Editor’s Note: The following is a collaboration with old friends, the Spy Newspapers, Santa Clara University, and the former director of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, to celebrate the life and work of the acclaimed photographer David Pace. My friend David lost his battle with leukemia in 2020 after a lifetime, literally, of taking extraordinary images and receiving broad recognition for his work. During the final years of his life, working with his wife, Diane Jonte-Pace, professor and former vice provost at Santa Clara, David produced two significant books of photography, one published posthumously.
Beyond the remarkable artistic gifts that David possessed, this is a very personal story of David and Diane’s partnership, their lifelong California journey, and finally, a powerful lesson on death, grieving and memory.
We asked Cathy Kimball, the recently retired executive director of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, to introduce this Spy long-form profile to highlight David’s impact on photography.
From February 2016 until his death in October 2020, San Francisco Bay Area photographer David Pace was faced with myriad health challenges. A heart attack followed by a stroke left him with double vision for an extended period of time. And, in December 2016, he was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma. The prognosis was grim and the chemotherapy and radiation protocols were brutal. Miraculously, after two years of ongoing treatment, he seemingly recovered, and was enjoying life to the fullest. However, in September 2020, he was diagnosed with the leukemia that took his life a mere seven weeks later. While he faced these health challenges with a calm optimism, the notion of mortality loomed large for both David and his wife, a professor at Santa Clara University, Diane Jonte-Pace.
After a thirty-year career as a photographer, David Pace’s first photo project turned out to also be his last. In 1959, for his 8th birthday, his grandmother had given him a Brownie Hawkeye camera. Following the streamlined directions from the instruction manual, which read “Load right, aim sharp, and shoot well,” the young photographer set out to photograph his life. The photos not only tell the story of a childhood in rural, agricultural Sunnyvale, CA, they also reflect the changes that were happening in post-war California and in the “valley of the heart’s delight” which would soon become Silicon Valley. Decades later David rediscovered his long-forgotten photos and recognized the artistry of his own childhood images.
The photographs David took as a young boy are the subject of the 2021 publication Hawkeye. Diane wrote the book’s essay, focusing on the underlying narrative in the photos which document school, family, church and work in pre-Silicon Valley Sunnyvale in the late 1950s and early 1960s. David lived long enough to know that the book would be published, but died before it was realized. It was in the summer of 2020, just months before his fatal diagnosis and at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, that David and Diane began sorting through the Hawkeye images in anticipation of working with Schilt Publishing on the book.
David and I were at a photography conference in Houston in early March 2020 when he learned that Maarten Schilt, of Schilt Publishing in Amsterdam, was so excited about the Hawkeye photos that he immediately committed to the publication. As news of COVID began to invade the conference, David remained determined to get to Amsterdam to work with Maarten on Hawkeye and on a book that he and Diane had just completed, Where the Time Goes, also with Schilt. The world shut down just as we arrived back in California. A trip to Amsterdam was not in the cards although the books themselves were both completed.
Where the Time Goes was begun during the grueling months of 2017 when David was sick with lymphoma and the effects of the treatment. Diane began to pore through the decades of photos they had amassed during their nearly 50 years together. What began as a form of meditation became a way to face the specter of David’s demise. As Diane wrote in the book’s essay, “These images, individually and collectively, capture a sense of time past and time passing: each individual photograph freezes a moment in our lives. At the same time, as a collection, they give us a dizzying sense of velocity, a sense of time passing rapidly.”
David was still living when Where the Time Goes was published. He was so excited about the enthusiastic reception both critically and popularly. He tracked sales on Amazon while hospitalized in September 2020. He told me that he had been happy to discover that a stay in the hospital was a great way to market the book, having sold several copies to nurses, doctors and fellow patients in just a few days.
David served on the board of directors of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) for 25 years. He hired me as the executive director in 2000 and during the 20 years that we worked together, he became a mentor, a confidante, an advocate, and, most importantly, a dear friend. And, during that time, I watched with appreciation as his photography career blossomed. Although I was not able to travel to Venice for the 2019 Biennale to see his photos of the brick quarries of Burkina Faso, I was delighted by the acknowledgement he received for that work and for the Wirephoto project he produced in collaboration with gallerist Stephen Wirtz.
David’s last two projects, Where the Time Goes and Hawkeye, are particularly powerful. They record a life well lived, from childhood through marriage, children and grandchildren. To me they are prescient projects for a man who spent the last four years of his life with the reality of death at his doorstep. His life didn’t just flash before him. He took the time to relive and reflect on all his years. And while the images are deeply personal, the photos of birthday parties, classrooms, teachers, friends, cars, and family are familiar to all of us. And, so, perhaps his last works are his most universal. To quote Orson Welles, “If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you end the story.”
Cathy Kimball is the former executive director of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Dave Wheelan is the executive editor and publisher of the Spy Newspapers.
This video is approximately 20 minutes in length. Our thanks to the Academic Technology team at Santa Clara University for assistance with the filming of this interview. To purchase Where the Time Goes please go here. To purchase Hawkeye please go here.