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Jini Dellaccio, The 'Unlikely Rock Photographer,' Dies At 97

KUOW Photo/Sage Van Wing

Local photographer Jini Dellaccio died last week. She was 97.

Jini was best known for her images of the Pacific Northwest music scene in the 1960s. But Jini came to photography later in life. She was a musician first, a homemaker and a painter. She didn't even pick up a camera until she was in her 40s.

As a child, Jini studied clarinet and saxophone. By her late teens, she was traveling the country in an all–female band. One day the band needed an extra musician and couldn't find a woman. A sailor from a local naval base stepped up to take the job. He was so shy, he brought his buddy Carl Dellaccio with him to the gig.

Jini was intrigued when Carl took a chair at the side of the stage. "That put him by me. We talked every night. That was the end of it for me."

Jini followed Carl to Chicago after he was discharged from the Navy. The couple got married. Carl went to college and Jini played music in local clubs.

"One day my husband said, ‘You know you're going to have to quit music because I can't stand not coming to pick you up,’" Jini recalled.

Jini's gigs often lasted until the wee hours, and Carl had early morning classes. Jini loved playing music, but when her husband told her to quit, she didn't think twice. She put away her saxophone.

But Jini wasn't really cut out to be a full-time homemaker. To keep busy while her husband was in school, she explored Chicago on foot. "One day I was downtown and I passed the Art Institute. I looked at it and saw the lions. I went up and looked at the statues,” Jini said. “And I thought, I would like to take some painting lessons. Maybe I'll be a painter."

Jini started out in a drawing class, then progressed to painting. A local university saw her work. They liked it so much they asked Jini to create an advertising banner. She said yes, even though she'd never done anything like that before. That banner came out so well, Jini started getting offers for more graphic design work.

"Anything they'd ask – ‘Oh yes, I can do that,’” Jini said. “And I would do it."

Jini decided she should get herself a camera to document her work. She knew nothing about photography. With the help of a friend of her husband, she picked out a Leica, a top-of-the-line camera the professionals used.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Self portrait by Jini Dellacio, circa 1960.", "fid": "56114", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201407/Bw_self-portrait_Jini_Dellacio.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Wikipedia Photo/Jini Dellaccio"}]]"I remember getting that camera, and it was the finest thing I've ever seen," Jini said.

She had no idea how to use it, though. She got a manual and taught herself. At first, she just took photos of her graphic design assignments, but soon Jini started to carry that Leica with her everywhere she went. "People I'd meet, I'd go hey, you're kinda nice looking, let me take your picture. During those years, I was never seen without a camera."

Carl got a teaching job after college, and the couple moved to southern California. Although Jini didn't think of herself as a photographer, she still took her camera with her everywhere.

One day Jini and her mother were window shopping at a local department store. A bevy of women were modeling the latest swimwear.

"I looked up at one of the girls in a bathing suit, she was so cute. She looked like the girl next door,” Jini said. “And I said to my mother, ‘Wouldn't I have fun to have her at the house for a day and just do pictures of her?’"

Jini’s mother urged her to invite the model over. To her surprise, the young woman accepted the invitation. The model was delighted with the photographs Jini shot and showed them to everyone she knew.

"She went to Hollywood, they said, ‘Now he's a photographer.’ She told me that, and of course, my heart bumped. I knew that was a compliment," Jini said.

Very few women worked in fashion photography at the time, and the young model loved working with Jini. She told her friends and Jini’s reputation spread. Other models, followed by modelling agencies, sought out Jini. She even got a show at the local art museum.

But this was the 1950s and her husband's teaching career came first. Carl got a new job, and the couple moved from southern California to Gig Harbor. Jini loved her new home on the water, but career–wise it wasn't such a great move for her. "I was still a fashion photographer, but there was no fashion work."

There was, however, an art museum nearby in Tacoma. The curators had heard of Jini and offered to mount a show of her work. A couple of days after it opened, a local designer called to ask if she could shoot an album cover for a band called the Wailers.

Jini didn't know anything about rock bands, or the protocol for shooting publicity photos. But, by now, you probably know how Jini responded.

"Sure, of course I can do an album cover."

In the early 1960s, the rock scene was pretty new and Jini was already in her 40s. But she followed her instincts and took the band out to her lawn overlooking the Tacoma Narrows.

It was a misty day and the young men climbed up into the big fir trees.

"I started doing pictures, started getting inspired. Because I could see how beautiful these kids looked out in the trees," Jini said.

The band loved the atmospheric pictures. So did their record companies. They hired Jini to photograph other bands. One day Jini flew to LA to meet a musician for a prospective shoot. She had no idea who he was and the record company executive introduced him simply as Neil.

"I said, ‘Neil, what is your last name?’ He said, ‘Just Neil.’"

His last name was Young.

His portrait is one of Jini’s best–known works. The photograph, taken from below, shows Neil Young's face, surrounded by the hanging fringe from his jacket sleeves. Jini had asked him to climb onto the garage roof so she could get a better shot.

"I said, ‘If you get on the roof, we'd have the sky.’ So he said, ‘I can get up there all right. Now what?’ And I said, ‘Fly like a bird.’"

By the 1980s, Jini was a fixture on the rock scene. She took her cameras into night clubs, drawing on her own musical past to anticipate the best shots. Jini was maturing as an artist, and she had all the work she could handle.

Then Carl suffered a devastating stroke. Jini put everything aside to take care of him. She didn't touch a camera for more than 15 years.

"It was unbelievable what it did to me to have to do that, but my husband was my life,” Jini said. “And I couldn't even imagine not being the one to take care of him."

Her husband couldn't move or speak. Jini did everything for him, until physically she couldn't cope anymore. She moved him to a nursing home.

One day, Jini sat down next to Carl, picked up his hand and started to talk to him, as she did every time she visited.

"I said, ‘I'm so lucky I found you. And I want to tell you, you don't need to worry about me. I'm going to start doing pictures again,’” Jini said. “And when I said that to him, I leaned back to get a better look at his expression. Lo and behold, a little smile on this one side of his face."

That was Jini's last conversation with her husband.

Jini kept her promise. Approaching the age of 90, she taught herself how to use a digital camera. Jini turned her lens to the wild animals outside her window.

At 93, Jini had a harder time getting outside to work. A serious infection put her in the hospital. Life wasn’t easy for Jini, but instead of defeating her, every challenge seemed to bring her new joy.

"When I look back on it, I don't know how I did it, boy it was tough. But at the time I never felt that way. When you're doing it, you don't think about that you didn't know how to do it, you think about, ‘Oh, boy, look at that, ooh, it's coming.’"