Don Wallen: An American Still Life
I have come to realize and appreciate, with a growing awareness, that these images I have already gathered, and continue to gather, are of a deep and private nature. Rarely do these images have an immediate use, other than my personal fulfillment of their execution onto film and paper. And yet, I sense their growing importance…
-Don Wallen, May 31, 1987
The youngest of six children and the only son of a Norwegian machinist and fisherman, Don Wallen was born on March 1, 1945, in Manitowec, Wisconsin. His family moved to the Seattle area when Wallen was very young, and he would continue to live and work in the region for most of his life. In 1965, at age 20, Wallen joined the Air Force, and it was at the Seymour Johnson base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he was first trained in the art of photography. His early experiences with the camera, however, came about quite by accident.
As a young recruit, Wallen was initially trained as a fire truck driver. One day, en route to a blaze that was quickly spreading, he took a turn too fast and dumped nearly 400 gallons of water across the road before the truck flipped completely. Following a serious investigation, it was determined that Wallen should no longer be allowed to drive, and his superior officer fatefully suggested he look into a job opening at the photography lab on base. Left with little choice, Wallen became an investigative photographer of air crashes for the Air Force, and he served in this capacity from 1966 to 1969. This formative three-year stint, described by Wallen as “tedious, but necessary and invaluable,” ultimately became the catalyst for a passionate and devoted career in professional and freelance photography that would span nearly 30 years.
Upon his return to Seattle in 1969, Wallen found a job as a staff photographer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, focusing mainly on sporting events and the people of Seattle. He received numerous awards for his work at the P-I, but quit the paper in 1973 due to an irreconcilable disagreement over artistic control. Following a brief assignment at the School for Visual Arts in New York, he returned to the Northwest in 1974 to work as chief photographer for Today Newspaper, an alternative publication in Seattle. Wallen considered his two years at Today to be the true beginning of his work as a real photographer, as he was allowed greater freedom to train his lens on the colorful and eccentric characters he found most fascinating:
I got to know the 'guys next door'—Gladys, the cocktail waitress, the people from the Empty Space [Theatre]. I like people from ‘the other side.’ I hate to use the term 'fringe people,' because that's not who they are. They are those who on the surface aren't beautiful, but underneath is the stuff that keeps us alive.
- Seattle Voice, Volume 1, No. 5, July 1981
In 1978, after a year as chief photographer for the Seattle Weekly, Wallen decided to dedicate himself to freelance work. He became photo editor for the Seattle Gay News, and was a contributing photographer to several magazines including Drummer, In Touch and the Advocate. Editors, publishers, and fellow photographers alike have praised Wallen as one of the very best in the business, and his award-winning work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the country.
Don Wallen died of AIDS-related complications on November 16, 1997, leaving behind a body of work he once characterized as "An American Still Life." Indeed, life itself was his theme. Whether he was shooting flea markets or street protests, Seattle drag queens or the bathtub of author Tom Robbins, Wallen was concerned only with capturing the truth in each moment. He offered no easy insight into the meaning of his work, preferring instead to relinquish the task of interpretation to the individual:
If the viewer must search for a statement to these images, it is a burden they alone must carry. I can contribute no clues, other than the photographs themselves.
Notes: Tenino, Washington, July 4, 1982
The University of Washington is proud to include the work of this gifted and deeply passionate Northwest artist in its online Modern Photographers Collection.