Recording Struggles and Beauty: The Photography of Mary Wickline
July 24, 2019
by Christine Kehoe
San Diego photographer Mary Wickline donated her collection to the San Diego History Center in August 2018. The extensive collection of color and black and white photographs explores people and places across San Diego, the city Mary loved and in which she resided for more than 40 years.
Mary Anna Wickline was born June 11, 1955, in Dixon, Illinois. Before she was two years old, her family moved to Candor, New York, where she grew up. Like many children of the fifties and sixties, Mary grew up reading LIFE magazine every week. “LIFE is the reason I’m a photographer,” Mary said. “I wanted to be Margaret Bourke-White and Gordon Parks.”
Mary graduated from Candor Central High School in 1973 and immediately joined the U.S. Navy in order to study photography. “That was my only reason to go in,” Mary said. “Looking about 14 years old and barely 100 pounds,” Mary headed to boot camp in Orlando, Florida, and then studied photography in the Navy’s A School in Pensacola, Florida.
After completing her training, she was stationed in San Diego, where she worked as a Navy photographer until she was honorably discharged in June 1977. Mary stayed in San Diego after her military service. She worked as a photographer for Multi-Image, a San Diego company that produced multi-media convention presentations for corporate clients. After leaving Multi-Image, she briefly worked as a freelance photographer and then for the Navy as a civilian photographer.
Mary then spent eight years as a photographer for Rohr Corporation, shooting commercial and industrial subjects. She was Rohr’s first woman photographer in San Diego, a situation similar to her time in the Navy when Mary was one of the very few, and sometimes the first, woman to be placed in her assignment.
Outside of her “day jobs,” Mary photographed some of her favorite music groups and did volunteer photography for the San Diego Gayzette newspaper. She documented major moments in San Diego’s LGBTQ civil rights struggle and AIDS awareness movements in the 1980s and 1990s. Her visual talent and dedication to detail brought a new sensibility to the Gayzette’s news and social photos.
Mary was a voracious reader with a large personal library that included books on contemporary issues, gender, politics, feminism, race, biography, art, and photography. The shorter list would be what was not in her library. Her intellectual interests underpinned her photography. She pursued her formal education while working and earned an Associate’s degree in Liberal Arts from San Diego City College and a Bachelor’s degree in Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego. She also studied computer programming at Coleman College. Later, she earned a Master’s in Education at San Diego State University and a Master’s in Library and Information Science at UCLA.
After working for twenty years as a professional photographer, Mary launched a new career. Her life partner, the late Dr. Sharon Grant-Henry, observed Mary’s resolve to research questions big and small at all hours of the day and night. With Sharon’s encouragement, Mary pursued her library science degree and in October 2006 she joined the UC San Diego Medical Center Library as Nursing and Allied Health Librarian. Her work as a librarian at UC San Diego had deep impact. She supported hundreds of nurses and other healthcare professionals with their research and, ultimately, their care of patients. She served as the countywide librarian for the San Diego Evidence-Based Practice Institute, teaching research techniques to more than 600 participants throughout San Diego County. Mary also served as the librarian on the 2017 Society of Critical Care Medicine Family-Centered Care Guidelines. With this work she set a precedent in her field, becoming the first librarian to be named a co-author of guidelines by this organization. In recognition of her many achievements and contributions to the UC San Diego Library and the library profession, Mary was promoted from the rank of associate- to full librarian in July 2018.
But she never lost touch with photography. From 2003 to 2017, Mary taught photography and darkroom techniques in evening classes at San Diego City College. Although her own approach was precise and disciplined, she appreciated and encouraged serious experimental work, an outlook that made her a favorite of many of her students.
Mary’s photography speaks to her passions. Her superb technical skills are evident in her photographs. She was a tenacious worker, applying extensive analysis to her use of lighting, exposure, and movement in rendering each image. Her spunk and creativity helped her tell a rich story with each picture.
Her personal photography reflects her deep devotion to racial, gender, and LGBTQ equality, and to her affection and respect for people struggling to defeat discrimination in any form.
Mary’s landscape photography represents her strong aesthetic sense and her love of people and the natural and urban beauty of San Diego. Her love of music is reflected in numerous studies of San Diego musicians, many of whom were close friends.
When Bill Lawrence, executive director of the San Diego History Center, first viewed her meticulously organized collection he remarked, “These photographs are just what we need. Mary’s photos fill a gap during this period of San Diego history. The Mary Wickline photo collection will enhance the History Center’s photo archive for future generations.”
Currently, the History Center staff is processing the Mary Wickline collection. They will create a database from the nine bankers’ boxes of negatives, contact sheets, prints, and slides that comprise the collection. SDHC archivist Chris Travers estimates the project will be completed by this summer and available to scholars and the public.
In the words of her daughter Atiya Slaughter, “Mary’s incredible photographic skills came from her time in military service to her country. Through Mary’s lens, the struggle for justice came into focus. Mary had the unique ability to wrangle universal concepts like love, faith, and equality, into stunning images. Her work gave voice to the silent and the invisible. I am proud to have witnessed her genius firsthand.”
Mary died December 8, 2018. Her life partner, Dr. Sharon Grant-Henry, a professor at San Diego State University, died February 3, 2004.