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NORTHWEST HISTORY ROOM
 
When George W. Kirk arrived in the Pacific Northwest, he was forty years old and ready to retire as a photographer. He settled in Chehalis in 1888 and began raising raspberries, soon expanding his burgeoning fruit business to Puyallup. What he didn’t know about berries he soon found out. By 1891 he boasted of a four-ton yield from a single 1-˝ acre tract, and, at that point, it could be truly said that G.W. Kirk had abandoned photographic art for agriculture. The chemical-choked darkroom had little to compare with the joys of farming. His re-entry into the world of lenses and acetic acid a few years later can only be understood as a response to needs that ran much deeper than simple matters of vocational choice. 

The Kirk name suggests Scottish origins and, in fact, his ancestors were Scot, but also Welsh and English. He could number Revolutionary War soldiers among his ancestors. Both his parents were of old Maryland stock. George came into the world on the family farm at Port Despot, near the mouth of the Susquehanna River, September 17, 1848. As a young man he had headed west, reaching Iowa before his father’s failing health called him back to Maryland. The mercantile business occupied several years of his life, but it had minimal appeal for him. He began to learn photography, finally embarking on an apprenticeship under prominent Baltimore scenic photographer William Chase. Establishing a studio in Huntington, West Virginia, Kirk practiced the commercial photographic trade for the next thirteen years then packed it in for an uncertain future as a farmer in Western Washington.  

It was in 1896 that Kirk went back into the photography business, but business may be too strong a word for what motivated him. He took a deep pleasure in the landscape, the seascape, even viewing the cityscape with the discerning eye of a trained graphic artist. He was capable of portrait work; certainly that was the mainstay of most commercial studios. But his eye was for the world, not its inhabitants, and he was at his best posing the ineluctable elements of what lay beyond the four walls of the studio. 

It would appear that he edged back into photography, dabbling with increasing seriousness at Chehalis from 1896 and making his real commitment in 1898. That year he came to Everett and purchased the studio and negative file of Herman Siewert, who had installed a modern gallery, studio and darkroom in the Realty Building at Hewitt and Colby. Kirk took on a partner, H.B. Hanson, to handle the portraiture and commenced shooting handsome scenics and commercial views of Everett and environs. Kirk moved to Snohomish about 1901, opening a branch in Arlington and leaving the Everett studio in the hands of his son T. Leston Kirk and partner Loren H. Seely. They opened another studio in Snohomish. About 1906, George W. Kirk suffered a stroke and retired to a homestead in Darrington, closing both the Snohomish and Arlington business. He died May 9, 1919 at sixty years of age.  

What little remains of G.W. Kirk’s photographic art speaks to us with strength and conviction of a region just opened up by the Great Northern Railroad and flushed with explosive growth and industrialization. We find some of the natural environment he loved reflected in technically impressive views of forest subjects, but especially interesting and perhaps more challenging to Kirk himself were urban scenics, composed with the forceful diagonals and striking perspectives one might expect of an academy-trained painter. His sureness, his sense of drama and soundness of composition inform the photographs with unmistakable authority. There is no doubt about the seasoned professionalism of the lensmen, no mistaking his carefully crafted, almost painterly, vision of the subject. Here he was a scenic photographer equal to the potent dynamics of the time and place. 

But what remains is a fragment. Most of the photo file in the Realty Building, comprising Kirk negatives, work by Hanson and T. Leston Kirk, Loren Seely as well as earlier work by Siewert, passed to the Rigby Sisters, who ran their own studio until 1915. At that point the entire cumulative negative collection was stored and then tragically dispersed, leaving us only bits and pieces of what must have been a body of work of substantial historical and artistic value.  

DAVID DILGARD
Northwest Room

Also see Kirk’s biography in the Interstate Publishing Company’s Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties (1906), p.853.


 

 

David Dilgard
History Specialist
2702 Hoyt Ave.
Everett, WA 98201
T: 425-257-8005
F: 425-257-8016
E:

 

Lisa Labovitch
History Specialist
2702 Hoyt Ave.
Everett, WA 98201
T: 425-257-8005
F: 425-257-8016
E:

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