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Tag Archives: Fairbanks

Photographer Robert Adams once wrote that “what disturbs us most about development is not the destruction of some far-off wilderness, but the relentless destruction of those private places near to home where we became, and intend to continue becoming, ourselves.” ACEP (3 of 11)

Living in Alaska for 26 years, I heard, many times, of the impending destruction of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, about to be devoured by the evil oil companies.  Having never set foot on the Arctic Refuge (although my wife spent a summer there, once, a long time ago), I found it hard to get too worked up about that distant wilderness.  I had my own secret places, some of them distant, hundreds of miles beyond the end of the road, some of them much closer to where I lived, where I felt at home.

We moved out of Alaska this past year, sold the house in February.  When Rachel and I talked about the twenty one years we spent there (the longest either of us had ever lived in any place), we agreed that we had developed a grudging respect for the 1970’s tract house.  It was functional, but never our dream home.  There were things we did love about living there, though, including the quiet walks we often took in the nearby woods.

ACEP (6 of 11)

Rachel came back to Alaska to work a summer seasonal job—Ben and I came to visit for a couple weeks, arrived a few days ago—and we took a drive up to the old neighborhood.  It’s changed.  In the past few weeks, the road we lived on has been extended into the small woods at the end of the street—trees cut, a dirt path pressed into the earth—the extension of our street, where new houses will be built.

ACEP (9 of 11)

In many ways, this is neither unexpected, nor a tragedy.  We knew, before we bought our house, that every real estate map showed our road extending through those trees.  We bought in the neighborhood because it was very close to town—now with energy prices higher than ever, it makes sense that people would want to buy houses close to town—and therefore that builders would  eventually accommodate them by completing the development.

ACEP (2 of 11)

But during the 21 years we lived in that neighborhood, that small, quiet birch forest was one of the secret places that sustained me.  Rachel and I, later joined by our Australian Shepherd Suka and our son Ben, took hundreds of walks through those trees—walks often accompanied by conversations about our future, dreams, plans.   There was always something to look at—tracks in the snow, hoarfrost on the high branches, new leaves in the spring, yellow leaves in the fall, bare limbs in fading light of October—always different, but always beautiful and peaceful.

I took a short walk in the woods again a few days ago, late in the evening—it’s a bad bug year in Fairbanks, and I had on a short sleeve shirt, so it would have been an unpleasant walk even if the trees were all still standing—but the stumps, the sawdust, and the powdered silt all seemed to conspire to make the walk especially jarring.  Most of the old pathways through the trees were gone, replaced by a wide swath clear-cut through the forest.  It wasn’t just that some things had been removed and others remained (which was, in fact, true), but that the nature of the place had been profoundly changed.

ACEP (11 of 11)

On one level, it seems pointless to even mention the loss.  This woods was never set aside as a park or recognized in any way as being a special place of beauty.  It was just a piece of land waiting for the housing market to heat up again, enough to justify the cost of finishing the road according to plan.  And I don’t even live in the neighborhood (or the state) anymore—and I have other woods to walk in now—but still, I find myself thinking of what happened as something akin to the death of an old friend.  This woods, which I once knew, has passed on.  Conversations and memories remain, but there will be no new times together.  This walk has ended.

Two days before winter solstice, still stuck in Fairbanks–OK–it’s my own fault–as a photographer and book collector, I’ve amassed all these images on paper–a technology from the 14th century…  It’s taken quite a bit longer than I expected to break free–and the tasks haven’t been made any easier by the weather–a plunge to -47F, a 15 inch blizzard–and the general malaise brought on by the near absence of the sun…

But the light that remains is incredible–I heard a painter recently describe it as “alpenglow”–a term that Wikipedia defines as the glow on mountains to the east when lit by ice crystals high in the atmosphere after sunset–but we have ice crystals right down on the ground here, otherwise known as ice fog–and finally we have cameras capable of capturing that light in a way that feels real…

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November in Fairbanks always feels like a plunge into darkness–each day is seven minutes shorter than the day before–a loss of about an hour a week–and there are sometimes cold snaps–right now it’s twenty below at seven in the evening–might be thirty five below by morning–

But there is light in November–long, raking light cutting through the water vapor clouds from cars and buildings and especially laundromats–


Laundromat Steam, twenty below, Fairbanks, November 2012

I disconnected my darkroom sink today–had to go to Home Depot to get parts to restore the plumbing back to it’s previous condition–but every happy homeowner job I do seems to require three trips to the hardware store–and the light was finally perfect the last trip…

Alpine Glow at Home Depot, Fairbanks, November 25, 2012

You know, I might miss this place when I’m gone–but right now, I just want to get packed and on down the trail…  I used to joke about a bumper sticker I wanted to get printed–“Support global warming–it’s too damn cold here”–but the plan to head south seems much more immediate.

It’s only mid-October…

Snow and Tracks, Fairbanks, October 19, 2012

In all probability, this snow will be here till Easter…  Which happens to be a LONG time away…

Fairbanks, October 19, 2012

I’m back in Fairbanks for a few weeks, packing up my books and my prints, making the move.  I’d been hoping that this would be one of those years when the snow came late (occasionally there is no snow on the ground until Thanksgiving), but this year the snow is here right on schedule, in mid-October.  It’s still relatively warm–low at night about 10, high in the 2os–warm enough for the snow to stay squishy, to melt a bit during the bright afternoons–precisely the miserable snow I remember from my childhood in Pennsylvania.

The digital revolution of the past decade (or two) has had profound effects on photography in general, and my photographs in particular.  Wikipedia defines photography as “the art, science, and practice of creating durable images by recording light”–

Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

For photographers of my vintage—I began making photographs fairly seriously in 1977—the preferred route to “durable images” was through the use of black and white materials—the color papers and films of the time used dyes of dubious durability—but (at least some) black and white images had persisted for more than a century (and many became more interesting with age), so that was the medium of choice.   A finished print was a silver print, usually small.   Once started, I persisted in making black and white images, until the advent of digital printing, which I began to experiment with in about 1998.

Early digital printing (anything pre 2001) was an ephemeral experience—prints could color shift and fade in hours if left in sunlight—but digital technology solved one of the major problems with traditional chemical methods—photographs and texts could be printed on the same sheet of paper.   It became possible (for the first time) to make simple books—something I had been struggling to do for decades.  So I began scanning negatives with gusto, even though the quality of the products were often less than satisfactory.

Fairbanks, January 18, 2012

In about 2001, third party ink sets became available that claimed to use pigments (metal oxides used in paints) rather than dyes, which I began to use (at least in part because ink cartridges were exorbitantly expensive in the quantities I was using them to print books—I was spending about $500 per month just on ink).  Eventually, the ink jet manufacturers developed pigment based ink sets that offered much better stability.

I bought my first digital camera in June of 2001, a 3 mega-pixel Nikon Cool-pix 995, with an articulated body so that I could use it at waist level—and I began to shoot with gusto—and print in color, for the first time in my life—wallowing in color.  In the time since, I’ve had about a dozen digital cameras, mostly the “pro-sumer”  level—relatively compact with fixed lenses, cheaper than the SLR models—pocket cameras that I could keep in a coat pocket or a computer bag, almost always having the camera in reach—at home with my family, when traveling, or just out and about town.   I’ve taken something like 100,000 pictures in that time (so many, it’s hard to count).

Walmart, Fairbanks, November, 2011

Why so many pictures?  Part of the answer is that digital has made it so cheap and easy to make a picture—a single chip costing a few dollars can hold thousands of images—you never have to change film in the camera.

(One wonders what photographers of the past might have done with this tool:   Gary Winogrand noted that “all the good stuff happens when you’re changing film”—and left a freezer full of undeveloped film when he died.  With digital, there is simply no reason to stop shooting.   But John Szarkowski noted, in reference to Winogrand’s frozen legacy that “to expose film is not quite to photograph”  (in Winogrand—Figments from the real world, pg 36)—a reference to Winogrand’s deteriorating technique during his last few years—including his apparent inability to even hold the camera steady in bright light—“It is as if the making of an exposure had become merely a gesture of acknowledgement that what lay before the camera might make a photograph, if one had the desire and energy to focus one’s attention.”  )

Hong Kong, August, 2005

The question becomes, though, is what to do with all the pictures.  Most photographs made now are never committed to paper—no prints are ever made—people view the pictures on their cell phones, or (if they are ambitious) on a computer screen.    I began by making ink jet prints of images I was interested in—I have more boxes full of them than I care to admit.  But prints in boxes are not very satisfying—they are never shown to an audience—even I don’t look at them very often.

In late 2005, I discovered a solution—on demand printing of books—and took to the medium with a vengeance.  Once a pile of digital photographs are selected, it takes only a few hours to arrange them into a book format, write a short description for the body of work (usually the writing is the most time consuming task), then upload it to a distant web site.  In a few days, a complete book arrives in the mail, and the work is at least somewhat finished.  It’s more like a bound stack of prints than a real book, but it is a physical object that will survive a hard drive crash.

But I’ve done several groups of photographs that are much bigger than reasonable for even these little book projects, and so I’ve been thinking about other ways to display them.  New digital TVs often have a USB port that can do slideshows from memory cards, but smaller digital picture frames are also available.  I’ve had a couple of digital frames for the last year and a half (I bought the first one for my 82 year old mother—but it’s too complicated for her), and enjoy watching pictures come and go, something new every time I walk past.

I have a show in a local gallery, and in in addition to the 4 large canvas landscapes made from scans of large format negatives, I  plan on hanging about a dozen digital frames, with a total of 23,000 pictures loaded in them, changing every 5 seconds.  Next to each will be a  single framed print—the 20th century meets the 21st.   One of the points being, of course, there are just too many pictures to look at.  And it isn’t just me—every photographer I know has some version of the same problem.


Trash, Tanana River, April 29, 2012

So maybe this is the dead end that Winogrand hit—when everything looks like it might make a photograph—and there is no reason not to trip the shutter.  Or maybe it’s the beginning of some new kind of photograph—less considered, more fluid, something that’s lasts barely longer than the flash of a lightening bug.

Spring is here–at least the light is back–twelve hours of glorious daylight–the sun rising high above the horizon–it’s still twenty below in the mornings, but that just brings a sense of crispness to the world.

I’m celebrating spring with a new toy:  a Fuji 617 panoramic camera, getting some new pictures.

617-10-1 Aurora Motors, March 20, 2012

617-14-3 Walmart and Lowe's, March 21, 2012

Some pictures sit in boxes for decades, some come from only yesterday.  New toys are so much fun.

But where do these new pictures come from?  Partly they come from looking at the pictures of others–especially the panoramas of Josef Sudek, but partly from looking at the landscape in Fairbanks for twenty years.

I’ve always felt that working with a camera is a cooperative enterprise–certain cameras are able to make some pictures but refuse to make others–it’s my job as a photographer to figure out which pictures the camera is willing to give, and take them.

Fifty Below, Walmart, Fairbanks, Alaska, January 29, 2012

OK–I intended to write something profound–but at fifty below, everybody in Fairbanks is in survival mode–It would be better not to go out of the house today, but we need about four more pounds of butter and a long, hot movie…

Heading home from Blockbuster, Fifty Below, Fairbanks January 29, 2012

OK, so Friedlander didn’t show up in person, but he sure was here in book form–

Friedlander Night in Fairbanks, September 6, 2010

I pulled my Friedlander books  off the shelf (35 of them, if my records are correct), invited some friends over, bought a jug of wine and three pounds of burger, and all of us were amazed (and intimidated) by the volumes of work…  Fortunately, no wine was spilled, and the conversation was wonderful.  Maybe we’ll do it again, after his next 35 books…

One reason why is seems so hard to believe that we emit so much carbon dioxide is that we never see it.   If we make a visible mess of things, there tends to be a lot of pressure to clean up our act, but burning fossil fuels is a real disappearing act.  The gas we put in our cars, or the firewood we put in a stove, or the coal going into a power plant just disappears—so there is nothing to clean up.  It’s already clean.

The exception for combustion is when it gets really cold—like it does in Fairbanks in the depths of winter.   The CO2 never condenses at these temperatures, but the water vapour that accompanies the combustion will—and the clouds from these persist long enough to give a sense of the volume of emissions we leave loose in the atmosphere.

8-4778 17th and Cushman, 2008

I remember once driving from Fairbanks to Anchorage on Thanksgiving.  It was about -37 F in Fairbanks when we left in mid-morning, and even colder at noon when we passed though the flats south of Nenana—it was at least -50, maybe colder.  There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road, and we passed only a handful of cars.  The sun was out, barely clearing the southern horizon,  and I remember looking in the rear-view mirror of my Honda Civic, and realized that I was leaving a contrail on the road behind me—a visible vapor trail from my exhaust, just like the jet trails high in the atmosphere.

I’ve lived in Fairbanks for seventeen years now, arrived back in ’91, and remember the cold snap then, got down to sixty-two below, so cold that oil seals and transmissions were breaking on a lot of cars, and the ice fog was so thick you couldn’t see the other side of the street for weeks. Then one day a storm system moved in, and it went to twenty eight above in 36 hours, warming ninety degrees, and it was still below freezing, but, god, it felt like summer.

It hasn’t been that cold since, but we did have a little bit of a cold snap this winter, settled in the day after Christmas, went to thrity-five below, and kept dropping. There isn’t a whole lot of sunlight in late December, the darkness is fine, but the middle of the day is gray and dingy when the ice fog forms. The cold seems to sink into everything, into your bones, into your soul, and the only thing you can do is try to stay by a warm fire, a warm bed, or a hot bath…

I try not to park my truck too long in the cold, but one day I flew to Anchorage, left my truck at the airport for twelve hours, it was minus forty four when I came back. The truck started just fine, right away, I warmed it up for about a minute, but when I put it into reverse. it didn’t move. I put the transmission into neutral for a minute, and tried again, revving up the engine to get the truck to move a few inches. I put it in forward, then reverse again, rocked it back and forth a few times until I eventually managed to back out of the parking space. When I started moving forward, the ride was really bumpy from the flat spots frozen on the tires. The truck moved very slowly, couldn’t go more than about 20 even after a mile of driving.

The next morning, I noticed a pink spot under the truck where I’d parked it at work, transmission fluid. I popped the hood and pulled the dipstick—looked OK to me. All day, I checked the truck after every stop—I didn’t see any fluids under the engine—must be OK. Next day at work, I got a call from my co-worker—she couldn’t make it into work—the transmission had gone out in her Jeep.

The fog transforms the familiar landscape into something spooky—even though we go to the same places we always go, it becomes an adventure. A trip to the video store turns nerve wracking when a screech comes from the engine, or when another driver wanders across turning lanes in front of us at a stoplight, probably can’t see either the lines on the road or anything through the ice on his windshield.

On day 16, it warmed, slightly, from forty-five to thirty-five below, the fog thined, people move a little bit, forecast is for even warmer tomorrow, maybe snow—the sun shines through, blue skies above—spirits lift. Any day above thirty below is a good day in a Fairbanks winter.