the onset of darkness during the winter always pushes me toward books. i recoil. i get weary of thinking in circles about things that seem trivial when the sun shines, and i need to replace the words i repeat to myself with the words of someone more precise.
my stack of Alaska books on my winter reading list is growing unmanageable. it's funny; when i lived in Colorado i didn't seek out Colorado authors (although i did read quite a bit of Wyoming with Ehrlich and Galvin), and i'm afraid i couldn't name an Iowan book with a gun to my head. this, i regret. but, my need to read Alaskan authors runs deep. i guess it's still my uneasiness about knowing this place. but, with every photo i take i come closer. i'm coming to the realization that if i can understand the Interior and North alone i may have to be satisfied. i've got a lot of work to do.
the question that has nagged at me lately, and one i've been searching for in the books i've been reading is - when are we Alaskan? i don't think just having a 907 area code does it. i know many people here that know no more about Alaska than what the coffee table books at Walmart tell them. i'm wondering lately what unit of measurement is used. i'm unclear, but i do know that as a photographer the requirements for finding something greater are, well, greater.
just when i think i have it down, i think of my good friend (and author) Ned Rozell and my theories get all mashed up. if i used him as a yardstick in my quest to be a true Alaskan i know i would come up miles short, and probably just miss being a man as well. he's true grit.
so, what is it? and more importantly, what does it mean to be a photographer, or an artist in any medium, in Alaska? what are the responsibilities? what qualities do we possess to add to the discussion? aside from geography, what do own to be a part of the dialogue? how do we avoid wholly the clichés and the tourist vistas? what is the cocktail of ingredients? i'm getting a handle on it i think, but it's worth asking the question. it feels like the clichés have been bastardized, and then trademarked, as the truth.
so, back to books. i've been reading John Haines' Living off the Country this week. his book of essays is a much needed steel toe kick in the sweet spot. his criticism and sharp pen is such a refreshing companion to the November darkness.
the following is an excerpt from his essay The Writer as Alaskan: Beginnings and Reflections:
It is not only the land itself that faces us in the North today, as real as that is, but the entire drama of European life on this continent reenacted at a place that leaves us stunned and gasping. The experience is hard to come to grips with; there are few names for it, and too many old responses. We see Alaska through clichés to save us from thinking: "The Last Frontier,""The Great Land." What do these really mean, aside from a great opportunity to grab? "North to the Future," that preposterous slogan once flaunted on the state auto license plates: the whole thing is a travel agent's invention. There is no place called Alaska, just as there is hardly anything today that can be identified as California. But of course there was, and is, such a place, though it can scarcely be found any longer for what we have done to it, and are beginning to do here. What i read about Alaska in magazines is for the most part the superficial message of the tourist-he who comes to gape, but not to understand.
How long might it take a people living here to be at home in their landscape, and to produce from that experience things that could be recognized anywhere as literature of the first rank? Several hundred years? A few generations? we know from history how long a people have lived in a land and then found ways to express that living in song and other forms of art. Closeness is needed, long residence, surrender, abandonment, or just a sense of somehow being stuck with it. whatever it is that is needed, it can't be merely willed. And much of what we say about it will be conditional; in the end it will depend on the right circumstances and on the genius of a few individuals who know what they want to do, and whose material and direction can not be predicted. All we can do is to project a few apparent needs and conditions.
- John Haines