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Monthly Archives: August 2010

Barry McWayne, 2001

In conversations with several people over the past couple of days, one question keeps coming up:  What happened?   Barry was in his mid 60’s and full of energy, especially since his retirement in 2007.  He was in excellent health, never had respiratory problems, heart problems or a stroke.  His parents lived well into their 90’s, and like them, Barry seemed well poised to grace us with his presence for several decades more.  His death came as a complete shock.  So what happened?

The answer, so far, is that no one knows.  Barry and his wife, Dorli traveled to the Lower 48 in late May.  After they returned in early June, Barry had a red mark on his ankle, almost as if the edge of his shoe was irritating his skin, and complained of feeling sore and tired.  He went to the hospital Emergency Room, and was given IV antibiotics for cellulitis (a bacterial infection of the skin), followed by a course of oral antibiotics.  This seemed to knock back the infection for a while.  In late July, Barry complained of headaches and fatigue, and was admitted to the hospital in Fairbanks on Thursday, July 22.  His lungs were filling with fluid, and he was septic.  On Friday evening he was placed on a ventilator and sedated to allow his blood oxygen to remain at acceptable levels.  On Monday, July 26, his blood oxygen levels dropped, and the pressure and flow patterns were changed on the ventilator to increase the pressure in his chest to make sure that enough oxygen could reach his blood stream, barely averting death.   Over the next several days, his condition seemed to improve, and the blood oxygen levels remained stable while oxygen levels on the ventilator were being reduced (indicating better lung function).   He was allowed “sedation vacations”, periods when the sedation was lightened and he aroused a little and interacted with family and friends.  However, the doctors were uncertain what infection was causing Barry’s condition (Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever was one condition that has been ruled out).  On Sunday, August 1, while he was stable enough to transport, Barry was medevaced to Anchorage in the hopes that the larger team of doctors there might be able to diagnose his condition.  He seemed to improve through the week, but on Friday, August 6, Barry did not emerge from sedation as expected, and showed other neurological signs that concerned the medical staff.  An MRI of his brain on Saturday, August 7 indicated a fluid build-up on his brain and evidence of neurological damage.  The neurologists informed Barry’s family that the situation was inoperable.  On Sunday, August 8, in accordance with Barry’s stated wishes, the ventilator was removed, and he ceased breathing a few minutes later.

I realize that none of the above makes any more sense than being hit by a truck.  Life is not fair, and none of us know how long we have to spend here on earth with each other.   Barry’s departure is especially painful, as he was such a warm and generous soul.

A limited autopsy has been conducted and samples collected in an attempt to determine what nasty bug is responsible for Barry’s death.   Perhaps in a few weeks someone will be able to give a name to this evil pathogen.  Perhaps we will never know.  All we know for sure now is that we have been robbed of a good man and a great friend.

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It is with great sadness that I learned that my dear friend and fellow Alaskan photographer Barry McWayne died earlier today.

Barry McWayne, September 2007

I met Barry McWayne shortly after moving to Fairbanks in 1992.  Barry founded a local photography club known as “Camera Arts” long before I came to town, in the 1970’s.   The name he chose for this group indicates something of the ambition he held for himself and the type of people he wished to associate with.  Fairbanks is a small town; the winters are long and cold; sometimes it seems that survival itself depends on finding and culturing a network of like-minded friends.  The club met once a month on the third Thursday (if I recall correctly), but in addition, there was an informal meeting every Tuesday, known as “photo lunch”, where photographers met at noon at a specified restaurant.  There was never an agenda, roll was never taken, fees were never charged, and no one who wanted to join the table was ever turned away.  Some people came regularly, nearly every week; some came only occasionally even though they live in town; and some returned after years of living away, to join the group when they were visiting.  Conversations often centered on films and lenses (in the 20th century) and the latest Photoshop features (in the past few years), but any topic was acceptable.  There was always a lot of laughter at the table.

Barry and I were not always interested in the same kind of photography—he loved the work of Ansel Adams, and pursued his own work with a sense of craft and vision defined by that great master.  My own sensibilities favour more recent artists, but I’ve looked at Ansel’s prints whenever I could, in museums and galleries.  And I must say that Barry, during his days in the darkroom, made prints that were (at least by technical printing standards) equal and often better than those signed by Ansel himself.  But Barry, like many other photographers here in Alaska, never found the audience that his work deserved.

Barry’s photographs that he so carefully crafted will remain.  His work is done.  May he rest in peace.  But I will miss his laughter at the table, and his willingness to welcome others to join him.  Winters will be longer and darker without him.

Barry in the Back Yard, Summer 2001

Barry McWayne, Igloo Hotel, Parks Highway, Alaska

My family and I  spent last weekend in our battered ’84 Chevy Camper Van, out on the Alaskan road, looking for pictures.  When I came home last night, a package was waiting for me, from Amazon, with a copy of “America by Car”, the new book by Lee Friedlander.  I started thumbing through it, amused by the usual visual cacophony that Friedlander seems to always  find in the American landscape, until I was stopped short by an unexpected, familiar Alaskan image—the Igloo Hotel on the Parks Highway—a place I’d just visited on Saturday.

Lee Friedlander, American by Car, Plate 38, Alaska 2007

The Igloo Hotel is a unique structure, built in the shape of every child’s image of an Eskimo igloo, but much larger, and covered in white foam that gives the structure the feeling of snow, even in the heat of summer.  Whoever built it certainly understood the iconography of the north, the pull of familiar objects.  Unfortunately, they had a much less developed sense of fire codes—the windows they installed in what were to be the hotel rooms did not meet egress standards, and it became clear during construction that the hotel would never get an occupancy permit.  The building was never finished, and stands as a monument to the Alaskan impulse to just do it and ask for forgiveness later—behavior sometimes justly seen as a form of stupidity.

Once I found the first Alaskan picture, I knew he’d been here, and I started looking for others.  They were very hard to pick out based on the images—thankfully there was  a caption list in the back of the book—and once the labels were connected to the pictures, I could identify most of the places and even some of the trucks in the images.  It appears from the pictures that Friedlander’s destination was Denali Park (at least I can’t identify any places north of there—and I’m sure if he’d made it to North Pole he would have found something wonderfully absurd there).   I’d like to think that he was chasing his own twisted vision of the Ansel Adams Wonder Lake image.  Maybe he was and he got the picture, but that isn’t what he gives us in this project.

Lee Friedlander, America by Car, Plate 151, Denali Park, 2007

What he presents us with instead is a image of a Park Ranger with a perfectly peaked hat, a somewhat forced grin, and the overall demeanor of a gopher that just popped out of his hole.  In his rear view mirror is the taillight of a school bus.  The landscape is familiar to anyone who has spent time in Denali—it is at the ranger booth at Savage River, the limit to which  unpermitted vehicles are allowed to travel into the park before being told to go back to the front of the park, get out of their car, stand in line for several hours, and get a ticket to get on a bus (a school bus with bad suspension) three days later so that they can endure a five and a half hour grueling ride to Wonder Lake and spend a few minutes before they need to get back on the bus for the equally long but even more uncomfortable and exhausting return.

In Friedlander’s landscape work (hopefully still in progress), he often takes a familiar scene and partially obscures the familiar landmark in the distance with some obstruction in the foreground.  Here, of course, the obstruction between the photographer and his subject is that silly grinning Park Ranger, telling him that he can’t take his car back into the park just to frame his picture.  So he perfectly frames the Ranger, and creates a photograph worth considering next to  Ansel’s—the black car door instead of the darkness surrounding Wonder Lake, the crisp crease in the hat instead of the white glow of the mountain.  As much as Ansel’s image, this, too, is a perfect picture of Denali…