Archive for July, 2008

Urban wildlife

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008
Urban wildlife

As a nature photographer, I love living in a city like Anchorage. On any day of the week, you can be driving, biking, or walking along and easily encounter anything from fox to moose and, especially these days it seems, bear. But you always expect those encounters to be OUTSIDE the house. Late one night I heard a commotion — no, it did not involve a fat man and reindeer — and got up at around 4:00 a.m. to find the cats running around in the living room. All four of them. I clicked on the light to see what the fuss was about, and saw a bat flying laps in the room.

Of course, my first thought was to wake up my fiance, Michelle, who I knew would appreciate it because we have talked about building a bat house on our property. Through our research, we felt we had good habitat for bats, and who can beat an animal that eats 5,000 mosquitoes a day. When Michelle came out, the bat had already tucked away in between the book shelves and the wall. Unfortunately, he was gone in the morning, but now we know that we have a great location for bats.

Come what may

Saturday, July 26th, 2008
Come what may

As I was finishing up with the bat mitzvah ceremony from the morning, I was disappointed to see that it was still raining. Laura and Chris were getting married over at the Alaska Botanical Gardens and, rain or not, the ceremony was still going to be outside. I hoped that at least it would subside a bit. On m way over to the gardens and walking in, the rain seemed to have let down a little. Guests and family were still huddled under umbrellas and parked under display tents, set up to provide some shelter.

It was a challenging ceremony to photograph, with the core of the ceremony taking place underneath a tent. By the time it was over, though, the rain had ceased and the remaining overcast provided a perfect soft box for photographing portraits in the Herb Garden. Inspired by the architecture of the wood framing and the popping colors in the garden, I worked mostly on inspiration rather than planned poses. One of my favorites, posted here, shows Laura standing where I placed her, but with me capturing what started out to be a natural moment of her reaching for a flower. So much of photography is luck and inspiration, you simply have to be there at the right time with the right gear to make sure you can catch it.

Coming of age

Saturday, July 26th, 2008
Coming of age

I had the pleasure of photographing Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah today. The Bat Mitzvah is quite unlike any “coming of age” ceremony in Christianity. In Catholicism, the earliest is the “First Communion,” which is rather uneventful other than you get to wear a cute suit or cute dress, depending on gender. For “Catechism,” you attend several classes and learn more about theology and practice, but really all it does is make you eligible to become an altar boy or other things up the chain of command. You are considered an adult in the eyes of the Church, but the rest is up to you. And you typically share your “coming of age” with everyone else in your class.

With the Bat Mitzvah, there is only one person who is the focus of the ceremony. The young woman who is coming of age must spend hours learning to read the Torah so when all eyes in the synagogue are looking at her, with the Rabbi standing close by to make sure she is reading correctly, she can read her selected passage – in Hebrew – before her community. She reflects, in her own words, on how that passage is relevant to her own life. The entire Synagogue then shares and celebrates with her. It is truly an inspiration of reflection on theology and its application to modern life.

The solemn and enlightening ceremony is followed later in the evening by a wild frenzy of teens and preteens running about with the parents standing or sitting on the sidelines. The Bat Mitzvah party typically rivals even the liveliest wedding receptions. For Sarah’s, we had several visits from hotel security.

Wall against the fog

Thursday, July 24th, 2008
Wall against the fog

If you live and fly within Alaska, you will frequently hear about the fog in the arctic summer, how often VFR aircraft cannot land in Anaktuvik Pass. On my last photo flight for my trip up to Gates of the Arctic, I saw firsthand why. All the way flying up the John River basin, it was sunny and beautiful. As we got closer, we saw fog fronts rolling in from Anaktuvik Pass and the Chandler Lake area. Then we got above the clouds, up to around 9,500 feet, and saw a thick, dense carpet of fog reaching all the way north and into the Arctic Ocean. It was then that I realized and appreciate a vital role that the Brooks Range plays in the weather, keeping the Arctic Ocean fog at bay. This vast and menacing presence simply came to a halt at the frontal wall of the mountain range. It reminded me a bit of summers in Grand Marais, in northern Minnesota, where the cold air from Lake Superior blends with the warm, moist air of summer to create a thick fog that comes to rest at the edge of the Sawtooth Mountains.

Power of light

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008
Power of light

There are times when the light is just so good, and the subjects are so many, that it is hard to keep up with your surrounding as a photographer. You want to capture everything, and you want to shoot everything from several angles and perspectives, horizontal and vertical. There is just no way to do it sometimes. My final evening doing aerial photography in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve was one of those times.

We started out later to take advantage of the arctic light, taking off from Coldfoot at around 9:00 p.m. We had planned a route that would take us toward Anaktuvik Pass, but we diverted slightly to the west, drawn by the drama of sunbeams through rain squalls, shadows on peaks, and menacing clouds. Mount Doonerak and it’s surroundings looked a bit like Orodruin, or Mount Doom, and the land of Mordor. We circled around a bit so I could work the area, but were limited by the weather activity and its accompanying turbulence. We proceeded toward the northeast corner of the park, eventually following Itkillik River and the Oolah Valley to the northern boundary. All along the way, we we blessed with rainbows, dramatic clouds, shadows and light. As we were heading south, I looked seven thousand feet below us and was able to see a fish swimming at the shallow end of Itkillik Lake. I could only imagine how big that fish was to bee seen from that distance.

It was as we were working our way through and out Oolah Pass that I captured this image. One of many, it captured for me what I had always hoped to express photographically about the Brooks Range’s rugged, vast, and powerful landscape. The light and the shadows allowed me to come in touch with something powerful and infinite.

At the Gates

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008
At the Gates

Again, I was blessed and surprised by a weather forecast gone awry. The satellite image the evening before, the NOAA dispatch, all the information pointed toward a cloudy, possibly rainy day. Instead, we arose at 6:00 to go the the airfield only wishing that we had been up two hours before. (Yes, at this far north above the Arctic Circle the sun would have been up by then.) It was sunny and clear. We headed toward the Gates.

Named by famed explorer Robert Marshall, the Gates of the Arctic, which consist of Frigid Crags (on the right in the photo) and Mount Boreal, are an unmistakable navigational marker on the landscape. Whether looking to the south from the north, as is the case in this photo, or from the south to the north, they stand seemingly as constant guardians of the landscape. Ever present, they give me a false sense of permanence, that this land can withstand anything. The perception gets a bit different when on the ground. After landing at a gravel bar on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River, we noticed that all the dwarf fireweed had already bloomed out. The seasons were already changing in a way that was unnoticeable from the sky. We were also reminded of the fragility of the land, noticing landing strips often used by small aircraft that are essential to travel into the Park. Fortunately, though, it was difficult to notice other signs of human presence, no trash, footprints, or other similar markers of impact. This was particularly surprising given the popularity of this spot for landing to drop off backcountry travelers. It was a happy change from the more often traveled backcountry destinations, such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, where it is almost impossible to go a day without finding a small amount of trash somewhere.

Reward

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008
Reward

As I noted in my previous post, my pilot had suggested that perhaps I should not come up to Coldfoot as the weather had been rather dreadful as of late. I was presented my reward when the thick overcast started to break up and we found blue sky openings amidst the cover, with rays of sun coming through to offer spotlights of the mountain ridges. It was an interesting cover, as the thick ceiling hung directly over the center of the park, while there were hardly any clouds just outside the eastern boundary, just beyond the Dalton Highway. We flew a route that took us over Jennie Lake, the Hammond River, then over to the two peaks that Robert Marshall named “Gates of the Arctic” – Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags. (As a fellow “Battlestar Galactica” aficionado, my pilot and I had renamed the later of which to Frakkin’ Crag within a day or so.) While cloudy over the Gates, the fresh dusting of snow on Boreal provided wonderful contrasts that called upon the photographic works of Bradford Washburn and Ansel Adams.

I was elated to be up in the air, shooting through the slid open window of a Husky. Even in the cloudy areas where we flew, I was happy that the cloud ceiling had lifted considerably, allowing me to photograph peaks that were not obscured by clouds. Snow-blown winds along some of the summits provided nice moody subjects to work with. The nice contrasts between the cloudy areas and the sunlit areas reminded me of both the challenges and the pleasures of being a landscape photographer in Alaska. The weather and light change so much, even in one day, that you are constantly pushed to find ways to create. The only thing that matters – and no, it really does not matter what kind of camera you have – is having an eye open to the possibilities.

This particular photo was taken on the return leg to Coldfoot, with Jennie Lake in the foreground, which is inside the park, and Sukapak Mountain, just outside of the park boundary and along the Dalton Highway, in the background.

Misty mountains

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008
Misty mountains

As I was just leaving Fairbanks on July 21 to continue north to Fairbanks, I received a call from Peter Christian, the National Park Service law enforcement ranger and pilot who would be flying me around for a few days to do some aerial photography in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve. He told me that the weather had simply been awful and that the forecast was not hopeful. He wondered if perhaps I might not want to make the additional six hour trip to get up to Coldfoot.

First and foremost as a photographer, I never cancel plans based on a forecast. In the 1990s television series “Twin Peaks,” Special Agent Dale Cooper, who was musing aloud about the process of forecasting weather while dictating to his assistant, Dianne, said, “If you could get paid for being wrong sixty percent of the time, it would beat working.” Such is the case with weather forecasting when it comes to mountain ranges especially. I declined Pete’s offer to turn around and continued. Our first morning was rather unremarkable, as the ceiling was low, and it was raining and even snowing at times. But whether the weather is good for photography really depends on what you expect to capture. If you are looking for a postcard image or some really bang, pop, wow shot for a stock agency, then cloudy weather is not good. But I was there to photograph the Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic. Clouds, snow or rain are all part of the place. Despite the weather, I was happy to capture images that for me expressed a mood about being in mountains in the arctic north.

The challenge of a vision

Monday, July 21st, 2008
The challenge of a vision

There are many times when as a photographer I find myself truly challenged to capture a place. This week on the Dalton Highway in Alaska, also known as the “Haul Road,” I was faced with such a challenge. In the middle of August last year, while driving the Haul Road to Coldfoot to begin my position as Artist-in-Residence for Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, I saw something that gave me a feeling of potential. Just north of No Name Creek, about a half hour north of the Yukon River, I saw rolling fields upon fields of burnt forest, carpeted with fireweed. Now, the fireweed was done blooming for the season and had begun to cotton, but I imagined what it would be like at full bloom. In my mind’s eye, rolling fields of pink scattered with stumps of black, burnt trees lay out before me. I promised myself I would return and photograph that vision.

As it turns out, imagining the vision is not the same as fulfilling it. I found the rolling fields of pink as I had hoped to, but they could not be photographed that way. Once down in the fields of fireweed, with the flowers coming up to my waist amidst the knee-high fallen dead trees, that perspective of rolling hills was lost. The fields became flat, leaving me only with the immediate fireweed patch to work with. There were no high vantage points along the road, and no shoulder to park on for a higher perspective. This part of the 415 mile mostly gravel and dirt road was merely an island of dirt that dropped into wilderness. So I looked for those opportunities that at least gave me the opportunity to capture a glimpse of the depth of these fields that often stretched for miles from the road.

Pain and pleasure

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008
Pain and pleasure

On assignment for Buzzbizz Studios, I for the first time attended the Alaska Fighting Championships at the Sullivan Arena. Primarily a mixed-martial arts fighting style, the AFC pits two fighters against each other in a caged octagon for three matches. A match is won by a knockout, by a decision by the referee (which is usually based on a fighter no longer making an effort to defend himself), or a fighter crying “uncle” by “tapping out.” While not there to photograph the fights, I enjoyed the opportunity for a new sports subject. My purpose was to photograph the fashion show during the intermission following the fourth match. The show featured outfits by the local biker clothing outfit, Girls Ride Too.