SIFF 2013 Preview: Her Aim Is True

Chris Estey

Her Aim Is True(Directed by Karen Whitehead, USA, 2013, 70 minutes)

Festival screenings:Sunday, May 26, at 4:00 PM at Harvard ExitMonday, May 27, at 2:00 PM at Harvard Exit

She’s 93, living in Seattle, and at the end of the biographical documentary, Her Aim Is True, photographer Jini Dellaccio is still creating images of musicians with her shots that sweep and gloam with love. In this case, it’s the Moondoggies at the Crocodile; when she meets Kevin from the band there, she tells him “You’re a cutie!” You can tell as she hugs him she’s crafting setting and lighting in her mind to go with his bushy, smitten looks. It’s this ability to see in love the artists she works with, to share love of their art with them, that makes her so great at promoting their work through her own art. These rockers, identified by her iconography from the earliest era of Pacific NW rock, were lucky, even if they were all excellent source material to start with.

A player from the days when she first started shooting her says, “She saw that energy in rock and roll and participated in it when everyone else was afraid of it.” Sub Pop’s Larry Reid says she brought a maturity to rock photography in a time even before it was a genre. (He had bought the iconic Sonics debut LP for two dollars, and became transfixed by her imagery as much as by songs called "Psycho" and "Strychnine.") She herself says, “If it’s off a little bit then you fix it. And if you don’t fix it it’s going to be rock and roll.”

She was born in Indiana in 1917 in a world without much for her to eat, but a mother who wished her to thrive in music and art, and she played saxophone by the time she was 12. Eventually touring regularly with an all girl big band, she met a fellow musician named Carl, and fell in love. They were married, and he asked her to give up the gigging life when he was worried about her coming home so late at night after shows. A friend of his took her to buy a 99 cent camera, but she was dazzled by a $70 higher model brand, and spent all the money she had on it. When she had quit music, she had been drawn into a passion for visual art by standing between two stone lions in front of a museum. She wanted to capture the heavy presences of well-crafted creation as she saw them; even though that camera was so complicated she didn’t know how to load the film at first. But she learned. She shot exotic prints while they lived in Long Beach, having critically acclaimed shows, but eventually moved to the Northwest, where a friend at Etiquette Records asked if she could shoot an album cover or two. “Of course I can,” she said, though she didn’t really know how to. (But she learned.)

The Wailers was the first band to come up in the brand new rock scene of the Seattle area, and she took them out into nature to capture them. She took photos of The Sonics standing on trees; it took her a while to dig the savagery of the music, being a classical fan, but she soon found our garage rock beautiful too. “Because of the people who made it,” she says. Her work didn’t look like anything else going on in promo shots or magazines, very different from the British Invasion bands, with the artists looking strangely happy in the dark gloom of Ecotopia.

It all started at the Tacoma Armory, where teen dances were a roiling, righteous new thing to do, but as The Wailers’ Buck Ormsby put it, “it was the devil’s music and had to be played outside city limits.” Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts, Little Blue and The Bluenotes, Tiny Tony and the Statics, all were part of the scene, too. She shot them all. Rock photography demigod Lance Mercer’s dad had a copy of that same Sonics LP from this period, which deeply inspired him as much as anything by The Clash or the Sex Pistols growing up. “She seemed to be collaborating with the band” to get the photographs they needed to tell people who they were, what they were about. Another contemporary adds, “She was a musician, so she knew they would do wild things at certain points in the show, and she was ready for that.” When The Who came through town on their first American tour, she photographed them as well, giving them the same grand visage she was capturing with our local groups.

Dellaccio had never heard such music before, she says, “I could hear it in my chest.” She wanted to reflect that power, that glory. “She was a sophisticated middle-aged woman defining an unsophisticated musical milieu, from industrial neighborhoods like Bellingham and Tacoma,” Reid explains. “An elegant woman shooting raucous rock and rollers.” As probably the first woman to ever professionally professionally rock musicians, she became a hero to women like Girl Trouble’s drummer Bon Von Wheelie, who says, “She wasn’t just a woman photographer, she was just a great photographer.”

Later on, drugs would break her heart through the addictions and overdoses of people in the music scene that she loved, but she never lost her vision, which landed beautifully when she worked with Neil Young later in the 60s. She is still alive and giving much to the community, through her participation in showings like Taking Aim (which also featured Seattle’s Alice Wheeler), and speaking about the aesthetics of her craft openly and generously. As friends say about her, she defined the iconography that is a great part of rock and roll, through a certain kind of innocence, and all from an understanding of the art of music.

Please see this documentary if you are craving to see how one person capturing a few rock bands in photos can give them a scene, and raise them to international acclaim, and herself into a world very receptive to her creative and thriving works of love.

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