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Tag Archives: Alaskan Landscape

A friend, an 89 year old woman, lost a son to cancer this week. I never met the man, but her grief is intense. She is a very private woman, and has refused visitors during this time, even though she is too old and frail to travel to be with her family gathering around the body.

Pond and Rain, 2005

When she told of us of his rapid decline and likely death, two weeks ago, my wife and I sat in stunned silence. This friend is one of the most composed and elegant people I have ever met, but she has seen death and madness before: her husband’s family fled the holocaust in Germany, her husband died of a heart attack at 48, and her mother was murdered in her bed, a crime that remains unsolved decades later. And now the death of her son. Words fail.

View from my kitchen window, 2008

A few months ago, this friend led a Sunday morning service at the small church we sporadically attend, and she read a poem, attributed to Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

It is a lie
any talk of god
that does not

Thinking about that poem, I started looking at my photographs of the Alaskan Landscape in a different way.

Summit Lake

For some years, I have been consciously thinking about numinous landscapes, places where spirits exist, a term first suggested to me by Barry Lopez. In the landscape, I have sometimes felt myself to be in the presence of something that opens up and reveals itself to me, sharing secrets. I have tried to respond to this by saying thanks to the place, to what spirit I do not know, as I put my camera away.

Snow, Murphy Dome

Now, looking at my photographs, some of them seem to contain some ineffable presence that comforts. Perhaps it is no more profound than the headset offered by the dentist doing a root canal—a way of looking away, putting your mind in another place during a painful moment—but I’d like to think it’s something more. More than eye candy—perhaps as strong as morphine—something to soothe the pain.

Tasinia River, 2005

Robert Adams speaks of the purpose of art as “consolation”—a term very much associated with comforting those in times of death.


Tanana River, 1994

Of course, visual images have been part of religious worship for a long time. In my home, I have a Greek Ikon I found at an estate sale a few years ago—a picture of the Madonna and child—something that doesn’t hold much meaning for me. (Every time I look at it, I think of the Dylan line “my grandma prays to pictures that are pasted on a board”.) So perhaps the idea that some photographs can invoke thoughts of the divine is not so absurd.

In the Jewish tradition, a family sits in mourning for a week after a death, and receives visitors. These visitors are advised to be silent, to bring small gifts of food. Since our friend is refusing visitors, I’m trying to honor the tradition by sending her photographs by e-mail, one a day, each morning. I call it “sitting digital Shiva”. I can only hope it is a comfort.

When I was growing up on the farm, a long time ago, my father would give me chores to do—feed and water the cattle, weed the garden, pick tomatoes—and even though the work was necessary for keeping the entire enterprise going, I resented doing those chores—it took time and effort, and kept me from doing the things I wanted to do—playing ball with my friends, shooting my BB-gun, or reading a book…   I left the farm, in large part to escape the endless, thankless chores, but, as every functioning adult soon realizes, chores are not limited to farm life…

Working with the 8×10 involves many chores—loading film holders, lugging heavy equipment around, developing film—all chores that cannot be avoided if one is to continue working.  But printing—now that’s a chore that can be avoided for a long time, with few immediate consequences.  Once the negatives are safely dried and stored, they can sit years…

8-5169 Moving Ice, Yukon River, May 9, 2009

When Gary Winogrand died, he left a freezer containing 2500 rolls of exposed but undeveloped film behind plus an additional 9,500 rolls of film developed but not edited—an unprocessed archive more than a third of a million  images—to be developed and printed by others.  John Szarkowski writes of the frustration of the editor attempting to stagger through this mass of images, how many of the images were of subjects far from the camera, many were not sharp because Winogrand failed to hold the camera steady at the moment of exposure, as if even he lost interest in the image before the shutter was released, already moving onto the next image.  Szarkowski then notes that a photographer needs to bring his work to completion, to make prints, to see when he is failing to successfully make the images he wants.

8-5236 Taylor Highway, July 3, 2009

When working with a large format camera, the investment in each exposure is significant—for the 8×10, Tri-x is now $5 per sheet, and the time associated with the chores in the darkroom and the time of travel to the place where the image is made often averages well over an hour of effort.  I have a commitment to make at least a proof print of every large format negative I shoot.  In the days of the darkroom, this was a contact print, based on a guess at the exposure, done quickly, usually in lots of 32 images in a single 3-4 hour session in the darkroom, a number picked based on the number of prints that would fit in my print washer.  Now that I’ve moved to digital printing, scanning doesn’t require a fixed block of time, but the amount of time is actually greater—the flatbed scanner I use takes several minutes to complete a scan of these large negatives.  But the “exposure” is easier to adjust, and the resulting proof is very satisfactory for evaluating the success of the image.

I often fall behind in my proof printing, usually during the summer, when travel into the landscape is easier, and other plans and chores take precedence over time in front of the computer.  When I take a trip, I usually process the film shortly after arriving home, store and label the negatives, and scan and print a handful of what seem to be the best images, mostly because I want to see the pictures, but also to reassure myself that there are enough successes to justify continuing working.  But last winter, I never got around to the proof prints of the new negatives from the summer, and a few weeks ago, I realized that I had a stack of about 600 negatives to be proofed, too far behind.  I had just told a young friend about the importance of looking at every image—so I took my own advice and started scanning.

I’m about half way through the chore, I can do about six scans an hour—but I’m finding some wonderful images in the stack–

8-5095 Betly Mall, January 2009

Before Timothy O’Sullivan, most easterners had no idea what the west looked like, and the overblown romantic paintings of Bierstadt and Catlin did little to help.  Part of what may have kept O’Sullivan honest was the fact that his employer, Clarence King, was a scientist, though the core of King’s theories based on cataclysmic events shaping geography have been largely discredited.   But the scientific nature of the work led to documentation of the ordinary as well as the beauty of the landscape, and his pictures, as a whole, feel more honest than many of those who came after him.

FingerMountain, Dalton Highway, June 1994

FingerMountain, Dalton Highway, June 1994

And while the expeditions that O’Sullivan worked on were difficult compared to my modern trips in my battered RV, I often find myself staring at mountains or rock formations that are strikingly beautiful, but not over photographed.   This land has not yet been adequately described, either by scientists or artists–and part of my job is to try to see this place as clearly as possible, and to make photographs that carry what I see.  Part of what makes O’Sullivan’s photographs so wonderful is the space that remains in the west–a space that remains in Alaska.

Pipeline, Near the Yukon River, 2005

Pipeline, Near the Yukon River, 2005