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Episode 3: Ruth Kirk
Beyond Scope and Content: Hidden Histories from the Film Archive
HP: Hannah Palin
RK: Ruth Kirk
PH: Paul Herlinger
LK: Louis Kirk
W1: unidentified woman
W2: unidentified woman
M1: unidentified man
W3: unidentified woman
W4: unidentified woman
RD: Richard Daugherty
EC: Ed Claplanhoo
MF: Mary Flynn
M2: unidentified man
M3: unidentified man
W5: unidentified woman
M4: unidentified man
W6: unidentified woman
[Begin transcript 00:00:02]
HP: Scope and Content for Ruth and Louis Kirk Moving Image Collection, 1967 to 1991: the collection contains production elements and final prints for approximately 110 projects produced by the Kirks from 1967 to 1991. The collection is made up of approximately 1700 reels of film, film strips and audio materials. Much of the collection documents the Kirks’ careers as producers for television shows such as Klahanie on the CBC in Vancouver, BC and Kirks’ Camera on KPEC in Tacoma, WA.
HP: Welcome to Beyond Scope and Content: Hidden Histories from the Film Archives. My name is Hannah Palin and I’m the Moving Image Curator at the University of Washington Libraries. I’m about to take you on a deep dive into a few of our collections featuring women filmmakers. Now you probably haven’t heard of these artists. They’ve been overlooked or they’ve faded from our collective memory. But the thing is their work is sophisticated and passionate and just really surprising. So after you finish listening to this podcast, you’re going to need to go watch their films. Trust me. Let’s get started.
HP: Years ago, when I first came to Special Collections as a volunteer, I was taken on a tour of the stacks to see the moving image collection and all of its unprocessed glory. Aside from a few home movies and reels of film made by, for, and about the University of Washington, there were seemingly endless shelves filled with the work of Ruth Kirk and her husband Louis. It was overwhelming. It still is.
HP: Ruth Kirk was born in 1925 and grew up in Los Angeles, CA. She met Louis when she was a student at Occidental College, and he was serving in the Coast Guard. They married in 1943 and Louis became a naturalist with the National Park Service. Ruth talked to me about the experience in an informal oral history we recorded a number of years ago.
RK: Sometimes you can be pressured to transfer, and sometimes it can be at your initiative to put in for. You hear there’s a vacancy and such and such, and so either, it used to be a lot of back door grapevine activity. I don’t think there is now. The service is big now. You wouldn’t puport to know everybody in the western half of the parks.
RK: But at our time, you pretty well new people. So there was a wonderful family feeling with the parks. And if you drove up to an area that you were really sightseeing, but you said, “Why
I’m from such and such.” “Oh, come on in, come for dinner, we’ll take care of the kids while you walk up the trail” and so on that way.
HP: The Kirks were stationed in South Dakota, North Dakota, California and Washington. They raised two boys. Louis worked on interpretive exhibits and Ruth took up photography. At one point when they lived in Death Valley, she met Ansel Adams, the nature photographer because of a chance encounter.
RK: Well, he was a delightful man, an absolute genius, and-and he had a very comfortable with his abilities so that he was just a great joy. So let’s see, he was driving down south toward Badwater in Death Valley. And my husband in his patrol truck, noticed the venerable old Cadillac with keys dangling from the trunk.
RK: So he pulled him over and said, “Sorry, but you’re going to lose your keys.” And then he noticed there was photographic equipment on the back seat, so he said, “I see you’re interested in photos, so I might suggest that you go here. You know the light’s kind of nice at this time of day and go there” and so on.
RK: Ansel said, “Well, I’m Ansel Adams.” And then Louis said, “Oh, I’m Louis Kirk.” Then Ansel did say that what he really needed was a darkroom because he had a camera that was jammed. So Louis said, “Well, you know, you might be my guest” because we lived in a dingbat house that have been put up in the CCC days as a temporary house and so here it was 20 years later. There was a bathroom that had recently been added on. So that was the darkroom to which he invited Ansel Adams, who came in graciously, unjammed his camera.
RK: And then we thought it would be a great idea for him and Nancy Newhall to come for dinner and after dinner we showed him slides. And I always remember Louis saying, you know, “Behold, here’s a great view of the Panamint Mountain range from xyz at the south, xyz at the north.” And Ansel so graciously, I don’t remember the precise wording, but in effect he said, “Well, so it is. And sometimes instead of getting in so much, it’s wise to get in less and do a better job.” And I’ve always thought of that. You know, it’s-it’s a real philosophy of life.
HP: Ruth took up photography when they lived in Death Valley.
RK: My husband was already a very adept photographer. But I was taking basket lessons from the Indian ladies in Death Valley and they tolerating me and used to me and comfortable with me, but I couldn’t think of my husband going down to take their pictures, So I thought, “Well maybe I could do it.”
RK: So I grabbed the Leica. He showed me which button to push. And I pushed the buttons and the film came out, the negatives, and could make prints, and they were genuine photographs and “Wow. I can do that.” So I did it from then on.
HP: Ruth also began to write and write and write. Eventually, she authored over three dozen works, including authoritative guidebooks about various National Parks. Exploring Death Valley, her first book, was published in 1956 and was illustrated with photographs by Ansel Adams. Her last, Ozette: Excavating a Makah Whaling Village was written in 2015, just a few years before her death.
HP: When they decided they’d had enough of the Park Ranger life, Louis got a job with a brand new public television station, KPEC in Lakewood, WA.
HP: Had he started filming?
RK: He had done a little bit for Olympic National Park, but very little. He was a Naturalist which means the Interpretive Division of the National Park Service, which means you dream up displays. And though I was never officially a Park Service member, I wrote an awful lot of the interpretive material for Olympic National Park that was used for a long time.
HP: As a side note and point of personal trivia for a short time my sister-in-law’s ex-husband was the star of a children’s television show at KPEC. I’d heard a little about this through family lore, but fully understood what they were talking about when I found a photograph of him on set in Ruth’s collection. It was both thrilling and really odd to see Marty as a young man in a white coat addressing the camera, teaching the kids of Tacoma all about the wonders of science like a very early version of Bill Nye the Science Guy.
HP: Like many artists, the Kirks needed to create a revenue stream so they produced filmstrips. My guess is that most people don’t know what these are. So, according to Wikipedia, the filmstrip is a form of still image instructional multimedia once commonly used by educators in primary and secondary schools overtaken at the end of the 1980s by newer and increasingly lower cost full motion video cassettes and later on by DVDs. From the 1940s to 1980s, film strips provided an easy and inexpensive alternative to 16 millimeter educational films, requiring very little storage space and being very quick to rewind for the next use.
HP: Filmstrips were large and durable and rarely needed splicing. A lot of the Kirks’ filmstrips were often precursors to their film work like research on Washington’s Blue Glacier or the gold rush, Alaska, the Klondike 1897 to ‘98. Some were unique and obviously commissioned, like “What is color tone?” and “What is form?”
HP: And to be honest I’ve never watched “How to tell your car about motorcycles”, but it certainly sounds intriguing. Filmstrips would be accompanied by narration on a vinyl record or audio cassette and there are a number of these in the collection. I remember as a kid watching filmstrips in school and there was a distinctive “beep” that would tell the teacher when to advance to the next slide.
HP: Louis spent several years at the station, but then decided to strike out on his own as an independent. He brought Ruth along to help write scripts, photograph the productions, and be the administrator for their new venture into film production. Ruth told me later that Louis would film what interested him and she would have to craft a script to tell a story with the material he shot. It makes for some really tortured metaphors in florid language at times.
PH: The river seems eternal. Its flow utterly endless. Its union with the sea timeless.
RK: This fish was a halibut that had been frozen and thawed. Its slightly mushy flesh, surrendering to the sharp edge of a quartz flake bound in Cedar speaks clearly of time and life along this Northwest coast of ours. It tells of heritage, of memory and traditions still alive and of new scientific understanding.
PH: Nowhere can birds and animals be divorced from plants? Life is a single hole in nature’s scheme and interrelationships link one form to another. Woodpeckers depend on the tree cactuses of the desert, saguaro, cardon and hairbrush for their round, bristly fruits.
HP: Granted, it would be a difficult writing exercise to wax poetic about shots of salmon or fishing or saguaro cactus to try to make sense of disparate visual ideas. To Ruth’s credit, she did a great job. In 1976, Ruth and Louis began to produce a television show for KPEC called Kirks’ Camera.
LK: OK, we’ll splice it in then right about here.
RK: OK, good.
PH: Ruth and Louis Kirk, a production team who traveled the Northwest and the world recording with camera and pen. The beauties of the land and the ways of its people.
HP: It followed their journeys throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond. They went to the Arctic, Japan, Mexico, Canada, creating programs about totem poles, pearl divers, and trips down the San Cristobal River or through Yellowstone Park. The Kirks were always outside doing something, hiking, camping, canoeing, going to archaeological digs, or meeting people from indigenous communities throughout the US and Canada.
HP: When they took a trip to the southwest, they not only explored the desert, but also the lives of the people who lived there. Kirks’ Camera is exceedingly personal, and Ruth’s narration is often like listening to a diary.
RK: South of Puertecitos begins the kind of country Louis and I most love, the kind I’ve savored since childhood days in Los Angeles when my father used to take us kids camping in the desert. I think it’s famed desert writer Joseph Krutch who said, “Bad roads are best.” It’s a motto I like.
HP: The most particular example of this is the show Baja California, Mexico, Ruth and Louis, along with their friends Merle and Darcy Carey and Yoshi Nishihara who also lived with them travel via camper down the Gulf Coast of Baja California.
RK: My Spanish is poor, limited vocabulary and bad grammar, but the north Mexican people are easy to talk with. They’re accepting and want to understand. So if I put my mind and my dictionary to it, I usually can get the information we need. This time it’s road directions. We had to meet my parents who are driving down from Los Angeles in their truck, true desert rats in their early 80s.
RK: This gulf side of the Baja Peninsula has long been just about their favorite adventuring ground. My parents aren’t here. My father has died, heart attack 10 hours before we’ve reached the [inaudible]. As we arrive here, we meet my mother and the friends who have traveled with them in a separate Jeep. Mom tells us. They go on.
RK: We drive Pop’s truck home as well as ours. He was 81. His body already has been flown out from Gonzaga Bay. I give his clothes to old Pedro and the man who labors with him on this stretch of road. Pedro takes 2 red black garnets from a niche in the wall of his shack and gives them to me.
RK: “[inaudible]”, he says. “For memories.” We too head north. And I am sad and cry at night, lying off by myself from the desert floor, away from the others, sad and also aware of beauty. How wonderful in your 80s to drive far, far beyond pavement into the desert you most love and there die.
HP: I marvel at the personal nature of this one show that she brought the viewer into her grief, matter of fact, though it was. In my opinion, this seems to be something particular to women filmmakers, sharing their pain as part of who they are. While producing Kirk’s camera, they also started contributing footage to a Canadian show called Klahanie the Great Outdoors. It ran on the CBC for decades.
RK: It was a program on CBC Canadian Broadcasting originating in Vancouver CBC but going across the continent because I know people in Ontario that would say, “Oh, I met you on Klahanie a long time ago. And it was a look at man in the land I guess but in kind of an upbeat way rather than or what a dreadful species is Homo sapiens. And it lasted for 13 years.
RK: They were all documentaries and they were people who had experiences or had gone someplace on purpose and filmed it. Then would come to the station in Vancouver and do the narration. Those films wouldn’t have a soundtrack on them at the time. You would just take up your spliced baby and hope it didn’t burst in the middle of that record.
RK: It certainly is a bit difficult because they had a host for the program to give it that personal touch and the continuity from one person to another, and so the host has to enter into the conversation. Andy Snyder, the producer, wanted it to be a very informal kind of a situation, and he said if he wanted a narrator, he’d hire a narrator.
RK: But he wanted this to be a give and take an informal and that sounds great, but it’s awful if you know what’s coming in the film and you know that right here you better set it up for the-the scene that’s coming and that’s maybe a little hard to grasp. And if right at that point, the narrator asks you some general question you want to say, “Yeah, but.”
HP: As a result of the Kirks’ work on Klahanie, other producers’ footage is tied up in their collection.
HP: Their community of filmmakers would lend footage back and forth without the same feeling of copyright possessiveness that we have today. So if you needed footage of a particular mountain, you could ask Ches and he might give it to you and in turn. If he was looking for a totem pole, you could give him yours.
HP: From an archivist’s point of view, it’s really tricky to figure out who’s who and what’s what, but I think we’ve got a grasp on it. Kirks’ Camera traveled to places that intrigued the couple. They worked in Alaska on four different shows and used the gold rush as a topic for an educational filmstrip.
HP: Canada was another favorite destination. And the places and peoples they visited were fascinating. They went to Mexico in Nootka, BC, and San Blas, Mexico, which seems an unlikely combination. San Blas, Mexico and Nootka, British Columbia were the political capitals for the Spanish and British on the west coast of North America in the late 1700s. Who knew?
HP: In the midst of all of this footage that is just dripping with Northwestness, they go to Scotland in Scotland’s Countryside Commission to look at the successful efforts of the Scottish Countryside Commission in land management and ecological preservation. They made two shows in Japan.
HP: Japanese Land Ethic describes the feeling the Japanese have toward their land and in Japanese National Parks, the Kirks visit all the major parts of Japan and their scenic attractions.
There’s even footage of a tropical island in their collection. The can is labeled Tanu and some
snippets appear in Kirks’ Cameras’ opening, but I’ve never found a show that correlates to it.
HP: The Kirks’ films were often distributed by the University of Washington Press for the educational market. Marmots of the Pacific Northwest and Indian Canoes along the Washington Coast are mainstays of their catalog. The Kirks became deeply interested in archaeology and historic preservation, connecting with Professor Richard Daugherty from Washington State
University and following his progress on a number of projects.
HP: Ruth is fascinated with archaeology and the preservation of the past. This is from her book on Ozette: “Archaeology is not a search for things that would result only in accumulating objects. The actual goal is to study relationships between objects and the people who made and used them. Archaeology is piercing together. What human life was like through the long years before there were written records. It entails knowing the plants, animals, geology, and soils of the past.
HP: And Washington State University had a range of such specialists within the Department of Anthropology. Daugherty saw archaeology as interrelated with various academic specialties. At the time, that was a largely untested concept, but Daugherty believed in it enough to initiate a multidisciplinary studies program.”
HP: The Kirks also explored historic preservation in two films, In Partnership with Time and Of Time and Place, looking not only at buildings, a garage in the shape of a jukebox or a bar that looks like a teapot or train trestles and steam engines, but also of practices fading away, including a tiny car ferry and a particular way to dry prunes, of all things.
HP: The Kirks’ most important and sustaining work, however, is The Tribe and the Professor, a 10 year exploration of an archaeological dig that took place in Neah Bay on the Washington coast. At first, the films are focused on the Washington State University student archaeologists who come to Neah Bay every summer to help with the dig.
HP: As the years go by, however, the focus shifts to the involvement of the Makah and the artifacts found at the site. This is the beginning of The Tribe and the Professor, the 1975 version.
PH: Travel northward beyond the land of the Quinaults and the Quileutes to the realm of the Makahs.
W1: Martha had plenty of food there and the spider crabs to them used to eat that spider crabs, and there’s plenty of it there [inaudible].
W2: There was a lot of clams there, a lot of crabs and deer, all the things you want to eat.
M1: And we walked down a trail to Ozette. Those times, well, I hunted quite a lot in that area too, and woods and out the ocean, both places.
W3: They never thought that they would see Ozette again, the place where they played as
children, where they fished with grandparents and parents.
W4: My mother always spoke quite a bit about Ozette. She longed to go back.
W3: Because that’s where his heart was, that’s where his ancestors lived.
PH: This land of the Makahs is the setting for a very special story, the story of The Tribe and the Professor.
HP: The Kirks repurposed their footage of Neah Bay over and over again in various iterations for Klahanie, Kirks’ Camera, the UW press, and finally for PBS. In her final book, Ozette: Excavating a Makah Whaling Village, Ruth writes about the dig in 1966. “The archaeology camp was set up just back from the beach, where a splashing creek furnished water for drinking and for icy showers. On days when it was not raining, the crew ate out on the beach, sitting on drift logs on drizzly days. They gathered in a large floorless tent designated as mess hall and classroom. A Coast Guard helicopter had brought in the big tent and smaller sleeping tents, a cookstove, groceries, shovels, surveyors, transits and field notebooks and laboratory catalogs with blank pages to be filled with information day by day as the excavation progressed.
HP: “It was a one time delivery. From then on, supplies had to be backpacked 4 miles through the forest and along the beach or flown in by a small plane 24 miles from the logging town of Forks.”
PH: In February of 1970.
RD: Hi Ed, what’s new in Neah Bay?
HP: Daugherty received a phone call urging him back to Ozette.
00:22:52.590 –> 00:22:55.358
EC: Yes Dick, things are happening down at Ozette.
HP: The call came from Ed Claplanhoo, who by then chaired the tribal council.
EC: The ocean waves are coming in there and washing away the bank, and it’s exposing one of the houses that we talked about a couple of years ago that that someday you’d have to come back and do some excavation on.
HP: Storm waves driven high on to the beach were undercutting the seabank at Ozette and it had slumped. Deep layers were exposed and fishhooks of wood and bone, parts of inlaid boxes, and a canoe paddle had washed out and been carried off by hikers. Makah elder Lloyd Colfax once commented,
HP: “Being Indian forces a person to not have a history except as part of the people who have conquered you. You become part of their history.” The archaeology work at Ozette was partly countering the truth of this statement by providing physical evidence of the Makahs past. And tribal members were participating in the process.
HP: Makah students joined archaeology crews and senior citizens reminisced about objects like those coming from Ozette.
PH: For the Makahs helping with this recovery of their cultural past, the project has special meaning as Mary Flynn comments.
MF: I’ve excavated a couple baskets that have had like cedar bark bundles in them and one with a lot of halibut hooks in them. And just recently out of House 3 there’s been a bone whistle, a carved bone spoon with a bird on the end, and a seal effigy bowl with a steelhead and the flippers in the back.
M2: A harpoon point used for whaling is made of a very large musselshell and wrapped in cedar bark pouch here. The harpoon itself [inaudible] sharp to penetrate through the whale through the bone.
M3: A chance to see a lot of different things. Kind of inspired I think a lot of people in the community to do a little research and see where that would, where their heritage is at, yeah.
PH: Implements of the past have been replicated. Techniques relearned. Baskets exactly matching those found at Ozette those that have been made. The bark of the new baskets of fresh red brown, that of the old time dark and almost black.
HP: They also recognized objects that their grandparents had described or had kept stored in the attic, treasured, but no longer used. Such input from direct descendants of the people being studied archaeologically is exceedingly rare. The elders could explain artifacts such as beaver tooth dice that belonged to a gambling game played by women and the wooden paddles that look much like today’s ping pong paddles but were for hitting shuttlecocks of salmonberry stems and feathers into the air as the player counted the number of times of successes before missing.
HP: By the end of summer 1972, a remarkable 13,000 artifacts and pieces of artifacts had been flown from the excavation site to a laboratory and storage facility provided by the tribe in Neah Bay. And there, the seniors often gathered to see the latest discoveries.
PH: From the first, Dr. Daugherty and the Makahs have planned that the Ozette artifacts should stay in Neah Bay. They should be with the people whose ancestors made and used them. The plan calls for a tribal museum with a trained Makah staff. The young Makahs working on the project respectfully point out that the elders favor the undertaking. Therefore the whole community favors it.
W5: One thing too about the museum being here is that we’re going to keep the artifacts at home. Where it’s really unusual within the United States.
M4: That’s what’s great about Ozette is that the Makahs have control of it and they can say it’s their site and say it belongs to them and the artifacts can stay here.
W6: I think the community as a whole as far as the senior citizens go are really pleased and satisfied with the way that the whole situation is being handled. You know, because it’s such a touchy situation, it’s like you get into anthropologists and we’ve been raised with these prejudices about grave robbing and stealing our songs and the whole melting pot theory thing you know, and so we’re just grabbing on and not letting loose at all about you know our-our back history, that’s been, that’s so rich, you know, and so completely different from any other philosophy that we’re just afraid to let it leak out because it could be abused so easily. And people interpret it in their own kind of opinions too.
W6: The attitude towards the anthropologists and they realize that there are really good people involved in this, this kind of field and we’re benefiting from it, you know. Like no one else has had the opportunity to.
PH: So far, more than 45,000 artifacts have been excavated, cataloged, cleaned, and preserved. They all will be housed and displayed in the new million and a half dollar museum underway in Neah Bay.
HP: The Makah Cultural and Research Center, home of the Makah Museum, opened in 1979. The Cultural Center plays a huge role in her later years. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. In 1991, Louis died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. In the aftermath of that storm, Ruth took all of the film and audio that they’d ever shot, put every scrap into boxes, and gave it to the university along with her papers and photographs and that was that. Ruth’s filmmaking career was over and she was completely fine with that. Filmmaking was Louis’ thing, and she felt that she was just along for the ride.
HP: Ruth never lost her connection to Washington history, culture, and archaeology. She continued writing and maintained her friendship with Dick Daugherty, a friendship that blossomed into a romantic relationship and an eventual marriage at the Makah Cultural Center in 2007.
HP: I didn’t get to work on Ruth’s collection for years. I’d walk by all of it on the shelves and think “one day.” One day I’d rearrange it to make room for other films that we’d acquired or were starting to work on. And then finally, I decided to focus on it. I received a couple of grants in a row to work on the collection and get it organized.
HP: I interviewed Ruth and Dick as well and screened some of Ruth’s work for the public. This process revealed that there were over 1700 films in our collection, covering 75 titles created by Ruth and Louis over the years. There were 85 boxes of films, audio recordings, film elements and outtakes.
HP: And then this connects to boxes of photographs and manuscript materials and two other collections related to Ruth. I remember taking her downstairs to the stacks so that she could see the work we’ve done to organize her films. She couldn’t believe how much there was, and she sheepishly apologized for leaving it to us to sort through.
HP: She hadn’t really thought about the historic nature of the films she’d made with Louis. I assured her that the work was important. It captured the Northwest, its character, its people. And she also recorded the dig at Neah Bay and brought the lives and traditions of the Makah people to a broader audience.
HP: She highlighted archaeology in its intricacies and documented sites and practices for future generations interested in this area of science. She and Louis recorded the Marmes archaeological site, the only known visual recording. Ruth’s work is important. It’s just in a style
that’s seen as a bit dated today.
HP: If you look at the content and view the images for what they’re capturing, then you’ll see that her work deserves a second look and a lot more attention. Ruth was prolific. She loved working and kept at it until the year before her death in 2018. When her book about Ozette was published by the University of Washington Press, she went on a kind of mini book tour around the area, and I accompanied her on a couple of those events showing film of Ozette and Neah Bay and the dig as she talked about the dig itself.
HP: It turned out it was kind of a reunion for the people who worked at the site. They went to Neah Bay every summer for over a decade. People met there, got married, had kids, and they returned year after year to a kind of working summer camp on the Washington coast. Ruth’s relationship with them and with the Makah lasted for decades.
HP: I felt so honored and privileged to be a witness to this relationship and to this moment in time. In the last few years of her life, I would visit Ruth and we’d have coffee and talk. She made me lunch. I’d bring her flowers. It was so sweet. When she finished her Ozette book, she told me she didn’t have a lot to live for because she didn’t have another book contract driving her forward.
HP: She needed something to do, so I started bringing her boxes of her photographs to identify and put in order. Every few weeks I’d bring her new ones to trade out for the old. She got through almost all of them before her Parkinson’s became unmanageable. Ruth was determined, graceful, dedicated, smart and strong as hell.
HP: I treasure my friendship with her and admire her example as someone who was willing to do the work and get things done. I miss Ruth a lot. But I feel such a strong connection to her when I watch her films. Those projects are imbued with Ruth and her soul and her presence and they are so worth watching. I invite you to go take a look. Enjoy.
HP: Today’s episode was brought to you by a grant from the Friends of the University of Washington Libraries. Thanks to Ketsia for our theme music “Hope in Endings” and to Bluemount Score for our scope and content music “Captain Cover Clam.” A very special thanks to Sarah Meidl, without whom this episode simply would not exist. Thank you for listening and stay tuned for upcoming episodes of Beyond Scope and Content: Hidden Histories from the Film Archive. Thank you so much. Have fun out there.