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Wednesday, July 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:33 P.M.

Josef Scaylea's photos reflected his love of Northwest

By Jack Broom
Seattle Times staff reporter

The Blue Angels perform for Seafair. Photo taken by Josef Scaylea in 1978.
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Photographs by Josef Scaylea
It may be a bit much to suggest that Mount Rainier and photographer Josef Scaylea are both Northwest icons, but it's safe to say they were good friends.

Mr. Scaylea, who spent a half-century photographing the scenery and faces that make the Northwest a rich, diverse place, died last night of natural causes. He was 91.

His work behind the camera included 35 years at The Seattle Times, most as chief photographer, seven books and more than 1,000 photography awards.

"I was highly overrated," Mr. Scaylea said in an interview, the twinkle in his eye indicating he was at least half-kidding. "I was very fortunate."

So, too, were readers of The Seattle Times, where Mr. Scaylea's work, beginning in 1947, helped to bring magazine-style photography into weekend sections, onto the front page and, for years, onto a designated picture page.

"Most any photograph can look good if you blow it up to eight columns," Mr. Scaylea joked.

Josef Scaylea
His books included his 1981 "Moods of the Mountain," showing Mount Rainier from many vantage points, and in all kinds of weather and lighting.

Those who knew Mr. Scaylea best credit his success to dedication and hard work, not luck. Luck couldn't account for being named West Coast Photographer of the Year 10 times, and being named one of the 10 top Press Photographers of the Nation — also 10 times.

"He was always driving around the state, checking out this location or that viewpoint, " said Times photographer Greg Gilbert, who met Mr. Scaylea in 1966 while shooting a University of Washington football game. "His pictures were all self-assigned, so it was up to him to think up ideas. His photo of the Blue Angels flying over the Seafair race course with Mount Rainer in the background is legendary."

Mr. Scaylea got that picture in 1978. While driving along Interstate 90, he saw the jets in formation, and he zoomed to a favorite viewpoint, a spot above Leschi with an unobstructed view of the mountain.

"He pioneered pictorial photography and portrait photography for us," said James B. "Jim" King, retired Times executive editor. "He would go on a pictorial shoot and he would be given two or three days. People would say, 'Where's Joe?' But he would always bring back something great."

Raised in rural Connecticut farmland by Italian-born parents, Mr. Scaylea developed an interest in photography as he wandered the hills and fields, captivated by the interplay between weather and terrain. Dense, textured clouds were among his favorite features.

After attending a photography school in New York, he found that with the large number of photo-oriented magazines and trade publications in those days, markets were plentiful for photographers.

"Every big company had its own magazine," he said. "I did some work for Ford Times. You take a scenic photograph, and if you threw a new Ford in with it, that would help."

Drafted into the military two days after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, Mr. Scaylea shot aerial battles in the Pacific for the Army Air Forces, footage that continues to show up in television documentaries.

One Seattle Times photo that helped put Mr. Scaylea on the map was an overhead view of the UW crew team, shot from the Montlake Bridge. Look magazine named it the 1954 "Sports Photograph of the Year."

Other magazines that published his work include Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Life and The Saturday Evening Post.

Mr. Scaylea had suffered from heart disease, and told friends that he had enjoyed his life and was ready to let go. And he demanded of a reporter: "Don't make me look like a saint."

Interpreting that remark, Mr. Scaylea's friend, nurse, driver and business partner Jill Bennett said, "One could say that Josef's 'sainthood' was focused on shooting a technically precise and keenly interesting picture. He loved his subjects; he loved the Northwest. He was an eccentric — full of charm and an impatience for the ordinary."

In recent years, Bennett drove Mr. Scaylea to some of his favorite spots so he could continue to photograph them even as his health declined. Before her death Wednesday, Bennett said: "We'd take trips to the Skagit every spring. Grayland in the summer. Leavenworth in the fall. He'd always say on the way: 'This year's going to be my last trip here.' He said that every year, every trip."

Bennett said Mr. Scaylea was born with the last name "Scaglia," but changed it professionally for a better look and sound.

He is survived by four daughters, Jodene Hawkins of Maui, Annette Scaglia of Seattle, Michele Scaglia of Burien and Jill Chrisman of Boise, along with five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and his friend and former wife, Virginia Christopher, of Seattle.

Although he photographed many scenes and circumstances, Mr. Scaylea said he never enjoyed photographing celebrities and avoided it as much as possible. "I wanted to show real people: a farmer in the Palouse, a horse breaker in the Yakima Valley, a Scandinavian fisherman."

And he loved to pass along this bit of wisdom to people both in and out of photography: "There are no great photographers," he'd say, "There are only great subjects."

At Mr. Scaylea's request, no funeral or memorial service will be held.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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