prints and pictorial photographs together. Her involvement with the SCC was the basis for the upcoming local and national success she would soon attract. By 1928, several of her photographs had been accepted in national salons and her first national exposure came in 1930 when her heavily manipulated portrait of a child titled “Robert” was illustrated in the American Annual of Photography. Over the next five years her work would regularly appear in the illustrious publication. Locally, an indication of her growing regional reputation came about when two of her images were reproduced in the December, 1931 issue of the Town Crier along with other illustrations by prominent photographers such as Edward Weston. Her photographs continued to be nationally recognized throughout the 1930’s and she won several prizes in competitions sponsored by Camera Craft.
By 1931 she had divorced her husband and later married Norman Randall, a mining engineer whom she had met in 1935. Norman, and less frequently, her adolescent son Jean, sometimes served as models posing for some of her more daring and experimental works.
Besides utilizing her family and her own unique visage, she enlisted some of her artistic friends to subject their faces and bodies to sometimes grotesque distortion and manipulations that produced powerful and unsettling abstract images unlike anything else being created in the region at that time.
Some of these experimental works culminated in a series produced in the mid 1930’s that were intended for use as illustrations for a collaborative book of her photographs and the poetry of her friend Elizabeth Sale. The book, scheduled for release in 1939, was a poem sequence titled Abundant Wild Oats and reflected the two women’s independent views regarding their erotic involvement with men, downplaying monogamy and celebrating the joys of a variety of lovers. Although Haffer’s illustrations are not blatantly sexual, they utilized images that contain an erotic observation of male physical attributes. Even though the book had been heralded through several advertisements, it was never published due either to a lack of funding during that period’s desperate economic climate or the content might have been too controversial for a mass appeal.
During the next decades, she continued working in her commercial studio and exhibited in numerous international salons.
Around 1960, Haffer turned her attention to producing photograms, the process of making photographic prints by placing arranged objects directly onto sensitized paper without the use of a camera or negative. She developed several innovations in the medium and wrote the now standard book Making Photograms: The Creative Process of Painting With Light.
One of the highlights of her career came about when her photogram, “California Horizon” was included in the important traveling exhibition series “Photography in the Fine Arts IV” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in May, 1963. After several national tours, the museum purchased the work for their permanent collection. Many of her photograms display a prescient awareness of environmental and social issues, reflecting her own life as an advocate for just causes.
In 1964, Haffer was bestowed a Masters of Photography degree by the Professional Photographers of America, one of the highest national honors awarded in her field. She was the subject of many solo exhibitions including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1960; Museum of Science & Industry, Los Angeles, 1964; New York Camera Club, 1967 and the Museum of Contemporary Arts & Crafts, NYC, 1968.
She died on April 5, 1974.