Walt Girdner was born in central Iowa in 1922. He was one of five children. His father took a job as a pastor in Alameda where the family moved and relocated to the Bay Area of California in 1925. Growing up during the Great Depression in the Bay Area was difficult. Walt struggled to make extra money to help out the family by taking on many different jobs. Such jobs varied from working the corn fields and selling corn, to bucking hay bales and pulling double shifts at the cannery.
As a young man, he developed an interest in art and imagery. He had faith that imagery was a powerful way to communicate and believed that young people are better at interpreting imagery than adults for their imaginations are more agile and unencumbered.
Tall and lanky as a teenager, Walt would often run the three miles to school. He later became a high school champion in the quarter-mile and half-mile, and he would anchor the 440-relay. For his speed and endurance, he was offered a track scholarship to Stanford University and recruited for the 1944 US Olympic Team before World War II erupted and cancelled the games. He graduated in 1943 with a degree in psychology.
After graduating, he was immediately drafted into the Army and was sent to Europe during World War II. Walt fought for the liberation of France and the final push of the Allied Forces into Germany. During the war he learned about photography and was in charge of the base newspaper.
William Girdner - “Although he never talked about the war, I still have a vague image of units and soldiers moving through a dark and borderless land, with celebrations at night where they drank from kettles filled with any type of alcohol they could come up with. Fighting alongside Soviet soldiers, he told me he would visit with them, trade stories, drink and sing songs until late in the night.”
It was during the war that he decided to stop practicing his religion.
When the war was over, Walt returned home and attended graduate school at the University of Chicago in 1946. He worked in Professor Bruno Bettelheim’s program for emotionally disturbed children. He used the photographic skills that he acquired during the war for both his work with the children and to establish a commercial portrait studio with his sister Ruthie.
While in Chicago, Walt was faced with a difficult decision of whether or not he wanted to become a clinical psychologist or live the unpredictable life of a photographer and artist. His passion and greater happiness lay with photography. He returned to Paris in 1948 as part of a wave of artists and students attracted to a post-war renaissance which was underway in that city.
He established another studio in Paris and worked as a photojournalist, selling photo essays to French and American magazines and newspapers, including Life Magazine.
During his Paris years, Walt met Janine Pistolet.
Janine Pistolet – “Walt was a kind of genius when it came to his photography. Many of the techniques he used, I would see used later by successful, avant-garde artists. The photos remain remarkable images that captured the life of ordinary people, whether it was a woman buying flowers in a marketplace, a street entertainer swallowing a sword or a group of “clochards,” hobos who lived under bridges along the Seine.”
Walt and Janine were married in Combs-la-Ville outside Paris in January 1950, and their son William was born in October of that year. After the couple began a family, Walt decided that it was time to give up the Bohemian life of a freelance photographer in Paris and find a more stable job in the United States. The family eventually arrived in East Los Angeles where they lived in a rented apartment next to Hollenbeck Park. He later found a job teaching photography at Pasadena City College. With job stability, the family grew. Marianne was born in 1953 and Claudette in 1956.
During a 30-year career teaching in Pasadena, he influenced many students who frequently came to visit and remained loyal friends. It was common that his former students would recognize him and approached him for conversations while he was out with about in Pasadena with his family.
In 1964 Walt took a two year break from teaching to work with the U.S. State Department as a cultural affairs officer in Guinea, on the west coast of Africa. He traveled extensively throughout that African nation and took countless photos of the people and their culture. One of his strengths with the U.S. mission was that he had no interest in limiting himself to the cocktail circuit of professional diplomats. He initiated friendships with the Guineans, inviting them to dinners and parties at his house at Conakry (Guinea’s Capitol). He took advantage of trips into the interior to photograph and talked to the people he came across. At the end of the two year, Walt decided the diplomatic life was not for him and returned home to teach in Pasadena.
He loved teaching, but what he loved best was to pack up the car after his last class every week - whether it was the old station wagon with wood paneling, the VW bus or the Land Rover - and heading down the road to the coast of Mexico.
William Girdner – “Pop would say that whatever ailed him would be cured by the salt air and the beach. He never took the family to campgrounds, he just find a beach on the Pacific Ocean, with no one on it, drove the car into the soft sand above the tide line — where it often got stuck — and started pulling stuff out of the car. He enjoyed living off the land, from eating mussels and a special kind of barnacle taken off the rocks, to abalone, rock scallops and even limpets, along with the fish that Baja would provide in abundance. On those family trips, we cooked fish and lobster over an open fire, using wood gathered on the beach. Not until he was very old did he sleep in a tent. He preferred a mat on the sand under the moon and stars.”
Walt loved the adventure and challenge of a new road, a new destination, finding another beach, too far for the tourists to reach.
Later on in life and after the many adventures, he retired to a small farm in Ramona, California where he started to photograph in color, focusing on patterns and images in the cacti, rocks and his surroundings. Walt would often pick up and drive into the Mexican desert, camping on his own, photographing during the day and sleeping under the desert sky at night.
In the end, Walt was a soldier, artist, photographer, psychologist, writer, family man, country boy - and still a mystery. Although he gave up religion and raised his family without it, Walt kept an unwavering commitment to justice and beauty. Those themes played throughout his life, reflected in his compassion and interest in people from all over the world, his love of the earth’s natural beauty and his pursuit of his art, even in the face of old age and lack of critical attention. He believed deeply in the power of the spirit and, even as he lay dying, he would will himself to sleep. As he told his son William one morning before his passing, “I thought about the good times.”
Walt Girdner died in 2002, at the age of 80.