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Tag Archives: Alaska Landscape

As a beginning photographer, a long time ago, I struggled to understand why my photographs looked the way they did, and didn’t look quite like the photographers I admired.  And, of course, I tried buying bigger cameras and better lenses when I could afford them, but still it seemed like I was missing something.

Ansel Adams, Mt McKinley Alaska, 1948  (artblart.files.wordpress.com)

When I moved to Fairbanks, I noticed that there was a big print, close to 40×50 inches, of the Ansel Adams view of Mt. McKinley hanging in the student union building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  For a while I assumed it was a big poster–but eventually realized it was a silver print, made by god himself, Ansel Adams.  It’s a really famous image–probably the most widely reproduced and best known photograph ever made in Alaska.  It’s the cover image of the book “The Portfolios of Ansel Adams”, with an essay by John Szarkowski.

That print commanded the room–you had to look at it.  It was intimidating.  I recall the first time I made some big prints–about the same size as the Adams–including one of my images of Denali–though from a different camera position than Adams, and in different light.  I loved my image, but of course it wasn’t the same picture as Ansel’s, and I really didn’t want to make a comparison—but I knew others would.  So was my picture “good enough”–was it up to snuff?  How would it hang next to that famous Adams image?

In the introduction to the book, “The Portfolios of Ansel Adams”, Szarkowski writes about Adams’ “legendary technique”, in which he states “In fact, Adams’ photographs are no sharper–no more optically acute–than those of any other competent technician using similar tools.  They are more clear–a matter not of better lenses, but of a better understanding of what one means.”   (That essay, in it’s entirety is, is something I’ve read many times over the years.)

With that understanding, I took a special trip to visit the McKinley photo again, this time to look at it closely, the way I looked at my own image, close up and personal–from six inches away.  And what I discovered rather shocked me–from that distance, there were some black dust spots on the negative (a few, but they were there), some of the grain pattern was slightly out of focus–and the grain pattern clearly showed this was from a 4×5 negative.  And the image was warping and yellowing slightly.  Szarkowski was right–as a physical object, this print had problems–the usual ones that every photographer struggles with.

 

Dennis Witmer, Denali from Wonder Lake, July 4, 1996

After that close look, I walked past that photograph many times, but I wasn’t intimidated by it anymore.   It was like seeing an old friend.  And then, one day it was gone.  The place where it had been for years—it wasn’t there anymore.  Eventually, I discovered that it had been moved, back into some student offices in the same building—hung out of public view.  I have no idea why the print was moved—perhaps out of concern that someone would steal the image (god knows what that print would sell for)?  Or protect it from damage?  Or maybe it just became too “uncool” for current sensibilities?  After I found it in its new place, I would sometimes go to look at it.  The students in the office always wondered what I was doing there—“just looking at the picture”—they seemed to act like I was doing something weird.

But, in the long run, what impressed me most was how effectively Ansel had intimidated me for so long.  He had created an illusion–and a very effective one–that prevented me, and I suspect almost all viewers of that image, from looking to closely at what he had actually done.  He convinced me, for a long time, that his image was perfect and impossible to equal.  It was an icon.

That experience profoundly changed the way I look at almost all photographs, especially my own.  When in a museum or gallery, I take off my glasses, and look at photographs from six inches away, the way I would look at an image on the ground glass.  And in my own work, I think of my job as trying to create an illusion, not of replicating the world.  It’s magic–like a card trick–and sometimes I think I pull it off.

 

 

Calumet C1–First Pictures–New Jersey January 1987

I’m selling two 8×10 cameras on Ebay right now, along with about a dozen lenses. Feels good, at least so far. I promised  my wife I would do this when I bought the Sony A7 RII last fall—it’s time to let the stuff go.  Hopefully some other photographers can make pictures with these great tools.

I think I was drawn to the 8×10 because of the photographers I admired who worked in that format–Eugene Atget (OK, his camera was slightly smaller), Edward Weston, and Walker Evens.  I knew a few photographers who tried to make the step up from 4×5, but found the format just too hard–but George Tice seemed to think that 8×10 was the only “real camera” out there.  But I must admit being a bit timid about making the jump–which is why I first bought the Calumet C1–a very affordable, but dependable, 8×10.

There are some photographers who fetishize their equipment—they keep it stored carefully most of the time, and only take it out to use on special occasions—and you get the feeling that they care more about the amount of money they paid for a camera or a lens than the pictures they make with it. I’ve always been the opposite kind of a photographer—I want the pictures, and am willing to use the equipment hard to get them. In Alaska, I had a term for it: the “bottom of the river” camera. If the camera wound up at the bottom of the river, I didn’t want to care. The other mantra I had was that the best camera for making any picture was the one you had with you. The sharpest lens in the world doesn’t make any pictures sitting on a shelf at home. For years, I carried a Rollei Twin Lens Reflex (the cheaper Tessar lens version) camera in my backpack every time I went to the field—into the rain and the snow and the mud. I wore out that camera in about 5 years, and bought another one just like it. After a few years, the second one started falling apart, thankfully in a different way, so I took both of them to my camera repairman and told him to take the two cameras and make one useable one out of them, and keep the rest for parts.

I bought my first 8×10 in early 1987, after seeing an exhibit by a somewhat famous photographer at a local college, who was selling 8×10 contact prints for $500. I had just started a job at a big corporation, and thought about buying a print, until I went to the lecture by the photographer. His arrogance convinced me I didn’t want to invest in his work—instead I went out looking for an 8×10 camera to buy. I found a camera (a Calumet C1), a lens (a 16 ½ inch Goerz Gotar) and a tripod (a Davis and Stamford) for slightly more than the cost of a single print. Within about 6 months of making that purchase, my wife and I moved to Alaska, for the summer, but we stayed on, for 26 years.

Calumet C1–Front Street, Kotzebue, February 1988

Working with an 8×10 camera is in many ways, a deliberate act of frustration. Since the camera is so big, you need to find a safe place to set it up—no pictures from the middle of the road. There is often only a small number of safe places to set the camera up—so you need to find a picture from that vantage point.

The camera is big and heavy, hard to carry. It takes a big tripod to support the camera. Then the camera needs to be set up—a process that takes a few minutes, to adjust the front and back standards and attach the lens. Then the fun begins—open the lens, go under the dark cloth, and go through the process of focusing the image. In landscape, this usually means finding a plane that goes from the foreground to the horizon, an action that requires a simple tilt of either the lens plane or the film plane. Then the real moment of pleasure—looking at the image on the ground glass—upside down, of course—but somehow that transformation turns the subject in front of the camera into a picture—a two dimensional representation of the subject.

Ice–2005. 8×10 image–can’t remember the camera.

Then comes the actual moment of making the exposure. The light is metered, an exposure calculated. The lens is closed, the f stop adjusted, the shutter cocked. The film holder is inserted into the back of the camera, the dark slide pulled and sometimes used to shield the lens from the sun. Then the shutter is tripped. That’s it. Dark slide back in place. Film holder pulled. Camera disassembled and put away.
But there are a host of issues that can happen to ruin a shot. Light leaks in the bellows, or the film holder. An unnoticed slip of any one of the movements on the camera. Wind vibrating the camera.  And then the process back in the darkroom—developing the film (I used open trays in total darkness), labeling the negatives, doing a contact proof print. And then reloading the film holders for the next shoot.

Before Walmart opens, Fairbanks, 2004. First shot with Deardorff 8×10

And then there is cost. B&H is currently selling 8×10 sheet film for $4 a sheet, and then there is chemistry and negative sleeves. My guess is $5 a shot. When I shot 500 negatives a year, that’s $2000 in just film—about the price I just paid for that Sony 42 MP digital camera body.

Fairbanks, March 2006. Deardorff 8×10

And time. I figure that every 8×10 shot I make is an hour out of my life, between the camera time in the field, the darkroom time, and the scanning time. The agreement I have with myself is that if I make the shot in the field, I will make at least one proof print—even if it’s a bad picture, I want to try to learn something from it.

Gulkana Glacier, Deardorff 8×10, Summer 2008

So what makes working with an 8×10 worth it? The obvious answer is that the big negative gives a richness to the print that is difficult to achieve with other formats—but there are excellent cameras and lenses in smaller formats that also make splendid photographs. My own reason for liking the format have to do with the directness of seeing a picture on the ground glass that translates into the final image. I once said that the reason I use an 8×10 is because it’s the fastest camera I’ve ever used—the fastest way to a finished print. When working with smaller cameras, I had to first do a contact sheet, spend time editing, go back to the darkroom, make work prints, edit again, and then make finished prints—three trips into the darkroom, and lots of wasted time in the process. With the 8×10, one trip to the darkroom and a little luck can get you a print you can look at for decades.
That moment of seeing the image on the ground glass is often burned in my brain, sometimes for decades. When shooting with the 8×10, the last thing I do before falling asleep in the evening is to try to recall every shot I made with the camera that day—I can usually do it. I’ve never been able to do that with a handheld camera—too many pictures to remember. I can still recall some images that do not exist because of technical difficulties–they are still framed and still in my mind.
I don’t know if I’m done with the 8×10 yet—I’m working on a couple projects now (grain elevators, crowds) that are well suited for hand held work–the 8×10 is just too slow—but I haven’t sold all my 8×10 equipment. I am holding on to the Phillips—a balsa wood and carbon fiber camera—light and easy to carry, by 8×10 standards—and three lenses.

Last shot with the Deardorff 8×10, Grand Coulee, December 2016

What I think I have learned from working with the 8×10 all these years is the importance of taking time to find and frame a picture. Working hand held with a tilt shift lens is much faster—but I still find myself thinking about the pictures in the same way—find the light, find a place to stand, look through the camera—how does the image fill the frame—is it level—is it focused—is it worth pressing the shutter? And then, where’s the next picture…

The Western Landscape is a classic subject for American Photographers ever since the invention of photography—one might even argue that photography invented our vision of the American west, with views by O’Sullivan, Muybridge,  Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams (and many others).

Lee Friedlander has turned his delightful eye on this subject.  In the 2005 epic retrospective book, “Friedlander”, the last section (68 photographs) is devoted to “Landscapes”.  This work seemed to be something of a continuation of “The Desert Seen” (1996) in that iconic views are frequently relegated to the background of photos that seem to feature sharply focused rocks and trees in the foreground.

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite National Park, 2004

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite National Park, 2004

In 2008, Friedlander published “Recent Western Landscapes”—a book I pre-ordered on Amazon, but never received a copy of.  Apparently the book sold out before any copies were shipped to Amazon.  I’ve never managed to find a copy at a reasonable price, so have never held that book in my hands.

So when “Lee Friedlander:  Western Landscapes” was available for pre-order on Amazon in mid-summer, I ordered a copy, fingers firmly crossed.  It arrived a few weeks ago, but I gave it to my wife so she could wrap it as a Christmas gift.  Weighing in at 7 pounds, and 14 X 15 inches, with 189 full sized plates, each reproduced at 12×12 inches, the book feels epic in both scope and size.  The printing can be described only as perfect, in the sense that one cannot imagine that looking at an original silver print could offer more pleasure than the reproductions presented in the book.   (Given my modest means as a collector, purchasing an original Friedlander print is well beyond me, but purchasing a second copy of this book and desecrating the binding with a razor so I can frame and hang at least some of these images may be a temptation I can’t resist.)

Lee Friedlander, Point Lobos, 2012

Lee Friedlander, Point Lobos, 2012

The book begins with a series of images from Point Lobos—the neighborhood playground of Edward Weston.  There are many other easily recognized places—Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Zion National Park, Arches National Park—as well as numerous images of seemingly anonymous tangled trees.   There are a handful of images from the Canadian Rockies, and one from Mexico.

I must confess one disappointment with the book, albeit a personal one.  My first reading of the book was to look at the pictures, one by one, hoping to find some Alaskan Landscapes.  In “America by Car”, Friedlander included eight images from Alaska, all dated from 2007, so it seemed reasonable to hope that a few of Alaska’s majestic views caught his attention.  I did not see any recognizable views on my first reading, but examination of the captions at the back revealed one image was from Alaska—plate 145.

Lee Friedlander, Alaska, 2007

Lee Friedlander, Alaska, 2007

At first glance, this image is, in my humble opinion, one of the least interesting images in the whole book, a disappointment to someone who has spent a significant part of his life attempting to photograph the Alaskan Landscape.  The foreground appears to be a grassy bank—not typical of Alaska–it looks like a road cut—which occupies more than half the frame—and beyond that, some scruffy trees, and a sliver of a river in the distance.  Only after looking at the image for a few minutes did I recognize the view—one I’ve seen many times, though never photographed in the way Friedlander did—it is a view of the Susitna River from a tourist pull-out on the Parks Highway about 130 miles north of Anchorage.  The pull-out was built to provide a view of the south face of Denali, a splendid view when the weather is cooperative, with the braided channels of the Susitna River in the foreground and the mountain in the distance, a view that could be seen—in clear weather—by pivoting ninety degrees to the right from the Friedlander picture, and walking a few hundred feet to the tourist viewing area.

My question is, why did Friedlander include this picture, rather than one of the iconic mountain?  The simple answer, and probably the most likely, is that the mountain was hidden by clouds during the time Friedlander was there—a guess suggested by the clouds that appear in the upper right corner of the frame.  From the “America by Car” images, Friedlander includes two pictures of rain on the windshield of his car—weather typical of late summer.  While, on average, the “mountain is out” one day out of five, there are streaks of bad weather where the mountain might not be out for weeks at a time.

So why did Friedlander include this picture at all?  Is it intended as a snub at Alaska—a “this place is really overrated” statement?  Or is it an admission of defeat—between the weather and the almost exhausting array of possible subjects, he walks away without an iconic frame to include with the others?  Or is this picture an inside joke–a deliberate look away from the iconic view?   Of course, the picture is mute.

There have been multiple books on the American west that don’t include a single image of Alaska—so having one—even boring—picture included is perhaps a way of saying that Alaska is included in his view of the west.  There are at least two other states represented by a single image in this collection—Nevada and Idaho.   Maybe “the West” is too big for any single photographer, or single book.  But he includes two photographs from New York—hopefully at least west of his house.

I’m happy to note that Ben Huff’s “Last Road North” is now available for sale on Amazon.

I must also confess that I am not an unbiased observer when it comes to this book—Huff is a friend—and I watched this project develop over the years. I first met Ben in about 2006 in Fairbanks, he was photographing the grit and grime of town, but wanted to get out. He was also completely taken with the work of photographers working in large format color—but too broke to even consider buying a camera or film. I’d been working with 8×10 for about 20 years at that point in time, and offered to loan him one of my cameras, buy a few sheets of color film, and see what happened. What happened, of course, was that he came to his senses, and settled on 4×5 as a more manageable format—I briefly loaned him my 4×5 to give that format a try.

Ben Huff in Coldfoot, June 2008

 

About the same time, Ben started his exploration of the Dalton Highway. For me, the Dalton highway is “on the road”, and therefore part of civilization—I’d spent several years living on the open tundra in Northwest Alaska—where if you got into trouble, help could be days or weeks away—on the road, there was always someone you could flag down and get help from. But Ben saw the road differently—for him it was a push outward into the wild space that still remains and characterizes Alaska. And he was fascinated by the misfits and misanthropes that seemed to settle at the edges of the road—a group of people I’ve always taken care to leave alone.

 

Ben Huff plays matador, February 2011

Ben Huff plays matador, February 2011

Ben made dozens of trips up the Dalton—I’ve done far less—but we did two trips together—the first a summer trip in my 1984 beater van— memories—the bugs in Atigun Gorge were intense, and I caught Ben doing a selfie with mosquitoes all over his face—we talked endlessly for about 2 days until we were exhausted—the last few hours back into Fairbanks we listened to my 1960s Bob Dylan cassette tape collection, laughing. The second trip was in late February, a weekend with storms blowing through the Brooks range—we intended to leave Friday, but I stayed home after hearing forecasts of blowing snow just north of Fairbanks—Ben tried to go out anyway—turned around not that far out of town. The next day we drove to Coldfoot, halfway, to find dozens of trucks idling in the parking lot—Atigun pass had been blown shut for days—the next day we drove as far as we could—no traffic on the road at all—we stopped where we wanted and set up our tripods in the middle of the road—an amazing day—and that trip, after we tired of talking, we listened to a CD of poet John Haines reading his work.

I watched Ben struggle to arrange his photographs into a book—to find a thread that kept the project together. In the fall of 2011, shortly after he moved to Juneau, I spent an evening at his house, and he showed me his attempt to edit his pictures into a sequence for a book—pictures hanging from string with clips—we rearranged them looking for a sequence that worked—and I offered to write an introduction to define the thread—which I did in about 20 minutes:

 

People come to Alaska for all kinds of reasons, but there is a look that some of them have, a little wild eyed, hell bent towards something, like the third generation bastard offspring of Kerouac, edgy, that identifies them as one of them, that “into the wild” crowd, the refusal to compromise, to take advice, to listen, that occasionally results in death, but mostly just results in pushing things until the wheels come off, or they lose their grip on the road and go sliding into the ditch…

Alaska is full of wanna-be photographers and writers, just one of the forms of madness that drive people north, to find the end of the road, the real wilderness.   John Szarkowski wrote that Americans are scared by a sense of innocence, and one of the places they come looking for it is in Alaska, some of them end up on the Dalton Highway, that 500 mile long gravel ribbon crossing some of the most amazing space left. The road is there because there is oil at the end, and the big trucks that own the road are all there to support the oil fields. But other people come—tourists, hunters, drifters—mostly because it’s as far north as you can go, to get away from everybody else. Most of them never leave the side of the road, never venture off into the empty space.

The first picture I ever saw that Ben Huff made on the Dalton was precisely the kind of picture you’d expect from one of those young men—taken through the cracked windshield of his car—of snow swirling in the doom of twilight—and of course he made it while driving alone in November, coming back from one of his first trips up the road, listening to Mat Dillion reading Kerouac’s “On the Road”. I’d already seen a group of his photographs made around Fairbanks—a little spooky, the color pallet of the failed painter, the intensity of someone intending to make Art.  You knew he was up to something, so long as his tires didn’t shred.

On the Road, with Ben Huff, February 2011

On the Road, with Ben Huff, February 2011

 

But how can one take a space as large as the land this road crosses and make the place your own? It is too big, too cold, too desolate, so much beyond the scale of human comfort to ever be home. It is a place that attracts our eye, but ultimately is so severe that it drives us away. Nobody lives in Prudhoe Bay—the workers come and go on week long shifts, the truckers drive up the road one day, drop their loads, and run back home.   Most of the people that come and try to live along the road give up after a few days or weeks and move on. The place is just too damn hard.

I know, from conversations with Ben, that he thinks these pictures aren’t enough—I’ve watched him plan his “last trip north” about half a dozen times now—but what he perhaps is still too young to realize is that no picture or set of pictures will ever be enough—that place is still beyond his grasp. As it should be—and hopefully will be for generations to come. But I’m grateful for his pictures of the place and the wild men that drift through it.

 

It has taken several years to get the book published—with a wonderful essay by Barry Lopez—and sans my own introduction—but I still think it defines at least one thread that runs through his pictures.