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Adak Island is located along the Aleutian chain, about 1200 miles southwest of Anchorage, with a commanding view of the north Pacific Ocean.  It has a protected bay for anchoring ships, and enough flat land for an airport, and space for building roads and houses.  During WWII, it was used as a staging area for troops intended for the invasion of Japan, a task made obsolete by the use of the atomic bombs forcing the surrender of the Japanese.  After WWII, it became a listening post for Soviet activity in the north Pacific—submarine and aircraft movements, radar watching for bombers flying over the pole, as well as intercepted coded military messages.  By the early 1990s, there were 6000 people living on the island, almost all of them associated with the military base. 

In 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet empire, the “peace dividend” allowed the US to consider which military bases were still useful and instituted a base closure process.  Adak was put on the list to close and by 1996 most of the military personnel had been moved out. (The smaller Eareckson Air Station at Shemya several hundred miles to the west remains active.)  The military elected to turn over the existing facilities to the Aleut Corporation, including the family housing.  The hope was that the facilities could be repurposed, either as a commercial fishing hub, or as a base for oil and gas exploration in the Bearing Sea, some 1500 miles to the north.  Turning the facilities over to the Aleut Corporation also saved the military the cost of demolishing the buildings, which would be complicated by the asbestos removal needed. 

In 2016, I spent a week with Ben Huff on Adak, photographing the abandoned base.  At that time, the year-round population of Adak was estimated at 78, with a summer peak of around 300 people.  Most of the summer residents were contract employees working on federally funded projects, including clearing unexploded ordinance from a WWII artillery range, and some infrastructure projects in the town of Adak. 

For me, the most compelling photographic subject was the family housing being blown apart by the wind.  Some houses had complete walls blown out, leaving the housing looking like full-scale doll houses, though damaged by a mean older brother. 

Compared to the cost of other military hardware, the abandoned housing on Adak is a small drop in a very big bucket.  If there are 1,000 family housing units each with a value of $200,000, the total value of the real estate is about $200 M—but compared to the cost of a single fighter jet ($78M) or a stealth bomber ($2 Billion) or an aircraft carrier ($12.4 Billion), the economic loss is trivial. 

However, the abandoned and disintegrating housing, even if it actually represents the retreat from the threat of the Cold War, still functions as a metaphor for our worst fears.  Nuclear war, deadly pandemics (the Bubonic plague killed a third to half the population of some European towns), or economic collapse due to climate change are all very real threats to human existence. 

Ben Huff spent much more time on Adak, and is publishing a book, “Atomic Island”, which can be pre-ordered here. 

Umbrella, 1978

In a recent conversation, one question that came up was, “What was your first successful photograph?”  My mind went back to my days as an undergraduate student in an Art Photography class, taught by a temporary instructor, covering for the permanent faculty member who was on sabbatical.  The class assignment was to directly and obviously do something in the frame of the photograph—place an object, pose a person, whatever—but make it obvious that the hand of the photographer was deliberately involved in the image. 

Umbrella, 1978

As a kid barely 20, I was somewhat appalled at the assignment.  For me, photographs were replicas of the real world, true as the optics that made them.  The idea that the photographer would deliberately alter what was in front of the camera seemed like lying or cheating.  But, of course, many (most?) of the photographs we see every day are in fact manipulations—product photography, portraits, selfies on Instagram… 

Umbrella, 1978

I elected to use an umbrella as an object I could include in the frame.  And somehow the project changed my understanding of what a photograph is—not an object made by a machine—but as something made by people.  A camera is a tool—just like a hammer—and a photograph is made by choices—the choice to have a camera handy, the recognition that something is worth photographing, the choice of a distance and a frame, the choice of the instant to snap the image.  Like poetry (which, obviously, is just words), the choices one makes in these steps determine the look of the resulting image… 

Umbrella, 1978

My landscape photographs are never manipulated in the way the umbrella pictures were—but they are just as much my photographs—the choice of subject, viewpoint, focus plane, and framing are mine. 

Umbrella, 1978
March, 1982

I began to make photographs seriously when I was an undergraduate, as an escape from the rigor of the physics department.  What I loved about photography then was that there was no math involved, and no words needed.  You just took the picture.  But this did not mean that the results were without meaning.  Or Beauty.  If you were careful and lucky, you could make something that made you look and think. 

As a young man, I spent time walking in the woods near my parent’s farm where I lived until I completed my undergraduate education.  I often carried a notebook to record my thoughts, which I would transcribe later into my journals.  I think I wanted to be Henry David Thoreau.  One quote from him I remember now:  “I do not want to find, when it comes time to die, that I have not lived.” 

When I went to graduate school in Philadelphia, I began to photograph the city where I lived, but I also took my camera back to the woods, only 60 miles away, but a different world.  Living in the city allowed me to see “the woods” in a different way.  Plus the joys of a new camera—I started working with medium format in 1981, and 4×5 in 1983—allowed me to go back to old places and trying to find new pictures of a familiar landscape. 

(A short aside—my first medium format camera was a used Bronica S2, with a 75 mm NIKKOR lens, built to be a less expensive version of a Hasselblad.  Unfortunately, it had a very noisy mirror, no shock absorption, and no way to lock the mirror out of the way before tripping the shutter.  Tripping the shutter sent a shock wave through the camera body so bad you could watch the lens rotate from the air pressure wave.   Exposures between 1/8 and 1/250 second were affected, with 1/30 being the worst but also the shutter speed I needed most for my work in the woods.     I resorted to putting the camera on a tripod, a polarizer on the lens (knocks off two stops), stopping the lens down to its smallest aperture, holding a dark slide in front of the lens, tripping the shutter on bulb, and using the dark slide to control an exposure of a second or so.  Needless to say, this was a cumbersome way to make an exposure.  I was embarrassed by the fact that I had spent so much of my very limited funds on a bad camera.   Once I managed to get a 4×5, I stopped using the camera.  A few years later I bought a Rollieflex Twin lens (the cheaper Tessar lens version) and sold the Bronica to another photographer, but I warned him of the issue with the camera, and got only $75 for it.   Thirty five years later, Bob Adams told me that he bought the same camera and hated it just as passionately—Bob very quickly moved to the much better Hasselblad—the camera he used for much of his work for the following decades.)

What I did not know back then about the woods I walked in was the history of the place.  I knew that the virgin forest had been long gone.  One of my neighbors talked about a spot in the woods as a place where “they made charcoal”.  Only recently did I discover that the whole area, probably including my father’s farm, was part of the property of the Martic Forge, a very early industrial site that predated the Revolutionary War.  When the property was advertised for sale in 1769, it included two slaves.  Even after the civil war, many of the workers at the forge were black people, as the work involved was hard, dirty, and dangerous.  When I grew up, the schools I went to were pure white, and I don’t know where the descendants of those workers went. 

I also didn’t know who owned the land—I kept expecting to be confronted by a landowner, but it never happened.  As a matter of fact, I can remember only one interaction with another person on foot—a childhood friend out walking—the last time I saw him before his death at 42.   Now the land is designated as “Martic Township Park”, so it seems likely that the land then was owned either by the county or the township, probably because of unpaid taxes. 

I’m thinking about these images because of an invitation by Lucas Zenk at the Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago to send some prints—small 1980s silver prints.  So I’m digging through the boxes of prints I made then.  To my digitally trained eye, I mostly printed darker than I would now (that damn dry-down—prints shift darker than what you see with a wet print in the darkroom), but some of the prints sing.  At least part of the beauty comes from the “Old Portriga” paper available before 1989 that toned so beautifully. 

Even though the woods I walked in wasn’t virgin wilderness or a national park, it was a place of quiet and solitude.  And it represents what I love about photography—a picture can come to have additional meanings as your understanding of a place matures. 

If you want to see more pictures in this series, download the file below. And you are welcome.

My recent diagnosis has me thinking hard about my life, and the time I have remaining to me.  What did it all amount to?  What do I need to get done before the final end?  How much time do I have?  What will I leave behind?  And I find that much of my attention is on my photography, where I find both the solace of what I have accomplished, as well as the recognition that much of the work is only partially finished. 

My thoughts go back to Robert Adams’ “Beauty in Photography” essay which I first read shortly after it was published in 1981, in a book of the same name.  That essay is a dense tangle of ideas, one I have re-read many times over the years, but one I think I am coming to understand more fully as I age.  To quote from the core of the essay: 

“If the proper goal of art is, as I now believe it is, Beauty, the Beauty that concerns me  is that of Form.  Beauty is, in my view, a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life…  Why is Form beautiful?  Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.  James Dickey was right when he asked rhetorically, ‘What is Heaven anyway but the power of living among objects and actions of consequence.’  Objects of consequence cannot be created by man alone, nor can ‘actions of consequence’ happen in a void; they can only be found within a framework that is larger than we, an encompassing totality invincible to our worst behavior and most corrosive anxieties.

…Is art a sufficient consolation for life?  Can beauty make suffering tolerable?  The fact is, I think, that they are only partly sufficient, if we are not too burdened by disappointment or loneliness or pain, there are certainly times when art can help;  there are moments when great pictures can heal…  On some occasions, however, Beauty, whether in nature or mirrored in art, can be painful.  I have walked in the mountains on clear winter afternoons when the landscape I discovered in the viewfinder was, in its spectacular independence of us, frightening.  I have also come on city tract houses so inhumanly beautiful that they had over them the chill of empty space.  It would be misleading not to acknowledge that on some of these occasions I have had to pack my camera and leave.  Sometimes it has been enough to search out a café blessed with a jukebox, rattling dishes, and human voices.  Family and friends are better though.  What relief there is in an anecdote, a jumping dog, or the brush of a hand.   All these things are disorderly, but no plan for survival stands a chance without them.” 

A family member noted that it seemed like I’m approaching the news of my cancer by trying to find joy.  I beg to differ.  There is no joy in facing the end.  I do not believe that there is a better world beyond.  As Robert Frost noted, “earth’s the right place for love, I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.  And I am not eager to leave it behind. 

What I am finding is consolation.  In my photographs, but also in the view from the porch at the farm and the chatter of the birds, in the conversations I am having with family and friends.  There are moments of joy, but always underlain with the realization that this will end.  Yesterday, when closing the gate at the farm, I turned back to look over the green meadow and the mountains beyond, the old farmhouse nestled in the landscape, I was hit with the realization that this might be the last time I see this view.  Probably not.  Probably I will be back over the next months, but that last view is not far away. 

For years, I’ve been half joking with my wife about where to spread my ashes—I tell her that I’d like to have them spread over the patch of tiger lilies in front of the porch at the farm.  My father loved tiger lilies, called them “shooting crackers” because they bloomed around the 4th of July, and we picked dozens of wild ones for our wedding flowers. When we discovered the patch of them growing at the farmhouse, I knew I was home.   I love the view from there, it comforts me to think that whatever is left of me could rest there.  And I don’t need a tombstone.  My photographs are my monument, the way I want to be remembered. 

I’ve recently been given the news that I have pancreatic cancer.  I’ve been having problems with chronic diarrhea for the better part of a year—thought it was giardia or some other bug from bad water—took antibiotics last fall for that, but it didn’t clear.  It didn’t seem like that big a deal, and the Covid pandemic was rising rapidly, so I waited until I was vaccinated this spring to go to the doctor.  The usual blood tests showed nothing except a low vitamin B12 level, but the doctor ordered a CT scan “just to rule out cancer”.  The CT scan revealed a 6.2 cm mass on my pancreas, slightly enlarged lymph nodes, and several small pea sized nodules in my lungs.  A blood test for cancer tracers came back high.  And yesterday, an EUS (Esophageal Ultrasound) revealed two spots on my liver.  The news is not good. 

So that’s the bad news.  The good news is that I’ve spent most of the last year during Covid working on my photographs, scanning thousands of negatives using my digital camera, organizing them into groups by subject or location, and arranging them into albums as a guide to my archive.  I also spent several weeks writing my memoirs, a task my father did after his retirement.  My wife Rachel couldn’t figure out why I was so obsessed with getting this work done—but maybe at some level I knew the end was coming.    

And the really good news is this:  I’ve had a good life.  A wonderful wife and son and extended family, 26 years living in Alaska, getting to photograph some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth.  An interesting career as a research engineer, meeting many wonderful smart people, working with grad students.  Of course, I wish my life would go on for another 30 years, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.  Life isn’t fair, but some people stay too long while others leave too soon.   

I met Alaskan Poet John Haines several times while working on matching my photographs with his poems, a project he strongly endorsed.  The last time I met him was several years before he died. He was standing in the parking lot at the University of Fairbanks Alaska beside his meticulously cared for thirty year-old car (he was poor as a church mouse).  I greeted him and asked him how he was doing.  In response, he snorted, “I’m too old, too goddamn old” and shook his cane at the sky.  “What I wouldn’t give for one more day at 65”.  I laughed.  But now the joke turns bitter.  I’m 64, and don’t know if I will have that one day either. 

I don’t know how much time I have left—probably at least a few months, perhaps a year or maybe a little longer.   I have a lot of work I’d like to do—publish a couple more books, find a home for my archive, spend as much time as I can with my family and friends.  And I don’t want to clog this blog with the news of my slow demise—I’ve started a caring bridge site for anyone interested in following along there. 

In Fairbanks, photographers used to meet for “photo-lunch” every Tuesday at noon at a local restaurant. I recall one conversation with Barry McWayne, noting that it was important to get our work done. “One day, we’re going to wake up dead, and if our work isn’t done, well, that’s enough to really piss you off.” How do you know when your work is done? As Richard Bach noted, in “Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah”, “If we’re still here, our work isn’t done.”

Robert Adams notes that Art is a consolation, and something that arises out of suffering. As a young man, I didn’t understand that, but now I think I do. Perhaps better than I wish.

Bob Dylan turns 80

Today is Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday.  I guess I should have sent a card, but god knows where on earth he is, and he probably wouldn’t open it anyway. 

I’ve been making photographs seriously for 44 years now, beginning when I was 20, when a large part of the work involved being in the dark, doing very boring and repetitive tasks.  Handling film was done in total darkness—I did open tray development for sheet film–done by touch, not much to occupy the mind while doing it.  The boredom was made bearable with music—my favorite was Bob Dylan. 

Back then, the darkroom music was on cassette tape—mostly because you could handle it in the dark, and with hands damp with developer without destroying the tape.  I tried to always to have enough tape left to get to the point where I could turn on the lights. 

What I loved about Dylan was that every time I listened to a song, it seemed like my head went to a different place than before.  Somehow it seemed that his use of ambiguous enunciation resulted in being able to hear completely different lyrics on repeated listening.  I recall once having an argument with another Dylan fan if the line was “the time the doorknob broke” or “the time Madonna broke”—when I saw the printed lyrics years later, I realized I was on the wrong side of that argument—but listening to the song—albeit on a low fidelity cassette tape—I thought I heard it the other way.  I think Dylan embraces the possibility of misinterpretation.  It might mean something, or it might not.  You figure it out. 

And there is Dylan’s use of absurdist lyrics.  When asked about what some of his lyrics mean in an interview, Dylan claimed that he is interested in the sounds of words—supporting his claim from early on that he’s just a song and dance man.  Of course, in between the crazy lines he creates moments of clarity and brilliance.    And in concert, he often changes the lyrics, which sometimes seems to invert or at least change the meaning of the song. 

As a photographer, my medium is less plastic than Dylan’s.  To make a photograph, there needs to be something specific in front of the lens.  I can’t use silly rhymes, or things that sound like they might be something else.  So, is there a way to embrace Dylan’s cavalier attitude to content?  Probably not.  But here’s my card for Bob Dylan. 

Happy Birthday Bob. And many more to come.

My first five summers in Alaska were spent at a biological field station on the open tundra just above the Arctic Circle. It was located 25 air miles and 50 river miles from the nearest occupied dwelling. It was hundreds of miles past the end of the road.

The river after break-up, late May, 1991

There were few people who ventured to this spot, except local residents in spring to gather firewood, and in fall to hunt moose or caribou. Summers were blessed with thick swarms of mosquitoes, food for the waterfowl and other birds we were there to study, but reason for any sane person to avoid being there.

The river and cloud, 1989

The silence of the place was amazing. Other than an occasional small plane, the only human sounds were the ones of our own making. Sometimes the call of a loon or Sandhill crane would punctuate the silence. Sometimes the only sound would be of blood moving through my own ears.

Village Elder, last trip upriver, 1987

In the spring and fall, there were a few days when the caribou would migrate through. For the most part, they also were silent, except for the sound of their hooves on the rotting ice. There were too many to count, but some days we estimated a minimum of 10,000 passing within sight of our cabin.

Caribou crossing the river in spring, May 1991

How does living in that much space and silence affect a person? I’m not sure I can say. But I miss the place.

Central Oregon, 1985

Some photographic projects are easy to complete.  Shoot a bunch of pictures, pick out the best images to work with, hang a show, edit a print-on-demand book, and you’re done.  Other projects refuse to submit to an edit, and persist, unfinished. 

The most stubborn project in my files is one from the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I did a series of trips by bicycle.  I began in 1977 with a trip from Bennington, Vermont to my home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, before I even owned a camera—I borrowed my sister’s 110 camera—with negatives smaller than my thumbnail—for that trip, and no images survive.  In 1979, I did a ten day trip through upstate New York, in 1981, a trip from Philadelphia to Richmond, Indiana, and in 1983 from Atlanta to Philadelphia.  But the two big trips were one from Denver to Philadelphia in 1984, and from Astoria to Decatur, Illinois in 1985. 

Wyoming, 1985

That last trip was intended to be a trip from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the whole country in a single sweep, and I hoped to edit those pictures into a book.  Unfortunately, I lost both ends of that trip—the post office lost a dozen rolls of exposed film including my pictures of the Pacific Ocean taken in Seaside Oregon, and I abandoned the trip after I developed knee pain after fighting six days of strong headwinds in Nebraska, Missouri and Illinois. 

Wyoming, 1985

So instead of a single set of pictures that covered the whole country, what I had was a group of fragments.  In 1988, I tried making a book where I included each individual trip as a section of the book, and wrote a brief introduction to each trip, with stories interspersed.  I think I was trying to write like Kerouac, but I didn’t have the drugs.  I still have a copy of that draft, with the text printed on the daisy wheel printer from my first computer, the pictures copied on a xerox machine. 

Nebraska, 1984

In the time since then, I’ve spent about a year each decade trying to edit the pictures into some kind of coherence, trying to find a thread to connect the pictures.  Scanners and ink jet printers and desktop publishing software made parts of the job easier, but the editing still remained the ultimate challenge.  I tried adding more pictures—one edit has 700 images in it—a numbing number.  Looking at that version, each image is a “good picture”, but the book has no story line, no flow.

Nebraska, 1985

Eventually, I decided that I had to get the number of pictures down to something more manageable and readable.  It’s sobering to recognize that Robert Frank did “The Americans” in 88 pictures.  And equally sobering to realize that Winogrand for the most part refused to edit his own work.  But where Frank edited for symbols, and tried to edit his stills into a film, Winogrand worked in evidence, fragments. 

Nebraska, 1985

I set a goal of getting the book below 200 images, and to edit in a line from west to east, combining trips, but trying to maintain a line in geography.  In this version, the first pictures are from central Oregon, about 150 miles from the Pacific coast, the last pictures are from central Pennsylvania, about 150 miles from the Atlantic Coast.  There are a lot of pictures from Oregon and Idaho and Wyoming, perhaps because I love the space I found in those places, but also because they occupy a lot of the physical space of the country. 

Pennsylvania, 1984

I’m not sure what to do with the book, now that I’ve arrived at a suitable edit…  So here it is, in its tiny PDF format… It’s my birthday, and this is easier than trying to find a publisher…

Sam’s Club, Fairbanks, 1997

I didn’t start as a photographer of shopping carts—I started doing street photography, on the streets of Philadelphia, pretending to be Gary Winogrand, in the crowds, shooting fast and loose. But then I moved away from the city, found myself in the lifeless suburbs, no street scene, no crowds, no pedestrians. I tried shooting portraits at malls, but the doors were all too wide, and people could sneak away, and I was always worried about the security guards chasing me away (unlike the street, a mall is private property). I started shooting in parking lots, (it seemed like the soul of New Jersey resides in parking lots) and found that shopping carts became the subjects of the photographs. After a while, I started stalking the carts, realizing that they were a subject worthy of attention.

Bentley Mall, Fairbanks, 1998

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, in a place where people always returned their carts to the front of the store, or to the designated “cart return area”. And there were baggers in the stores—often high school boys—who offered to carry your groceries to the car—I always refused—but when things were slow, they would gather up the carts from the return areas and put them at the front of the store.

Randolph, NJ, 1986

I was shocked when I moved to New Jersey and discovered that almost all shopping carts were left scattered throughout the parking lots. I soon discovered why—a real estate boom in the area meant service workers like check-out clerks could not afford to live in the area, so there were always long lines in the store, and there were no bag boys. After a few weeks, I discovered that by the time I got to my car, I was usually furious about the delays in the store (usually 30 minutes or more), and in no mood to spend the extra minute necessary to return the cart to the front of the store. I completely stopped returning my cart to the store after I discovered that there were often no carts inside the store, and you had to grab one from the parking lot if you wanted one in the store. It was a good system, except when it snowed and the stranded carts were simply plowed off the parking lots with the snow.

Anchorage, Alaska, 2000

The shopping carts in Fairbanks seem to be treated better by people, but the climate is more severe. The winters are long, and the parking lots are covered with gravel, which sticks in the wheels of the carts, making them hard to push. (A friend noted how she is embarrassed by a shopping cart with a chattering wheel, as if this defect somehow reflects a personal shortcoming.) Most nights most carts find their way back into the stores, but a few of the lame or those who have straggled too far are left outside to the elements, where the snow piles on top them. And there are stacks of crippled carts in the back of the stores.

K-Mart, Fairbanks, 1997

The odd thing about these pictures is that while they are pictures of shopping carts, at least some of them seem to be mostly about something else. Maybe it’s just the light—the halos under streetlights, the fleecy snow, the dark skies—but I swear these carts are up to something. Looking at the photographs sometimes convinces me that the carts are alive, frozen like players in a game only while I am watching them but moving as soon as I am gone.

Sam’s Club, Fairbanks, 1997
Safeway, Fairbanks, 1997