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Ken DeJarlais

Ken DeJarlais

KEN DEJARLAISHow does a hippie become a photography executive at Boeing – the world’s second-largest defense contractor?

To hear Ken DeJarlais tell it, you just need your a Gary Jentoft.

“Gary Jentoft was a top-notch executive-portrait guy who taught me at Seattle Central Community College,” DeJarlais says. “I apprenticed with him after I graduated. His studio was in the Benjamin Franklin Hotel” – a Seattle landmark built in 1929 – “and when it was being torn down [in the late ’70s] and Gary had to move his studio, he decided to specialize in high-school photography. He asked me if I wanted to do that. I didn’t, so he asked if I wanted to look for photography work at Boeing” — the big employer in the area . “I said, ‘Gee, I dunno…’ – and he locked me in a room for 18 hours and wouldn’t let me out till I had a portfolio presentation together. I ended up calling Boeing just as their head photographer was retiring after 40 years.”

Getting the nod to replace that photographer is a story in itself, but to understand it, you need to understand the confluence of photography talent, entrepreneurial pluck, and serendipitous circumstances that had led him there. You need to understand Ken DeJarlais.

He grew up in Seattle, the son of “a really serious amateur photographer” who shot the 1962 World’s Fair Space Needle as it was being constructed. DeJarlais himself encountered “the magic of photography,” as he puts it fondly now, in grade school, after one of his teachers and her husband returned from a trip to Africa, where they’d shot a 16mm documentary for the local educational-TV station. “She brought the film into class and then showed us some slides she’d taken there,” he remembers. “I was mesmerized.”

And then he became a photographer? Not yet. First came a year-and-a-half at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma,six years in the National Guard, starting a coffeehouse with his wife, and co-founding the Seattle Fremont Festival. Now he was ready to become a photographer.

“I was going through some of my father’s things,” DeJarlais says, “and I found a notebook saying, ‘Just in case you’re ever interested, Ken,’ and inside were instructions on everything he wanted to pass along to me. There were details on how to shoot pictures of fireworks, how to shoot downtown at night. I inherited his Richoh rangefinder camera and a Mamiya, and got going.”

Inspired by the work of such photographers as Imogine Cunnigham, Diane Arbus and Richard Avadon, DeJarlais applied to study photography at Seattle Central Community College. The school’s well-regarded program had a two-year waiting list. “I could hardly wait,” he remembers, “so I went to North Seattle Community College and took an adult extension class that taught darkroom technique and photography. I was about 25. I turned our apartment’s bathroom into a darkroom.”

Aiming to become a photojournalist, DeJarlais shot documentary-style pictures ceaselessly. He and his wife3 Trudy took their VW bus on a road trip where he shot landscapes and nature, and upon his return, he was ready to approach Boeing.

The world’s largest aircraft manufacturer by revenue, Boeing had about a dozen photographers on staff. But only two of them – legends-of-the-field Verne Manion and Byron “By” Wingette – had the glamour work of shooting the commercial jets. ” They did all the air-to-air photography, all the sales trips, the annual report, all the brochures for the airplane customers,” DeJarlais says. “It was world travel, meeting the movers and shakers of the world.”

The selection process had already been narrowed to the finalists when DeJarlais applied. “By Wingette told me they’d been interviewing photographers from around the world, and they were looking at the last five candidates. And I said, ‘No, you haven’t.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘You haven’t seen me yet.’ I went to the library and looked up all the Boeing executives’ biographies, so I’d know who I was talking to, and show them how interested I was.”

It took DeJarlais two months worth of interviews. “I sweated off about 12 pounds from sheer nerves,” he says with a rueful chuckle. He landed the job – first as Manion’s assistant, and then, a year later when Manion retired, became Wingette’s wing man. When Wingette himself retired five years later, DeJarlais ascended to the coveted top spot. Through the many following years he grew with the job, expanding first into videos and film for news releases, and then later into the Web and other new media as Visual Communications Manager for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. He retired in 2005 after nearly 30 years.

Since then he’s done guest lectures and worked with Seattle Central Community College helping to design curricula. He lives on Tiger Mountain, in picturesque Issaquah, with his wife Trudy. “We have a 27-year-old son who lives in San Diego,” DeJarlais says.

He’s shot with both the Panasonic Lumix and the tiny TZ3, and found “they both have great viewing screens. The ergonomics of the Lumix is tremendous, and the controls are pretty intuitive. The live view with strong exposer controls reminded me of working with 4×5 cameras in the old days. It’s nice to look at a ‘ground glass’ again to compose the image.” He found the two cameras particularly good for beach shooting – always tricky with the combination of glare and reflective sand. “Each produced well-exposed, good color images,” he says. “The little point-and-shoot guy is exceptionally good quality. I have a problem with little cameras and steadiness, but not with the TZ3.”

What they offer, he says, is an easy way to do the most important thing he believes a photographer can do: “You want to communicate an emotional feeling and capture the moment. It’s hard to describe,” he says, “but it’s definitely a passion. People who have it really have it. You’re always trying to get better and faster.” Reliable point and shoot cameras add confidence and speed to the process.

Bio written by Frank Lovece

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Comments to “Ken DeJarlais”

  1. (Administrator)
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    “I was so lucky to spend the afternoon with Ken that I hope all students can have the same experience that I had… He’s a man of knowledge.”

    -Marcus Lima


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