Portrait of a Lady

Afternoon teatime with legendary camerawoman Alma McGoldrick

“Would you like some sugar?” Alma McGoldrick says in typical British fashion: in the middle of a sentence, over a pitcher of tea. She muddles fresh mint just picked from the balcony of her home in Kailua, where she has lived for the past 30 years, and mixes it into the brew. Good books and interesting small antiquities crowd the walls and shelves, and binders filled with aged snippets of a young, blond Englishwoman gripping a flashgun and Rolleiflex cover the tabletop as afternoon tea commences. “I have about an hour to spare before my Bocce ball practice,” she says. “For years, it’s been hard to get a good team together because everyone either moves away or dies on me,” she says with a laugh. “But now we finally have one, so it makes it competitive.”

Her strong British accent and racy argot are easily explained by her upbringing in Surrey County, England. Her dress, however, can be likened to her travels: loose-fitting harem pants from the Arabian Peninsula and a black top made in Southeast Asia, complemented by a gorgeous, hand-made fungus necklace from her jewelry line Tree Shells, which is what she calls the fungi she sources from the Hawai‘i rainforests. “I’ve always enjoyed working with natural materials,” says McGoldrick. “Nature, above anything else, is my greatest love.”

Naturally then, her stories extend far beyond the shores of Kailua beach to the banks of the Middle East and Europe, where she worked as a staff photographer for the Women’s Sunday Mirror, a subsidiary of the London Daily Mirror. “The year was 1955, and it was the most exciting time of my life,” she recalls. “I got all the fun jobs—photographing Salvador Dali, Prince Aly Khan, Arlene Dahl, Gina Lollobrigida. I covered a sheikh’s marriage to his fourth wife and a pre-Lenten festival in Cologne. I even went to a nudist island off of Germany.”

Before this, McGoldrick worked as an elementary school teacher with a penchant for natural beauty. “I hated teaching!” she says with a gasp. “I knew it wasn’t for me, but everyone kept telling me to stick it out, so I did the two years to get the certification and then quit right then and there.” She enrolled at the Guildford School of Photography and did freelance work before she went to the Mirror. Two years later, in 1957, she came to Hawai‘i on the arm of her first husband, Joseph McGoldrick, whom she had met when he was head of U.S. Navy intelligence in Europe. “I fell in love with the rich and ethnic differences it offered. My favorite location was Sandy Beach. Models’ hair would go flying up in the air, and there was a nice light that bounced up from the water’s edge.”

As McGoldrick’s photography career grew, changes in consumerism and new feminine ideals were causing major shifts in fashion photography. The elegant, submissive prude gave way to the single girl who loved adventure. And right at the forefront of this revolution was the grande dame herself. “For quite a long time, I did pin-ups,” she says of the bikini-clad women she photographed. “I would take them to Pacific Business News, and the editor took what he liked. Then the women’s libbers got to them, and they stopped running them. I remember an article that was written about me saying, ‘What does this woman do every morning to excite businessmen in Hawai‘i?’”

Her photography career waned in her 50s when her focus shifted from capturing images to raising her two children, traveling, and jewelry design, an interest that had been piqued during a photo session years before. “My friend had given me macramé necklaces for a shoot I did, and my daughter saw them and loved them,” she says. “At the time, I didn’t have any macramé, but I had some extra fungus from a collage I did so we used that instead.”

Alma McGoldrick fungus jewelry

Now in her mid-80s, McGoldrick is determined to keep doing what she’s always done: snorkeling (at least) twice a week, trespassing through private property to get “just the right color of fungi” needed to fulfill orders from Martin and MacArthur and Island Art Gallery on Kaua‘i, and perfecting her savasana and downward-dog poses. “I don’t shoot anymore, except for my photo club,” she says. “It’s quite pathetic actually, but we do try to get out there every once in a while.” While she professes that navigating through the murky waters of old age can be tiresome (severe vision loss in one eye, a fractured vertebrae, and peripheral neuropathy), the rambunctious trailblazer in the trenches of Beirut or Kathmandu still shines through.

Looking through archives of contact sheets, cover shots, and one-pagers of gorgeous models posing in alohawear by Tori Richards, Malia, and Nali‘i, you can’t help but wax nostalgic for the Hawai‘i of then. From the folds, she pulls out an old Honolulu Magazine cover featuring a young model, topless but for an array of colorful flowers. A faint smile brightens her face. “My favorite portrait has to be this one,” she says. “It took forever to get the flowers to stay put in the right places.” She looks at the image, hands it to me, than moves on to the next. Her energetic conversation tells of a successful life, a life far from over. For McGoldrick, nature continues to fuel her fire, extending outward to the tips of her fingers, energizing whatever she touches—be it a camera body or bracket fungi—and rendering it beautiful.

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