Scott Raffe (1964-2011)

by This Land


The day Raffe died, rockets exploded in the skies over Tulsa and beyond— festive bursts of red, white, and blue, yellow, green, and pink. The show began with the sun blazing a trail over the horizon, and ended beneath a sliver of white moon. More than half an hour’s patriotic fanfare, then a big finish—a cascade of sparks into the hot, black ether, glittering back to earth in a blaze of glorious cinders.

Then gone.

Raffe—that’s what everybody called him—came to Tulsa around the time the Cain’s Ballroom exposed its rafters, added real bathrooms, and entered a renaissance. Then, Raffe was living in the apartment over the Hunt Club at Main and Cameron, a block from Cain’s. Like any serious photographer, he took his turn documenting its neon and nostalgia.

So, when the time came to memorialize Raffe, his people booked the Ballroom. They issued Pro Tix at the gate with Raffe as the headliner. There was acoustic support: a duet with Ben and Noelle Kilgore, and a spiritual by Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson, just the three voices around a mic. In between, Art Garfunkel, there in spirit, belted “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” cued to a photo timeline of Raffe’s brief life.

Sail on Silver Girl,
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way.

Raffe came here by way of Denver, St. Louis, and Chicago. He brought with him a trained, professional eye and a back catalogue.

“Scott was so focused,” said his friend Noah Roberts. “He did one thing exceptionally well. He knew exactly what he wanted to do and he did it every day.” Raffe shot circuses and cemeteries, baseball fields and backroads. His portraits enhanced understanding, his landscapes inspired action. He was in the middle of photographing burial plots of the deceased American Presidents when he got sick.

“He shot 34 of them,” said Roberts. “It’s really shocking, the gamut of the way these men were honored. They’re the most beautiful images.” Raffe’s wife, Jerilyn, will complete the project.

“Scott loved to shoot cemeteries. He shot cemeteries everywhere—Milan, Paris, New Orleans, New York, Russia, Ireland, everywhere in Oklahoma.

“My dad is not a photographer, but he’s a huge history buff. And he said to Scott, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have a book of all the Presidents’ graves?’ So, we all decided Scott would photograph, my dad would write and I would design.

“You know when you’re sitting around and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do this,’ but then it never happens? Scott always made things happen.”

Jerilyn is photographing the remaining sites herself, and is also working with a publisher on a collection of Raffe’s circus photos, which she hopes to publish in early 2012.

Raffe’s legacy in these parts will undoubtedly be his collaboration with Libby Bender and Carl Brune, Oklahoma: A Portrait of America. Three-hundred sixty images on nearly as many pages, it’s a big, bold volume that took three years to shoot and produce. Cain’s plays heavily in it, as do Muskogee’s Renaissance Faire, Guthrie’s 89er Days, Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, Oklahoma City’s Red Earth Festival, and Comanche County’s Holy City of the Wichitas, a nether-worldly view of a lost-in-time place.

“He was a driven man,” said Bender, who wrote the text and was going to shoot Oklahoma anyway, and who thought Raffe might like to tag along. The road was long—all 77 counties came under his gun—and the effort, like the man, relentless.

“It took him five trips to get an image of the Admiral Twin that he liked,” Bender said. “And now it’s gone.”

Raffe and Brune, who designed the book, flew to Belgium for a press check. Prior to taking off, Brune asked Raffe to take a last look at the pages before they landed, to see if any of the photos needed tweaking. Raffe tweaked 226 of them.

“We crossed the Atlantic on our laptops,” Brune said, noting his colleague’s penchant for changing out entire images. “We weren’t allowed to crop. He composed in the camera. He’d quote a former teacher of his and say, ‘Cropping is for farmers.’ ”

Raffe’s camera caught Giovanni Zoppe—alias Nino the Clown, with whom Raffe shares a birthday—in more moods than a circus clown should have. Raffe shot Circus Flora and Circus Zoppe on and off for 15 years.

“Each year with a different camera,” said Brune, “from a 5-by-7 portrait to an iPhone.”

“Besides having an eye for art, he was a wonderful, generous man,” Zoppe said, adding that Raffe even took time to get the clowns, acrobats and ringleaders copies of their portraits. “People had photographed us before. But nothing like Scott.”

Zoppe said his friend was drawn to the color and the drama, in the beginning.

“Then he connected with the people, which doesn’t happen automatically. He saw that we were real people. Not some circus illusion.”

Scott Lawrence Raffe died July 4, Independence Day.