Seattle photographer Tim Durkan says perfection is a state of mind | KNKX

Seattle photographer Tim Durkan says perfection is a state of mind

Jan 4, 2020

This story originally aired on October 27, 2018. 


Seattle photographer Tim Durkan is known for his photos that document the lives of men and women who are homeless. But Tim also spends quite a bit of time chasing down the moon. A photo he’s taken many times is of a full moon sitting atop the Space Needle like a celestial flag.


“A moon rising above the space needle isn’t signifying political allegiance. It doesn’t have party affiliation, it’s just something that everybody can admire,” Durkan says.


Durkan’s images capture the beautiful symmetry of the precise moment when the moon and this iconic Seattle landmark are lined up in the sky.


The last time Durkan and I went on a walk it was up and down Broadway Avenue in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. It was a winter’s night when the temperature dipped below freezing. His camera lens was focused on the homeless men, women and even a few pets huddled under blankets in doorways and bus stops.


On this October day, you’d think it was summer, if not for the sun hanging low in the sky at 3:30 in the afternoon. We are in front of Espresso Vivace on Broadway. This little shop is one of Durkan’s reliable sources of caffeine. With a bearded grin he opens his arms in a sweeping gesture, welcoming me to his outdoor office. His coworkers are the people all around us. He knows just about everyone up and down this street.


“This is where the ideas come to me the best, right here on my home street, This  is my office,right here of 25 years, the 300 block of Broadway East,” Durkan says.


The plan is to go to Magnolia and capture the moon as it rises over the Space Needle. Then we’ll drive back to Capitol HIll to see if we can get a good picture of the sunset. Durkan calls it a two for one outing.


Durkan will be the first to tell you that there is no such thing as a perfect picture. For him, perfection is everything that happens before he presses his index finger on the camera’s shutter.


“Perfection to me is more of a state of mind than a state of being, if that makes sense. Where I can just close the walls, close the doors and just focus on that photo,” Durkan says, adding that he gets there by lots of practice and by, “failing over and over again.”


We hop in his Subaru Outback and head across town to a parking lot at the top of the Magnolia Bridge.


Years ago, this is where Durkan tried to take his first picture of a Super Moon aligned with the Space Needle. He worked out where the moon would rise by using a compass to chart out the moon's path on a paper map.


But on that night, then another guy walked by, heading down the Magnolia Bridge all ninja like, wearing a hoodie. He had a camera too. Durkan recalls, “He kinda nods at me and I’m like, where are you going?”


Durkan’s calculations of where the moon was going to appear in the sky that night were off by eight degrees. Durkan says the other photographer did a better job with the math and got a great photo, “He got the shot. It got in National Geographic. I got nothing. I got three likes on facebook.”


We continue our walk down the narrow sidewalk on the Magnolia bridge, looking for the sweet spot where the moon is expected to show half of its face. Seattle’s Queen Anne Neighborhood is just ahead in the distance. In the water directly next to the bridge there are half a dozen sea lions jumping clear out of the water. Seattle’s downtown skyline spreads out before us to the right.


Durkan is carrying a giant lens, his camera, a tripod and batteries. All together this weighs about 40 pounds. Durkan walks with a bit of a limp.The limp is new. He was documenting life in a homeless encampment when he slipped, fell backwards and broke his ankle. After spending the last few months in a cast, Durkan is really happy to be back on his own two feet.


“Nothing like a little fresh air, cement trucks, diesel!” Durkan jokes.


At this point, late afternoon is about to clock out and evening will soon arrive. Our hopes of seeing the rising moon are fading. There are thin, hazy clouds.


Durkan looks up, “Somewhere up in that heavenly mess of clouds there’s a beautiful luna.”


Skunked by the clouds, we lug the equipment back up the hill to the car and drive to a spot on Capitol Hill, overlooking I-5.


The clouds that were an immovable obstacle about a half hour ago, are now gorgeous horizontal streaks. Orange, red and salmon pink fill the base of the western sky, lit from behind by the setting sun, which is now at the very bottom of the Space Needle. Durkan’s camera clicks away to try and capture the moment.


For the last few hours Durkan’s attention has been laser focused on the sky and now it shifts back to people. A man on a bike stops to talk. He is one of Durkan’s neighbors. He wants to know if Durkan can take pictures at a memorial service for a woman they both knew. Durkan says, “Yes, of course. I’ll be there.”