Julia Scully was born in Seattle and moved with her mother and sister to Alaska before the outbreak of World War II. She attended Nome High School, graduated from Stanford, and came to New York to work in the magazine business. She was editor of Modern Photography for twenty years and was also the co-discoverer of the now-renowned body of photographic portraits by Mike Disfarmer. Julia lives in Manhattan.
A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood
University of Alaska Press, 2011
When Julia Scully was a child -- during the Depression -- her parents failed at one small business after another. They had sold their successful bakery in Nome, and her father squandered the proceeds on a con man's fraudulent scheme. Devastated, the family moved to Seattle, where Julia was born, and tried their hand at one small business after another. The Depression crushed their hopes, Julia's father committed suicide, and she and her sister found his body. In desperation -- and possibly in flight -- her mother left Julia and her sister in an orphanage and returned to Alaska, searching for an economic foothold in the forbidding but familiar Territory. Two years later, she bought a road house that served some small-time gold miners and brought her daughters back to live with her --in the featureless wilderness upcountry during the summer and in the equally marginal town of Nome in the endless, dark winter. Against the backdrop of these geographical extremes -- and despite abandonments, deprivations, and the troubling mysteries of adult sexuality -- Julia not only survived but stumbled across a childhood treasure or two: panning for gold in a crystal-clear stream, serving beer to the rough customers who played poker at the ramshackle road house, and exploring the concealed wonders of the surreal landscape. And kissing her first boyfriend-- one of the young soldiers ordered to Alaska to defend it against a possible invasion by the Japanese. The war brought Julia's mother the small financial bonanza she had always hoped for, and it brought Julia an understanding of the emotional and physical limitations of her life so far.
Outside Passage is the compelling story of a childhood at once haunted by emotional shock and shadows and alive with colorful people, events and images.
Disfarmer: Heber Springs Portraits, 1939-1946
From the Collections of Peter Miller and Julia Scully
Twin Palms Publishers, 1996
A fascinating collection of portraits of the townspeople of Heber Springs, Arkansas. Disfarmer was not well liked by the townfolk but they came to him to get their photos taken. He made no attempt to elicit a smile or adhere to any other other convention of commercial portraiture poses. So the photos tend to be of people as they were; not as they might have been "photographed."
Like countless other small town portrait photographers across America, Mike Disfarmer lived and died anonymously, in a tiny, remote village in the shadow of the Ozarks. After his death, the contents of his studio, including thousands of glass negatives, were sold off for five dollars. For years the fragile negatives sat forgotten and deteriorating in cardboard boxes in an open carport.
How did it happen, then, that the most implausible of events took place? That Disfarmer's haunting portraits were retrieved from oblivion, that today they sell for upwards of $12,000 each at posh New York art galleries; his photographs proclaimed works of art by prestigious critics and journals and exhibited around the world?
The story of Disfarmer's rise to fame is a colorful, improbable, and ultimately fascinating one that involves an unlikely assortment of individuals. Would any of this have happened if a young New York photographer hadn't been so in love with a pretty model that he was willing to give up his career for her; if a preacher's son from Arkansas hadn't spent 30 years in the Army Corps of Engineers mapping the U.S. from an airplane; if a magazine editor hadn't felt a strange and powerful connection to the work? The cast of characters includes these, plus a restless and wealthy young Chicago aristocrat and even a grandson of FDR.
It's a compelling story which reveals how these diverse people were part of a chain of events whose far-reaching consequences none of them could have foreseen, least of all the strange and reclusive genius of Heber Springs. Until now, the whole story has not been told.
SELECTED REVIEWS FOR
What a quirky gem of a story. By tracking the unlikely, decades-long journey of an eccentric photographer's left-behind portraits, Julia Scully achieves something magical: not only does she bring small-town photographer Mike Disfarmer to life, but she also gives life to the rural Arkansans--farmers and soldiers, sweethearts and newlyweds, babies and grandparents--whose honest faces inhabit those once abandoned negatives. When Disfarmer died in 1959, his negatives were sold for $5, then were left moldering in a carport until a newspaper photographer discovered them in the 1970s. As editor of Modern Photography magazine at the time, Scully played a key role in championing the intimate beauty of Disfarmer's work, which captured both the poverty and stoic resilience of his subjects, most of them residents of Heber Springs, Arkansas. (See for yourself at disfarmer.com.) Scully helped publish a book about Disfarmer in 1976, which prompted comparisons to Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon. The New York Times called Disfarmer's work "an outstanding discovery" and he has since become the subject of books, films, and exhibitions, his black and white mini-masterpieces selling for thousands of dollars and hanging in New York City's MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is a beautiful and a strangely hopeful story about the lasting power of a humble and reclusive photographer's rare gift. --Neal Thompson
From the London Daily Telegraph, September 25, 1999
(reviewer Paul Bailey): "This book has been widely praised in America, and rightly so. Its picture of a small, plain, determined woman who never lost her Yiddish accent is unforgettable."
From The Times (Trenton, NJ), September 6, 1998
"I read Outside Passage...in one enthralled sitting." Harry Sayen.
The New York Times Book Review, Verlyn Klinkenborg
It's hard to imagine that Julia Scully's plain but lovely new memoir, Outside Passage, wasn't affected by the memory of Disfarmer. The proposition their work shares is that the subdued rhetoric of directness has a grace equal to a more heightened rhetoric, and that its force is often greater.
From The Los Angeles Times
"Scully...re-creates vignettes of her early life with photographic precision; the cumulative effect is heart-aching and rich. Beautifully written, wisely understated...More than a story of an Alaskan childhood, Outside Passage is about something far more difficult to describe--memory and the delicate skein it weaves within us and across the separations of life."
From The Christian Science Monitor
"...a memorable picture of what it was like growing up on the northwestern frontier of...the Territory of Alaska...".
From the Tacoma News Tribune
"...an unusual and compelling book, well worth the read."
From The (Portland) Oregonian
"...an absorbing, moving story about [an] unusual childhood."
From Margaret Carlson in Time Magazine
"...a simple reminder of the immense power of a child's love, which can last through terrible neglect."
From The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
"...a moving and honest account of the coming of age in a desolate place."
From The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer
"Irresistible...Told in a spare, luminous voice...the sense of place is sharp and clear as the Alaskan air itself...It's a rare delight to find a book in which the setting and voice so perfectly mesh...".
From Publishers Weekly
Perceptive and sensitive...beautifully written and understated.
From The Olympian
"An unusual and compelling book."
From Library Journal (starred review)
"[The] memorable and mesmerizing tale of [Scully's] own coming of age. Life is strange and bleak, but the author manages to find beauty, enjoyment, humor, colorful characters, strength, and, ultimately, an outside passage. Her prose, much like the tundra, is rich in its spareness and woven with finely captured descriptions."
"In this stunning memoir, Julia Scully recounts her exotic childhood in Alaska...That she gained such a richness of experience from such a cutoff place is one of the delights of this miraculous book."
"The physical and emotional landscapes of this memoir stay in the mind. Julia Scully makes you feel that you've been to Alaska and heard the waves from the Bering Sea crash on its shore."
-- Jill Ker Conway
Disfarmer: Heber Springs Portraits, 1939-1946
From Library Journal
[This] book of Disfarmer's portrait-studio images is beautiful in its presentation—contact prints are reproduced on all-black pages. It is a new book that adds new images to those familiar from the now long-out-of-print Disfarmer (1976), though the essay from that book is included here. Like Clergeau, Disfarmer continued using glass-plate negatives long after film negatives had become popular. From a selection of 3000 negatives salvaged after Disfarmer's death in 1959, we meet the townsfolk of Heber Springs, Arkansas. Sitters apparently were not coaxed to smile or pose as they were artlessly captured. The portraits are among the most powerful and memorable to be found and suggest, again, the work of August Sander and even Diane Arbus. Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Disfarmer (1884-1959) was a commercial photographer in Heber Springs, Arkansas. He made portraits of his neighbors in the tiny town and the surrounding cotton-farming countryside that are striking in their informality and immediacy. Disfarmer used no scenery or props, he did not coax smiles or particular gestures from his poor, hardworking subjects, and he lit them with direct north light only. What survives of his work is from the World War II era. A great many of these pictures were made to be sent to husbands, fathers, and sons in the army or navy; pictures from late in the period often mark homecomings. The poignancy, easy to read in these images, is, then, probably often real, not an interpolation motivated by sentimentality over the bygone era they record. As collector Julia Scully observes in her afterword (reprinted from a smaller 1976 book of Disfarmer portraits), they are important documentarily, too, for most professional photographers of the time were recording the war effort, not ordinary Americans isolated from war and home fronts alike. This generous selection presents Disfarmer's portraits on flat black pages, as impressively as they deserve. Ray Olson
ForbesWoman — May 4, 2009
Rose's Roadhouse: There's no end to the lengths one mom will go for the sake of her children.
Forbes.com — April 14, 2009
Julia Scully's column, "Room to Spare," describes how, for one couple, the potential of shared space is boundless but not forever.
FatWhiteGuy Interview: Julia Scully — 3/28/11
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with author Julia Scully.
Corey: When I was eleven, the most adventurous thing I did ride my bike on the railroad tracks behind the local prison, occasionally heckling the inmates. When you were eleven you were serving shots of whiskey to gold miners in your mother's Alaskan roadhouse. Then later on you took the all-male world of photography by storm, and sat in on one of the longest running poker games in New York. You're kind of a bad ass huh?
Julia Scully: Although I've heard the term, I'm not sure I know what a "bad ass" is. But I doubt that I qualify. Yes, I served whiskey to gold miners in my mother's Alaskan roadhouse when I was eleven. And I still play poker in what's probably New York's longest running poker game and I climbed the ladder of photographic publishing when it was mostly a man's field. But I never saw myself as a rebel or a rule-breaker — not even as a feminist. I just kept my head down and tried for what I wanted and was always surprised when I got it.
C: Your memoir, Outside Passage, starts off with you and your 13 year old sister arriving in Nome, Alaska. Not exactly a modern metropolis, was it?
J: It's hard to convey to someone who's never been there, just how bleak, isolated, tiny and God forsaken Nome was. The town sits on perma-frost at the edge of the Bering Sea surrounded by barren tundra. There is not a single tree in Nome or for hundreds of miles around. The population was 1800 – today it is a whopping 3500. Ice-bound most of the year, it was — and still is — completely isolated with no roads connecting Nome to any other town or village. The problem is that people have seen pictures of Southeastern Alaska with its forests and mountains and they imagine that is what I'm talking about. That is not Nome. It is hard, too, to convey just how far away from that image Nome is — almost 3000 miles from Seattle.
On the other hand, Nome is only about 150 miles from Siberia, which explains a lot about the terrain. People often ask me "Wouldn't you like to go back?" I always say, "If I came from Siberia, would you ask me if I wanted to go back?"
C: At what point did you know you wanted to write?
J:When I was about 14, I read Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street" about a woman's dissatisfaction with small town life in Minnesota. The story helped me understand my own feelings about living in a small town. For the first time, I realized that someone could talk to me, reach out to me, through writing. While I didn't make the next step to understanding that I could express my own ideas and feelings that way, too, I felt I wanted to be part of the world of writing, of books.
C: There are many examples of genius or historical discoveries that were made by accident. You're career inphotography was shaped by such a discovery wasn't it?
J: You're referring to my part in the discovery of the wonderful portraits by Mike Disfarmer. That was an important event in my career and, in some ways, was a turning point. Through writing about his work and about the time, the place and the people he photographed, I discovered many parallels to my own life and experience. I found that when I wrote about his world, I was vicariously writing about my own. From there, it was a small step to write directly about my own experience and the result was "Outside Passage: A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood."
C: Who was the most interesting photographer you worked with?
J: There are too many great photographers for me to be able to name one or two. What I can say is that I learned a lot about the creative process from meeting and interviewing many of them. The same issues exist for artists in any medium — photography, writing, painting — even dancing. For example, I remember interviewing George Silk, one of the best of the Life Magazine staffers. He was explaining to me how when he goes out shooting he will see a subject and decide to take a shot of it. As he is looking through the viewfinder, he realizes what he is about to take is a cliche. Yet, he knows he has to click the shutter in order to get past that cliche, and on to something original, something he will discover. I found the same to be true in writing. When I am writing a first draft, I can tell that it is bad, corny, trite — any number of disparaging words that go through my head. Yet, like Silk, I've come to understand that there is no shortcut. I can't just go directly to the "good stuff." You have to work your way into the writing as you have to work your way in to your subject in photography.
C: Being from Alaska, how do you feel about lumped in with someone like Sarah Palin?
J: Infuriated. I've written an as yet unpublished article, "Sarah Palin Ruined My Life" which says it all.
C: What are you working on these days?
J: I've recently completed a proposal for a book about my long career in photographic publishing during the most dramatic and revoutionary decades in the medium's history. I had a front row center seat to all the events and was, in fact, part of them. The book will be full of juicy back-stories about the big names in the field as well as being a personal history of how I learned to survive and win in what was essentially a boy's game. Included, too, will be the details of what a famous editor termed my "fully lived romantic and married life."
C: Well Julia, you are an exceptional writer, you were on the ground for one of the most inflential times in the history of photography, and you had a part in shaping that history. You also served whiskey when were 11, play in New York's longest running poker game, had a fascinating romantic life, and are refreshingly humble about all of that. Throw in the fact that you don't like Sarah Palin and we here at The FWG Network have made a ruling. You're officially a bad ass.
Julia Scully is the author of "Outside Passage: A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood" and of "Disfarmer: The Heber Springs Portraits". Check them both out today!