Pro Tips from a Past Master: Josef Scaylea

How To  /  Photography
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These days, taking pictures is as common as eating (never mind taking pictures of what we’re eating). But some of us remember a time when making an image was a more intentional exercise, and sharing it involved chemicals, fumes, and a certain amount of technical know-how. I’m not getting all misty-eyed about the film days, but I do wonder: what can we learn today from these craft masters of yesterday?

One such past master is award-winning photographer Josef Scaylea, who served as Chief Photographer to The Seattle Times for 35 years, as well as head photographer for Pacific Magazine.

From War to Washington State

Josef Scaylea, Chief Photographer for the Seattle Times for 35 years
Josef Scaylea
1913 – 2004

Josef Scaylea learned his trade the way many of the World War II generation did —  in the military. As an Air Corpsman, he’d photograph missions over Okinawa, the Philippines, and Japan. Postings to Washington State introduced Scalea to a region that enthralled him; he settled there after leaving the military, staying until his death in 2004 at the age of 91. Scaylea’s camera skills — particularly in black and white — landed him a job with the State’s leading daily newspaper, where he soon became Chief Photographer, winning awards from Look, Life, Graflex, and the National Press Photographers Association along the way. After retiring from the Seattle Times, Scaylea taught and mentored aspiring photographers through Seattle area camera stores. Throughout, his greatest satisfaction was the joy his photographs brought to his viewers.

“I strive for beauty in its myriad forms and for a faithful reproduction which will carry a special message to each person. I believe photography cannot be effective unless it is completely honest and without gimmicks.”
– Josef Scaylea

Tips from the Past Master

I recently sat down with a close friend and photography protege of Scaylea’s, Paul Eubanks. Paul and Scaylea shared a love of photography and their favorite subject, the Native Americans of Washington. Together they traveled all over the state, capturing natural wonders and the oldest living members of the native tribes. Scaylea loved that Paul had an ability to see into the heart of things, and always focused on what really mattered. With Scaylea’s health failing, he came to rely on Paul to help him stay active, becoming a dynamic duo following their mutual passion. During the last year of his life, Scaylea offered Paul his 250 photographs of Native Americans, entrusting to him his most cherished work. Paul shared with me some of the lessons Scaylea imparted to with him while in the field. Here are some of the gems:

1. Choose a really great subject.

This was Scaylea’s number one rule, something he’d emphasize to his students over technical knowledge. He refused to photograph common items or familiar settings. Working for a local newspaper gave Scaylea unique insight into what kinds of images mattered to the locals of what was still in many ways a frontier town — things like Mt. Rainier, Boeing aircraft, and athletes. But Scaylea’s favorite subjects were the true locals, the Northwest Native Americans. He spent years cultivating a mutually respectful relationship with members of some of Washington’s 29 federally recognized tribes, culminating in the portrait below, which he considered his Mona Lisa. The image serves as a lasting example of the principles Scaylea both lived and taught.

Josef Scaylea: Portrait of Mary Kiona of the Cowlitz and Yakama tribes
Portrait of Mary Kiona of the Cowlitz and Yakama tribes at age 107 photographed by Josef Scaylea in 1957. Mary was born in 1850. © 2004 Paul Eubanks

2. You have to go to the picture; it’s not coming to you.

Scaylea was known to make u-turns on the highway, climb over barbed wire, and walk knee-deep through mud to get to his pictures. Before capturing the portrait above, he’d gotten a tip that one of nation’s the oldest native elders had been invited to the Governor’s mansion to report on the Eastern Washington Indian Wars, which she’d witnessed as a child. Scaylea dropped everything and broke every traffic law in the book on his drive from Seattle to the State Capitol in Olympia so he could meet Kiona, and propose taking her picture.2. You have to go to the picture; it’s not coming to you.

3. Give your subjects dignity. Treat them with respect.

Scaylea built a deep and mutually respectful relationship with the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest by being courteous, always following through with his word, and making sure his photographs brought dignity to each subject.

When Scaylea skidded into Olympia to ask Mary Kiona if he could photograph her, her family asked how much he would pay her. The Seattle Times didn’t pay for portraits, so Scaylea instead offered to give her prints of the final portrait, and asked the family how many they wanted. They said five. After the shoot, Scaylea rushed back to Seattle, developed the negatives, and had assistants make 50 prints for each family member, to be delivered by courier the next day. The dignity of this image, and his drive to go beyond to reciprocate, created a lasting bond between Scaylea and local tribe members, and cemented his place as the preeminent photographer of Northwest Natives for the second half of the 20th century.

4. Be able to recognize a great picture with just your eyes. Look for patterns.

Scaylea encouraged students to work beyond their tools, look with the naked eye at what the environment has to offer, then find where to go to get a better shot.

For this photo, Scaylea chose an outdoor location near the Governor’s Mansion, where horizontal stripes of siding made for a dramatic effect; notice how the mathematical order of the planks contrast with the weathered roadmap of the centenarian’s face.

5. Give your work a mood.

Having a consistent mood helps people recognize your body of work, and implies a deeper story. Scaylea worked in both color and black and white. He said that color photography tells a story, but black and white is more dramatic. When taking really impactful pictures, like his many Native portraits, he often chose black and white, and would use his signature back- and side-lighting to create highlights and shadows.

Some examples of Scaylea’s back and side lighting for dramatic effect:

Yes, photography — like most everything else — has changed profoundly since the 20th century. It’s become a commodity, often posted and forgotten by the time we’re grabbing our next instapic. But photography still retains that elusive element — the historical, the documentarian — that can make it essential to our humanity, rescuing our history from being forgotten and lost. I hope these tips from a past master will help you capture more of what matters, and tell your own meaningful stories for generations to come.

About Paul Eubanks

Paul Eubanks
Photo by Ollie Richard at Shi Shi Beach in Neah Bay, Washington.

Paul Eubanks has dedicated his life to the preservation and promotion of Pacific Northwest Native American culture for over 25 years, collecting and producing work including photographs, artwork, and audio recordings. His life is a spiritual journey he walks alongside the first people with his dog, his camera, and his microphone. Paul lives in Bremerton, Washington and is currently raising funds to provide new lighting for the Makah Museum in Neah Bay through sales of his products.

Interested in seeing more?

Paul Eubanks has a growing catalog of photographs of, and artwork by Northwest Natives available as prints and cards. You can reach Paul at or by calling him at (360) 362-2603.