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Harriman Expedition Retraced


expedition log



Kim Heacox

Alaska Light: A Presentation on Photography

Photography has changed a great deal over the last 102 years since a young Edward Curtis sailed on the original Harriman Expedition with his large-format, back-and-white cameras. Today we have color film, motor drives, long wildlife lenses with exceptional optics, smaller cameras powered by batteries, and most recently the digital age that allows photographers to download images from their cameras into their computers, and to manipulate those images however they wish. A new fiction has thus entered the word of photography, and with it a thousand ethical questions about what is art, what is photojournalism, and who's accountable for one passing for the other.

Alaska itself has also changed since Curtis' time. It is much more populous, with 630,000 full-time residents. It's not as wild. Anchorage and Fairbanks, the state's two largest cities, have developed a bad case of the sprawls and show no signs of slowing. Every year Alaska loses wild country and habitats to concrete and clearcuts, pipelines and roads, while the boomers - nineteenth century-minded men and women who believe in the Myth of Superabundance - behave as if the land will never end.

I see my job as a nature photographer to go out there and show the beauty of Alaska, what's left of it, and what we have to lose, and at what rate we're losing it. Yes, the light in Alaska remains magical, as I'm sure it was a century ago. The mountains, fjords and wildlife can be breathtaking. But it isn't postcard-sunny-day-tourist-brochure Alaska that interests me so much as mysterious Alaska, the wisps of fog, the mountains that rise into clouds, the bears that emerge from shadows. I don't strive to capture an animal with my photographs, but rather to set it free. Early in my career I wanted to fill the frame with a bear or a whale - get the great portrait. Now I prefer that the animal be framed not by me, but by the grand landscape of Alaska. I want the image to say "wild and unbounded." I am saddened by zoos, and disturbed by nature photographers who photograph ranch-raised wildlife (bears, mountain lions, lynx, bobcats, etc.) and pass them off as free-ranging animals. This too is an ethical dilemma of the modern American nature photographer, and it supports my desire to document an Alaska that requires no embellishment to enrich our lives.

Samuel Johnson once wrote, "If a man has experienced the inexpressible, he is under no obligation to express it." I confront the inexpressible every time I go into wild Alaska and sleep in my tent for ten days, watching the light on the land. I walk about for the first day or two without my cameras, so as not to see everything in f-stops and shutter speeds. I elect not to photograph wolves and ravens as my own little exercise in restraint. Otherwise everything would be for sale. I would find myself commercializing wild Alaska for as many waking moments as a cruise ship owner or a tour packager. Alaska might then become for me what it is for them, a product. Best then, I believe, to go out and fast for awhile.

The photographer who most inspired me is Michio Hoshino, a friend from Japan. He came to Alaska in the late 1970s, as did I, after some disillusionment with academia. He invented himself as a photographer, earned worldwide acclaim, and was tragically killed by a rogue bear in Kamchatka in 1996. Michio once shared with me his concern about growing old. He was about to turn forty, and was unmarried and without children. This bothered him. "Michio," I said. "Aging is just a state of mind." His English was rudimentary and he didn't understand this, so I explained "state of mind" - how some young people can be old, and some old people young.
He said he understood, and after a day of wildlife photography in incredible Alaska light, he said, "Kim, I now have a state of mind."
"That's good, Michio. What is it?"
"Alaska," he said with a smile. "Alaska is my state of mind."

He didn't get it. But in a deeper sense he did. He understood Alaska and he never grew old. He got out there and slept on the ground. Photographs were not something you "take." For Michio, they were something you "make." He set the animals free, and I will never forget him.




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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