Frances MacKinnon: of flowers and photograms

Frances MacKinnon, longtime Magnolia resident, has taken photographs for as long as she can remember. Her camera was her constant companion when she was a young working woman, but it wasn't until MacKinnon retired that photography became central to her life.

After 25 years with the American Heart Association in California, she ended her career in 1978 and moved back to Seattle, the city in which she had grown up. She and her husband Martin settled in the house they still live in, close to Magnolia Boulevard with its wonderful views and photographic opportunities.

Within a year of her return, Mac-Kinnon was taking photography classes - first at the Factory of Visual Arts, then at the Creative Arts League in Kirkland and Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle. As her skills increased, she began exhibiting her work in galleries and entering competitions in Washington and California. What had been a casual interest was becoming a passion and a challenge.

As a working woman in San Francisco, before the classes, before photography became so important to her, MacKinnon lived in the same area as did Imogen Cunningham, one of this country's pioneer woman photographers. She would see Imogen stalking the streets, camera in hand, searching for interesting shots.

It's worth noting that Cunningham, too, had a connection to Seattle: she attended the University of Washington, worked in the studio of Edward Curtis and had her own studio on Terry Avenue before she moved to San Francisco.

MacKinnon not only saw Imogen on the streets, but she once had an oppor-tunity to visit the well-known photog-rapher's San Francisco studio. "It was a remarkable experience," she recalled. "I was in awe of her, thinking that I could never do anything as good as she did. I particularly loved her flowers. They made a lasting impression on me."

Floral photography became Mac-Kinnon's special interest, and many of the prizes she has won over the years are for images of flowers. Some of these pictures were turned into note cards that were sold very successfully for a number of years through local gift shops in Magnolia and in Pioneer Square.

Although MacKinnon loves capturing exquisite floral pictures, she also likes to experiment with more abstract compositions. Currently she is interested in photograms, abstract images created in the dark room under an enlarger. She produces a photogram by first assembling a layout of aesthetically appealing materials on a sheet of glass. Under the glass she places photographic paper, then exposes it. Using various developing techniques, she achieves an artistic product that is quite different from traditional photography.

The technique is similar to that of Man Ray, who was among the first to experiment with camera-less photography. His famous Rayographs are in some of the finest modern collections in the world and are viewed as a major step forward in art photography. Ray's work is in black and white; MacKinnon's is in full color.

Photography has been an enormous source of satisfaction to Frances MacKinnon. She is delighted at the response people have to her pictures and is thrilled when she wins awards for them. Many prizes in Magnolia art shows have gone to her. Perhaps her most exhilarating experience came when she was awarded first and second place in a Magnolia competition judged by Patterson Sims. Sims was the Associate Director of Art and Exhibitions and Curator of Modern Art at the Seattle Art Museum between 1987 and 1996. His recognition of her work was profoundly meaningful.

"Photography is both frustrating and satisfying," she says. "There are the tormenting moments when you run out of film, when the perfect picture presents itself and you don't have the right lens on the camera. It's agonizing when the battery gives out and you haven't got another with you. In photography all the little things are so important. But when it all works, there's just no better sensation."

Freelance writer Nancy Worssam is a Magnolia resident. She can be reached at

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