But he also photographed Nicaraguan circuses, former Filipino cannery workers and the Rat City Rollergirls. His camera caught Seattle landmarks as they were torn down, erected or transformed.
“Mostly, I am looking at sites related to building construction and how the landscape changes,” he wrote a couple of years ago, “as buildings come and go like little mountains.”
Stamets died the weekend of June 7-8, at age 65, of an apparent heart attack. His siblings, friends and colleagues at the University of Washington, where he was a Department of Architecture photographer and lecturer, recall an extraordinary, multifaceted figure in Seattle arts and civic history.
Stamets was born on April 18, 1949, in Ithaca, New York, and grew up in Columbiana, Ohio. Following family tradition, he attended prep school at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. After graduating from Yale University in 1971, he moved to Seattle in the early 1970s to study neurophysiology at the UW.
But he had already acquired the photography bug at Yale, where he had a chance to study with legendary photographer Walker Evans.
“John was a force of nature,” his brother, Paul, said. “He inspired me on my path into the field of mycology, after his travels to Mexico and Colombia in pursuit of magic mushrooms.”
Back in Seattle, Stamets drove a cab for several years, taking pictures of his passengers. He also was a photographer for the Seattle Sun, an alternative weekly.
In 1988, he began shooting the construction of large building projects in downtown Seattle as the city underwent one of its periodic building booms.
“I realized it was going to be a very significant time in the city’s history,” he told The Seattle Times in 1992, “comparable to the Denny Regrade.” (The bus tunnel, downtown Seattle Art Museum and five skyscrapers were all under construction.)
Stamets’ interest was in the interim stages of construction. He called what he was doing “pre-archaeology.”
In 1992, he joined the UW faculty, where he ran the Architecture Photo Lab. He also became involved in a federal program documenting important historical buildings. His collaborator Susan Boyle, of Boyle Wagoner Architects, noted that more than 350 of his photographs are in the Library of Congress’s Historic American Buildings Survey and the Historic American Engineering Record Collection.
There was little that could stop him from getting the shot he wanted, Boyle said. He even rented the Monorail so he could see into the EMP Museum site during construction, having the driver stop at the best vantage points and open the doors.
Many of the images he caught on camera, Boyle said, were indelible: “He really understood the passages of a city.”
Stamets’ photographic archive is going to the UW, and Nicolette Bromberg, visual-materials curator for UW Libraries Special Collections, described it as “very important documentation of our regional history.”
His brother, Bill, noted: “Generally, he was not doing this for the architects, for anyone other than himself and for history. He was not commissioned to document the so-called ‘celebrity architecture.’ “
In later life, Stamets curbed his wanderlust and lived simply, sticking close to home. Any financial extravagances had entirely to do with photography — for instance, renting helicopters so he could take aerial shots of the ever-changing city.
A more recent obsession was the Rat City Rollergirls. “In March 2013 I fell down the rabbit hole into modern roller derby,” he said. “I saw it once, and I never left.”
Besides brothers, Paul and Bill, Stamets is survived by his mother, Patricia North Stamets, sister Lilly Stamets, and brother, North Stamets.
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