Venice artist is remembered for living life to the fullest while capturing others’ lives on film

By Michael Aushenker

A Drinkwater portrait of interior designer John Smith

A Drinkwater portrait of interior designer John Smith

When photographer Harry Drinkwater died on Nov. 24 at the age of 95, he didn’t pass quietly. Friends and neighbors joined his family members on Venice Beach to celebrate the life of their resident bon vivant in a public Dec. 7 memorial.

After all, Drinkwater had become a fixture of Venice over more than six decades.

In his professional life, Drinkwater used his camera to chronicle the post-World War II African-American experience as well as L.A.’s jazz scene and the rise of its mid-century modern architecture.

Some of that work appeared recently at the Hammer Museum and in the Pacific Standard Time exhibit at The Getty Center, where some 1,200 Drinkwater photo negatives are being archived. Subjects included the work of architect Paul Williams, interior designer John Smith and modernist landscape architect Garrett Eckbo as well as the catalogue for “66 Signs of Neon,” Noah Purifoy’s “junk art” response to the 1965 Watts Riots.

Off the clock, Drinkwater shot countless photographs of the people, places and goings-on of Venice, said son Jafiel Drinkwater, currently archiving an estimated 40,000 photo negatives in storage.

“He was an artist who was very eclectic but he was a master of black and white,” said ex-wife Ginger Drinkwater, who was married to Harry from 1968 to 1985.

She remembers a man in love with his community: “He took a lot [of inspiration] from the boardwalk, from people, the performers. He did wonderful images of the performers.”

The couple shared an apartment that took up an entire floor at 1119 Brooks Ave. and would host vibrant salons there.

“He was a catalyst. We met film producers. We just happened to be in a place where all this was going on,” Ginger Drinkwater remembered.

Jafiel Drinkwater remembers his father as a dedicated and meticulous craftsman.

“He was really into format, step by step, doing it the right way. Everything had to be in order. He’s from the old school — there was no digital or anything,” he said.

Born in Napa Valley in 1919, Drinkwater grew up in Yountville before heading south to San Diego at age 13.

“He took off from his family and drove down in a Model T,” Jafiel Drinkwater said.

According to his son, Drinkwater began shooting photos in 1947, encouraged by G.I. bill support he received as a World War II veteran. A graduate of the Fred Archer School of Photography, Drinkwater worked for African-American community papers The Eagle (1947-49) and the Sentinel (1949-55) as a general assignment photographer, later capturing landscapes for architectural periodicals.

“He was very charismatic, very charming. Everything he did was very smooth. He wasn’t the richest guy on the planet, but rich in that. Women were always attracted to him,” Jafiel Drinkwater said.

Bingwa Thomas, an actor who founded the nonprofit Venice Arts (then Venice Arts Mecca) as a reaction to the gang violence gripping Venice in the late 1980s, remembers Drinkwater as an active member of the Venice creative scene. Thomas got to know Drinkwater in 1992, when he allowed photographers to utilize his facility’s 400-square-foot darkroom in exchange for two hours a week mentoring students.

“The photography part was Mr. Drinkwater’s baby. He had ideas how to do different things,” Thomas continued. “He was my Wikipedia — it was Drinkwater-pedia. If you had any questions about anything, you’d ask him.”

Drinkwater, also survived by daughter Sharon O’Key of Washington D.C., could frequently be seen walking or bicycling around Venice at a time “when people were afraid to go out of their house,” Thomas said. “He was 70 years old at the time but he seemed like he was in his late 30s. And then, after you talked to him, he might be 25.”

Videographer Jenny Chu was nearly 30 when she met Drinkwater through the Venice Dream Team program in 1996.

“He was 77 years young and an inspirational friend and totally cool cat. His greatest gift to me was that he believed in me and my talents, and I’ll always cherish that,” Chu said.

Drinkwater befriended Sylvia Rath and her husband, former KCRW DJ Derek Rath, when he attended their dance parties at The Venice Place on West Washington Boulevard (later renamed Abbot Kinney Boulevard).

“Mainly, I remember Harry on the dance floor,” Sylvia Rath said. “Harry would be right in the middle of the dance floor with women literally forming a circle around him waiting for a turn to cut in. He knew just the right place to put his hand behind a woman’s back, gently guiding her around the dance floor. He would tell us, with a sparkle in his eye, that he danced his way through World War II when stationed in Weymouth, England, with an all-Negro regiment.”

Ginger Drinkwater said she will miss his energy.

“He had such a zest for life that it was hard to see him go. He was such an incredible, vital human being. He enjoyed life and he was a magnet for bringing people together,” she said.

A Venice-raised surfer and skateboarder, Jafiel Drinkwater said he will miss confiding in his father: “He put me in the right direction.”

“When we had exhibitions, he was the first one to be there. The first one to start dancing and the last one still dancing,” Thomas recalled. “Mr. Drinkwater was a people person. It was very important to have those types of people who really loved life. He loved the ladies, and he loved life.”

“Harry was always a charmer, even into his 90s, with his sweet smile and smooth dance moves,” Rath said. “All the years that I knew him, he used the same line when ladies asked how he was doing: his warm smile would spread across his face and say ‘Better now!’”