Crumbling beauties

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Artist’s talent reveals symmetry of land, sky and ruin

By Breck Longstreth
Special to the Reporter

If you closed your eyes and listened to Ruth Gross talk about her photography, you’d think she was 25. She can talk f/stops and lenses, light meters and enlargers. She talks of taking photographs in Eastern Washington, in the Southwest, in Europe. And of her latest challenge, photographing fall leaves on Mercer Island.

The thing is, Gross isn’t 25 years old; she’s 86. An exhibit of 30 of her photographs is showing at the Community Center at Mercer View through March 9. And as of last week, it was already two-thirds sold out.

The exhibit is a portfolio of photos taken over a period of 30 years during the spring and fall in Douglas County, Wash. While her husband, Lyndon, spent his days fishing, Gross and her dog “combed the countryside looking for old buildings to photograph.” Decrepit barns, schools, grange halls, houses and outhouses with their weathered wood stand in stark contrast to bright blue sky and golden grasses. In a couple of the pictures, a wild cat saunters by or peers out from a dark hole.

“Many of the buildings are gone now,” said Gross, who has been back to drive through the area as recently as a couple of years ago with one of her sons.

Raised in Wauwatosa, Wis., Gross was an art history major at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.. Both of her parents painted, and she inherited their artistic genes, she thinks. “I’m a frustrated artist; photography was much easier,” she said.

But it took a few years before she came to photography. As a young college graduate during the years of World War II, Gross didn’t let the grass grow under her feet. “I had never been out of Wisconsin and Illinois, and I made up my mind I wanted to travel,” she said. She went to Chicago, getting work as a proofreader for a law firm. Then she and a friend decided to go out west, and she ended up in Rifle, Colo. teaching English, art, and physical education. “I didn’t have a teaching degree, but they were so desperate they gave me a war emergency certificate,” said Gross.

Never landing anywhere for more than a year, Gross next went New Orleans and worked as a proofreader for the Times Picayune newspaper, and then to New York City, where she worked at Macy’s in the advertising department. “If you had a college degree in those days, you could be hired in lots of places,” said Gross. Next stop: San Francisco, where she met the man who would become her husband. “But I got a little restless, so I went back to Wisconsin and got a job in Green Bay as a social worker, working with foster children,” said Gross. She and Lyndon Gross continued to write letters. “We were good friends, and we decided to meet halfway, in Colorado, and review our situation.” They married there, and lived in California for about 15 years (initially in an apartment above a mortuary!) before moving to Mercer Island in 1963.

It was on a rafting trip down the Salmon River with her husband and three sons and her sister and her “tribe” (a husband and eight children), that the photography bug first bit Gross. “My brother-in-law had a really good camera, and I was jealous. I came home and bought a good Pentax,” said Gross.

Largely self-taught, Gross started printing her own pictures, setting up a dark room in a closet of her house. Over the years, she has exhibited in galleries, at the Seattle Center, at the SeaFirst bank building. She has won several awards, and in 1980 and 1981 her photographs were included in the juried Northwest International Exhibition of Photography. She was a member of a camera club; members met to show each other their latest work.

In a basement room in her Mercer Island home, Gross has cabinets filled with stack upon stack of beautiful, matted photographs. Sorting through them, she can tell a tale about each. But it’s the ones from Eastern Washington that seem to hold a special place in her heart. She remembers being chased off by an irate farmer who objected to her photographing his old barn, and she remembers how her dogs (Thor, and later, Rufus) would get so tired as she prowled around clicking her camera that they’d go lie down in the shade made by her car. She remembers watching the sky grow dark and photographing birds covered with ash the day Mt. St. Helens blew.

“I’m not sure what I would have done with myself all these years, if I hadn’t had my photography,” said Gross.

And her passion is still giving her pleasure. Her most recent photos, of red maple leaves, have the look of Japanese prints. Asked if she’s planning another exhibit, Gross smiles and says, “Not for another year, at least. And only if I’m still around.”

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