Celebrating the Mundane: Stephen Cysewski’s Legacy in Tacoma

What did Tacoma look like in the 1970s? If you were here at that time, these photographs by Stephen Cysewski likely confirm your decades-old recollections. And if you weren’t here then, his collection is likely one of the best, most available resources around to allow you to peek into that decade.

Stephen passed away on July 20, 2020. A message on his Facebook page, posted by daughters Margaret and Elizabeth, announced the news and shared that his life ended “after a quick battle with pancreatic cancer.”

The Tacoma portion of Stephen’s life and body of work is strikingly small. He never called our city home, but during that visit in the ‘70s he took hundreds of photos—and then shared them freely.

I never had the opportunity to speak with Stephen, but Jack Cameron, who has written a few pieces for us, did a number of times.

“Stephen was always generous with his time, words, and most of all, his images,” Jack recalled to me today. “He loved to share photos with the world and in that way he managed to show us all what he saw while he was here.”

More thoughts from Jack, shared with his permission:

“Stephen’s photographs of Tacoma in the 1970s hit me in an especially deep place because my earliest memories are of Tacoma in the 1970s. The last time I saw the things depicted in those photographs I was a small child and perhaps because of that I have a deep fondness not only for the photos, but for the man who took them.

“Though we didn’t talk often, his almost daily shots of Creamer’s Field near his home in Alaska were something I regularly looked forward to seeing on his Facebook page. He had a habit of posting photos with the caption ‘Now.’ He sought to capture the present moment and succeeded on a level that has yet to be fully appreciated.

“His sudden death shocked and saddened me, but made his photos all the more important. We  had planned to meet up the next time he was in Tacoma. Instead, the next time I have a drink, I’ll try to look at Tacoma the way Stephen did and toast to his memory.”

Stephen participated in a Q&A with Jack in 2011, in which they touched on photography, generosity, and Tacoma.

How did you get started in photography?

“When I was born! Really, I have always been interested in photography. I remember trying to trade a chemistry set for a camera at a second hand store.”

What about Tacoma makes it a good city to photograph?

“My memories of Tacoma from when I grew up is one reason, the other reason is that you can still see history in Tacoma, it has not been gentrified. I just visited Vancouver BC and all the ‘cool’ stuff is gone, only memories.

“In Tacoma the personality is still here. Portland is similar, but in Tacoma it is not self conscious, it is real. The morning light is also beautiful and brings out the form and detail of the buildings.”

Many photographers are very possessive of their work. Why are you so generous?

“I want people to see my photographs, I also want to create a place for memories. The more I share the more people will see. The more people will see the more they might look at my other photographs. I want to be known as a photographer and the only way for that to happen is for people to see my photographs. Why take photographs if you try to restrict people from seeing them. I am not a commercial photographer.

“My goal is that in twenty or thirty years my photographs will create or resurrect memories. Think of the shareware model of software as an analogy.”

How has digital photography changed your approach to taking photos?

“Not much, the concepts are the same, the images are the same. What has changed is that there are fewer gatekeepers from sharing your photography. In the old days there were books and galleries, now you can show your photography all over the world without gatekeepers, it is really amazing.”

Margaret and Elizabeth included a portion of an artist’s statement with the announcement of Stephen’s passing. This particular part caught my attention:

“I am interested in the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane. When we look at old photographs it is not the scenic that we are moved by, it is the small ordinary details that resurrect memories.”

Concluding the announcement, Stephen’s daughters wrote: “In lieu of an immediate memorial service, consider taking a walk around Creamer’s Field or your neighborhood, and take a photo of something you respond to, as my dad would always say.”

Thank you to Stephen Cysewski for not only taking such an interest in Tacoma, but being astoundingly generous with your work.

Thank you to Jack Cameron for also sharing your work with us, and sharing memories of your friend.

To view more of Stephen’s “Wandering in Tacoma: The Seventies” click here.

  1. Almost every photo brings immediate recognition of its exact location. This amazes me. After all this time, it’s still there in my head. I am deeply grateful to Stephen for this gift. :o)

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