Northern Exposure

I bought my first roll of film in January 2013, an Ilford FP4 with 36 exposures. I used it to document one of the winter’s many Nor’easters that covered Brunswick in layers of snow. I walked around town in search of a composition, the snow so thick and wind so fast I could barely see the street in front of me through the small view-finder of the 35mm Kodak camera. Every week I brought a finished roll of film to an evening class and in the dimness of the group darkroom held my breath as I took it out of the tank. I mis-exposed, wrongly inserted or developed and in many ways destroyed roll after roll of film but stubbornly came back every Monday night for two semesters. My success rate increased when I moved towards medium format but I still breathe a sigh of relief when I see my now much larger negatives properly exposed.  When it comes to camera formats, I learned one thing; It is a natural progression to go larger and almost impossible to return to a smaller frame.  So when I started using a view camera shortly before coming to Alaska, it soon became clear to me that my dear Deirdorff is coming with me to experience the wild.

McCarthy is a remote community. I knew that due to the limitations of large format I might be able to photograph only in town and nearby. However, only after several weeks in Alaska did I fully grasp the difficulty of my plan. Transporting my gear into a town 128 miles from the nearest post-office proved to be the first challenge. My tripod sturdy enough to support a small house took a quarter of my airport weight allowance so I flew the camera solo via a plane that brings mail twice a week. Boxes of film followed shortly. My portable darkroom for loading film holders and camera backpack never did. Undeliverable said UPS. While living at a location with an undeliverable address appeals to me for many reasons, the artist inside longing to capture the world around with a camera stayed hungry.

I ordered a new darkroom and finally with a camera one size too big, a backpack two sizes too small, six weeks into my stay, I am ready to roll and capture the spirit of Alaskan wilderness. My enthusiasm does not last long as I soon break my tripod. Though sturdy enough for a Deirdorff, it was not made for four-wheeler rides on bumpy roads full of potholes. Another order and a couple weeks to wait before a new tripod head reaches me. The entire summer continues that way. I borrow equipment, use a bed sheet for dark cloth, knitting needle for a remote release, walking stick to tighten screws.  And every-time I make an exposure I hope for a small miracle so that my negatives come out.

Is it completely ridiculous to photograph with a view camera in the middle of nowhere? I worry about the constant presence of dust from gravel roads and glacial morraine. It settles on my lenses and negative holders no matter how frantically I wipe them. I worry about the temperature of the room in a cabin with no refrigerator. Is the film too close to the woodstove and the woodstove too smoky?  Am I scratching the negatives as I change them in the tiny space of a portable darkroom?  Will the film survive when I mail it back home? Should I send it through airport X-rays instead? Or ask for a hand-check and risk the security vigilantly opening the box? Am I risking that after five months I will have no photographs to help me hold onto my memories of Alaskan summer?

But then I look around. I see the majesty of the Wrangells, the old buildings nestled within them, wedged between mountains and glaciers. A century ago the richest deposits of copper were discovered in the Kennicott valley. Mines were erected high in the mountains, three-storied mill sprung in the rugged terrain and a railway was built in the winter across glaciers and mountains. Today the human presence from a century ago still lingers lending the untamed landscape a spirit almost mystical. 

This area grew on determination, on far-fetched ventures that succeeded against all odds, on grit and at times greed but mostly on the resolve and creativity of the people who came with business plans and desires to build their life on the edge of the known world. I look at the buildings in Kennicott and my camera that next to the pocket size cell-phones sticks out like a ghost from the past seems to be the right tool to capture the spirit of the mountains.  Perhaps this is the kind of place where miracles do happen.


©Paul Scannell

©Paul Scannell