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Tag Archives: Alaska Lancscape

Karupa Lake, August, 1996

Karupa Lake, August, 1996


Alaska As The Measure:  a book project–on KickStater now

I purchased a copy of Robert Adam’s book, Beauty in Photography:  Essays in Defense of Traditional Values in the early 1980s, one of the first photography books I ever bought (when I began a database to track my book collection, this book was the first book I entered).   I have probably read this book at least 50 times, and my copy is far from pristine—a soiled and torn dust jacket, multiple underlinings, and notes scrawled on the insides of the covers.    The book discusses not only photography, but Art, beauty, truth—all the big ideas—in a way that makes sense, but requires careful attention from the reader.   In Adam’s two additional books of essays, Why People Photograph and Along Some Rivers, additional ideas are added to the core created in Beauty in Photography,  but the earlier book is central to his thinking.  And the most central essay is that titled (surprise) “Beauty in Photography”.

8-0551 Selawik River, 1990

Adams argues that the proper goal of art is beauty (page 24), and that the beauty he is most interested in is Form.  “Beauty is, in my view, a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life…”  and then goes on to ask “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 dwelling among objects and actions of consequence.’”

I grew up in a culture that did not value Art (a farming community) largely, I think, because art was not seen as being useful—the coherence and structure underlying life was imposed on the community in the Sunday sermon, and the fields and pastures of the farms provided enough visual pleasure for anyone.

I no longer believe in the sermons, though the form of the fields and pastures of that landscape still give me pleasure (there is something entirely sensuous about the green of a cornfield in evening light in May—why would one want to waste money on a painted canvas?).    I began making photographs right about the time I left the farms, and I remember thinking that what I liked about photography was that I could discover things without struggling with words—I wouldn’t have described it then as a search for Form, but now I think that was precisely what I was after—some way of describing coherence and structure.   Photography was, for me, very useful—a tool to help figure out the world.

The question remains remains—is Art enough?  Adams speaks in other places of the consolation offered by pictures, but when faced with suffering, pictures seem so ineffective.   But I offer them anyway.  Visiting my mother is easier when I turn on the digital picture frame I left in her room—sometimes the pictures will stir her failing memory.  And I have, on occasion, offered prints to family and friends going through rough times—I’d like to think that the pictures help.  I’d like to think I’m doing something useful.

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…