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Monthly Archives: October 2017

Near Karupa Lake, 1996

A story in the New York Times a few days ago caught my attention—it was about a bear destroying a sound recorder at a remote site in Alaska—at Karupa Lake, in Gates of the Arctic Park.

I spent a week at Karupa Lake in August 1996.  At the time, my wife Rachel was a biologist working for Gates of the Arctic Park.  I accompanied her on the trip as a volunteer, agreeing to help clean up trash around the lake.

Karupa Lake, August, 1996


The trash we were cleaning up came from several sources:  the remains of a cabin that local natives used as a hunting and trapping cabin, 5 gallon metal gas cans used by game guides, and (mostly) 55 gallon metal fuel drums, at least some of them left by an oil exploration camp in the late 1940s.  We crushed and stacked the metal for later pickup, and burned the plywood and 2x4s from the cabin.  I recall thinking, while burning the wood, that we were destroying the only fuel within miles—and in doing so, may have deprived some future person of the means of survival.  It felt like our job was to create a sense of “wilderness” in a place that had, in fact, been the site of human activity before.

I remember picking up a 5 gallon square gas can, probably from 50s, that some vole was using to store dried leaves for the winter—like hay in a barn–shaking the leaves on the ground before crushing the can—probably depriving that animal of his carefully collected food source for the winter, thus insuring its death—but my job was to get rid of human debris.


Karupa Lake, August 1996


Karupa Lake is remote, by any reasonable standard—about 350 miles or so from Fairbanks, on the way to nowhere, on the northern edge of the Brooks range.  The location is beautiful—but only in an Alaskan ordinary way—there is nothing there to attract hikers or backpackers that might justify the several thousand dollar charter flight needed to get there—there are other, more spectacular, more accessible places that can provide a “wilderness experience” for those with the means to pay for it.   On the other hand, it is possible to land a float plane (the way we got there) or a ski plane on the lake—a cheaper (and somewhat quieter) option than a helicopter.

In thinking about the sounds of silence that happen in a place like Karupa Lake—the wind blowing through the leaves and branches of the shrubs—the occasional call of a raven or a hawk, a handful of smaller birds—those are the expected sounds.  But there are also some unexpected sounds—like the clatter of caribou hooves on stone, or the splashing as they cross a shallow river.  But, of course, we think of silence as the absence of sound, or, more to the point, the absence of meaningful sound.  I have experienced, on the tundra, silence so deep that eventually you become aware of an unfamiliar but persistent sound—that of blood flowing through the capillaries of your own ear.  If there are no external sounds, we make our own.

Karupa Lake, August 1996

Of course, achieving silence is possible in places other than a remote wilderness.  It is physically possible to build rooms that absorb all sound, achieving an industrial version of silence.   Of course, the more common way of creating a sense of silence is to create “white noise”—ignorable or comforting sounds loud enough to cover the background noise of our lives.

I once read that most people can keep track of 5 sources of sounds at one time—right now, I’m hearing my son’s annoying music from the next room, the clatter of my own keyboard, the kitchen fan that we always leave on, the sounds of water heating in an electric teapot, and the fan of my computer.  Plus an occasional car moving in the street outside my house.


Near Karupa Lake, August 1996


Composer John Cage once wrote a piece titled “Four minutes, thirty three seconds”, usually called “four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence” which has been performed in concert halls.   It instructs the musicians to sit and do nothing for the prescribed period of time—the music, of course, being whatever the ambient sounds are.  Of course, the audience as well as the musicians are expected to honor the silence—but, of course, there are sounds—the ventilation system in the hall, the unsuccessful attempt to stifle a cough, the siren from the street outside—those sounds become part of the performance of the piece.  The other part of the performance is whatever is happening inside the heads of both the audience and the musicians sitting in front of them.

But it seems like the definition of silence is becoming one of the absence of industrial human sounds.  What happens when no engines or fans or iPhones can be heard.  So silence is being defined as a quality of “wilderness”—what the earth sounded like before we were here.  In other words, silence is what happened after the bear destroyed the recorder.    Or before it was there.


Karupa Lake, August 1996

Wild Pollock, 2017, Pigment on Poster Board, 29×19.5″


A story from the art world:  Andy Warhol rips a picture from a magazine, holds it up, and says, “I made a drawing”.    On one level, he might have been right, in that drawings are sometimes studies for paintings, especially his silk screens that were based on widely reproduced photographs, but I think most would agree that ripping a page from a magazine is less creative than “making a drawing”.

I remember, back when I first started making photographs, some other photographers who went to art school talk about how the painting students would accuse the photographers of suffering from “painting envy”.  At that time, there was a lot to be jealous about:  “serious” photographers worked solely in black and white because color materials were “non-archival”, and most photographs tended to be small objects on paper, and were not really considered to be high art suitable for serious collectors.  Paintings, on the other hand, were big, bold, and colorful, and at least some paintings sold for lots of money.

Museum of Modern Art photography curator John Szarkowski noted that for him to consider something to be art it must first of all be a beautiful object—an opinion that put him at odds with the conceptual art community—but an interesting standard for photographs.  While it is easy to make a photograph—any idiot with a camera and film and access to a corner drugstore could make a photograph—it is much more challenging to make a photograph that could be considered a beautiful object.  I tried for years to make good photographs—it required attention to many things, starting with the selection of a camera and lens, care with focusing, avoiding motion and vibrations, exposing the film properly, then the dog work in the darkroom, developing the film, contact printing, doing work prints, and then finally selecting a few negatives to work with to make finished prints.    I made some photographs I consider to be beautiful objects, though I must admit that most of the prints I made over the course of 30 years don’t rise to that level.  Why?  Mostly because I didn’t have the patience to work with printing—I’d rather be out making new exposures rather than spending time in the darkroom, spending the hours necessary to make beautiful prints.

The Digital Revolution has changed photography, from silver gelatin on film and paper to pixels and pigments on paper or canvas.  Early on, I began to realize that even though I continued to print black and white images scanned from monochromatic negatives, the materials I used were the same as if I were printing in color—and, as a matter of fact, with the printing methods I used, colored pigments were being used in printing the monochrome images.  The whole “black and white is archival, color is not” argument became moot when printing digitally.


Red Dot, Digital File


I bought my first digital camera in 2001—a Nikon 995 Coolpix—a 3.2 MP camera—pretty small by today’s standards—but an amazing camera—it made bright, vivid pictures—and I started printing in color.  In black and white, a photograph depends on shape and texture to carry an image.  In a color image, the most important element is always the color.  The red object (if there is one) is always the subject, because that’s where the eye is drawn.  One of the first things I did with the digital camera was to find red subjects and put them in the middle of the frame.  Those pictures are about as subtle as hitting your thumb with a hammer.

It didn’t take long to figure out that printing from digital files was far different than printing from scanned color negatives.  The one problem with film is the presence of grain—in color materials, several layers of grain—which the scan would attempt to resolve.  A digital file, though, would assign a solid color to an entire pixel, so fields of color would be rendered as a continuous surface.  Even though the files weren’t very big, the resulting prints were quite convincing.


Bullet holes, Tanana River, Digital File


I remember, in about 2004, being invited to participate in a group show in Fairbanks called “the Gun Show”.  I submitted a print of bullet holes in the side of a red truck, printed at about 16×20 inches.  The red paint was rendered gloriously—and hanging in the gallery, it caught the eye of Kes Woodward, one of the town’s best known painters.  He stood in front of the print, shaking his head.  He turned to me and said, with a bitter laugh, “it isn’t fair”.  I laughed.  Damn straight, it isn’t fair.  Finally, photography could do big, bold, red, and beautiful.   But photographs were still fragile objects on paper that had to be protected, behind glass, matted.  Paintings were tough and independent.

I remember making my first large digital prints—it was the summer of 2004, and the university had managed to buy a 44 inch Epson printer—someone in the art department offered to let me use the printer one night.  I showed up with some high resolution scans from 8×10 negatives, and stayed all night, managed to complete 5 prints.  On my way home, about 9 in the morning, I took them to show the local gallery director—he took one look at them, and starting laughing.  “Boy, did you screw up” he told me.  But they are beautiful, I protested—he agreed—yes, they are beautiful, but at 44×55 inches on paper, they are bigger than standard matting materials.  I’d never be able to display them.


Green, 2017, Pigment on Poster Board, 29″x19″



I’ve tried several ways to make big photographs—printing them on canvas (which works, but stretching them is a pain)–thumb tacking big prints to the wall (works, but looks unfinished)—or gluing them to foam core boards (works fine, but is a pain in the butt to do, and often warps).  Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about printing on Aluminum panels, which are then laminated to protect the image surface—which sounds like a robust way to make an image.  However, several images I’ve seen in galleries on metal had very poor detail resolution—something I’m unsure if it was due to the image file or the printing process.   And given the high cost of the aluminum panels—about $10 per square foot for a printable panel—printing on aluminum is not very affordable—especially if a group of images have to be printed for an exhibit.

I did discover that Epson makes an Enhanced Matt Poster Board product.  I’ve printed on Enhanced Matt paper for over a decade—it is a very serviceable printing surface—so I decided to give that a try and see how it looked.  It looked pretty good—especially after a coat of varnish which I had on hand from coating canvas.    And by gluing a wooden frame to the back, I could both stiffen the board, prevent warping, and attach a wire hanger to the back.  The final product looks great, is light weight, and hangs easily.

The resulting objects are big, bold, and colorful–and beautiful.   My son calls them paintings.  So, I guess I’ve made some paintings.  A pretty bold claim for a photographer.


Dumpster Painting, 2017, Pigment on Poster Board, 29″x19″