Northwest History in a Flash

Q&A with photographer Barry Sweet

Photos by Barry Sweet

Barry Sweet has documented history for more than 40 years with his captivating photographs. At 22, he was the youngest photographer ever hired by the Associated Press. As its Seattle-based photojournalist, he called Redmond and Woodinville home while covering local events and traveling wherever the news took him. His camera caught the personal moments of presidents, natural disasters, sports triumphs and the humanity of the average person. His newly published photo book, Split Seconds: Four Decades of News Photography From the Pacific Northwest and Beyond, showcases the images that defined generations.

You worked for the Associated Press (AP) for 34 years. Why did you decide to do the book? You can thank my wife! After I retired from the AP, she suggested that I go through the boxes of negatives and CDs in the closet and pick some pictures for the walls. We worked on it for three years and realized there was a book. There is especially a lot of Washington state history that nobody else has. I also did it for my children so they have a history of what their father did.

You’ve captured history from Martin Luther King Jr. to the returning moon-landing expeditions. Did you realize the importance at the time? I could feel it during important events. When they landed the first man on the moon, I was one of the primary black-and-white photographers when they returned. I think I worked and concentrated harder because I knew at the time those pictures were going to have a legacy.

You famously took one of the last informal photographs of Robert F. Kennedy shortly before he was assassinated during his 1968 U.S. presidential campaign. We became friends. I was traveling with him for 10 days straight, and it was the day after the Oregon primary and he wanted to visit the ocean. He agreed to do pictures and then he wanted some time to enjoy with his dog Freckles. There were four or five of us and we agreed.  Later, one of the reporters wrote about how Bobby went around the corner, stripped to his underwear and went into the ocean. My editor called and asked where the photos were and I had to explain that we agreed to give him private time. I really got chewed out! Bobby was killed a few days later. I got a phone call at four or five in the morning asking for those pictures of him on the beach. All of a sudden I wasn’t such a bad guy! He (Kennedy) was so crowded by people wherever he went. People would shake his hand and try to steal the cufflinks right off his body. He was always asking me what time it was because he couldn’t wear a watch. He was very social.

You extensively covered Washington State politicians. Whose public image was the closest to them as a person? Two of the nicest were Dan Evans (governor, 1965-1977) and Dixy Lee Ray (governor, 1977-1981). I became really friendly with Dan and was invited to the mansion once in a while. At a governors’ conference in Wyoming, we went on a rafting trip together. The only condition was to leave the camera at the hotel! I got wonderful pictures with Dixy Lee Ray. She loved to do things like drive trains or logging trucks. I don’t know if she was a good or bad governor, but she was a lot of fun!

What are some of your favorite Seattle-area landmarks to photograph? Every time we come to town, I make a point to go to the Pike Place Market. It’s amazing. I also love going to the Seattle Center because I can always find something fresh and different to photograph. Also, I love Woodinville Winery. It’s so much fun!

You were one of the only photographers with access to Bill Gates during his rise to worldwide fame. How did that happen? He’s always been an extremely smart person. He always wanted to be world renowned rather than just a famous Seattle person. He knew if I took the photos (as an AP photographer), they would go around the world on the wire. If they’d called, for instance, The Seattle Times for photo opps, it would only be printed maybe in Seattle, Everett, Olympia and Renton.

Were there any photographs you missed taking? One picture I didn’t shoot that I probably should have was after Bill Gates got married, he had his reception in the Seattle Highlands. I was called and asked if I’d like to attend and take pictures. I told them that sounded great, but I had something planned. Now I don’t even remember what those plans were!

You’ve been in the middle of many intense situations. What were your closest calls? I was in South Central (Los Angeles) photographing the riots and when I returned to my hotel, I couldn’t find my cohorts. I called the office and they said, “What are you doing there?! We pulled everybody out because it’s too dangerous.” The buildings were burning and there was destruction everywhere. I went to the garage to leave and there were armed security guards with rifles. They gave me some advice — get in the car, lock the doors and drive down the center of the road as fast as you can and don’t stop for any lights. It was scary. I was probably doing 50 mph down the main street trying to get out of L.A.

You’ve photographed many celebrities from Elizabeth Taylor to Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. You also captured some of Madonna’s first tour photos in Seattle. I got a call from someone saying there was a new singer just starting her career. The unusual thing was that she wore her underwear outside of her clothes. It turns out that it was Madonna’s first performance of her “Like A Virgin” tour that started in Seattle; her first national tour. They used those photos when they inducted her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

You photographed the King Tut exhibit when it came to Seattle in 1978 and it’s back again. Do you often see the world come full circle? Life cycles through all the time. I’ve taken pictures for so many years and there is a recycling system. I don’t know if things were any less violent (in past decades), but they seemed better. But we had the riots in South Central and Watts (Los Angeles), the anti-Vietnam War protests. Now we have WTO (Seattle’s World Trade Organization protests, 1999). One difference is the (high-profile) people are now more protected. Before, I was more one-on-one with many of these people.

You must have incredible family photo albums? I love to photograph my family and children and they love having their pictures taken. My daughter said that she didn’t realize how nice her childhood pictures were until she saw her friend’s family photos.

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