Ben Huff has clocked thousands of miles on the Dalton Highway, making the 414-mile trek up to Prudhoe Bay more times than he cares to count. But unlike most others on the road — oil field workers headed to the North Slope, tourists headed to the Arctic Circle — his destination was always the road itself.
The Dalton Highway, also called the North Slope Haul Road (or just Haul Road), extends north from the Elliott Highway, crosses the Yukon River and traverses the Brooks Range, and is the only U.S. road to touch the Arctic Ocean. Built as a supply route for North Slope workers in 1974 — still its primary use — it was opened to the public in 1994, giving adventurous drivers access to Prudhoe Bay and miles and miles of open wilderness. Those who undertake the trip must be prepared to dodge speeding trucks and ricochetting gravel, and to go without basic roadside amenities: For one 240-mile stretch between Coldfoot and Deadhorse, there’s literally nothing but road — no food, no gas, no lodging.
Some might find this desolate, Huff’s reaction was the opposite: he saw richness.
“I came back from (my second) trip knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that whether it took me 20 years or whether it bankrupted me, I was going to do a body of work on that road,” Huff said earlier this month.
Photographer Huff, now based in Juneau, first made the nearly 1,000-mile round trip journey from Fairbanks with his wife, Deanna. He’s since made many repeat journeys, gathering photos.
“Everything I was looking for — in dealing with the landscape, the people, the built environment, with our ideas of progress and nature and oil and commerce, all these things kind of bubbled up into one, all riding on the back of this western notion of jumping in the car and heading west, looking for something, discovering something — whatever it is you’re trying to find. And largely that’s what I was doing, too.”
Portions of the body of work he eventually created, called “The Last Road North,” have been shown in galleries and shows around the country, including FlakPhoto’s “100 Portraits, 100 Photographers” — most recently shown in Sydney, Australia in July — and the 2008 “Alaska Positive” and “Rarefied Light” statewide traveling exhibits — both of which came to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. He’s also shown portions of the work online.
“The Last Road North” combines images of the landscape, the road and the scant gathering spots around it with environmental portraiture — human subjects captured in their natural environment. The work has garnered him widespread critical acclaim and, most recently, a spot at the Lishui Photo Festival in China. Last month he was also honored with a Connie Boochever Artist Fellowship; the $2,500 award recognizes Alaskans who are “emerging artists of exceptional talent in the performing, literary, visual and media arts.”
Huff will use the fellowship to travel to China for his opening in Lishui; 14 of his photographs will be featured at the festival as part of an exhibit called “American Life,” organized by an independent American curator, Larissa Leclair. Huff’s work will appear along with the work of another American photographer, Brady Robinson of Washington, D.C. After the festival, the exhibit will spend a year traveling to museums around China.
Huff said he didn’t think he’d get the chance to accompany his photos to Lishui, and is thrilled to have an opportunity to present the work in person.
“Initially I wasn’t going to go,” Huff said. “It’s a huge opportunity.”
Huff and his wife first came to in Alaska from Colorado in 2005 so Deanna could pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They were fully prepared to “get in and get out,” once Deanna’s degree was complete, but two years in they changed their minds, having fallen in love with the city.
“I never woke up a day in Fairbanks when I wasn’t totally aware of the geography, whether it was 40 below, or whether it was midnight sun, or the aurora or whatever,” Huff said. “You did always feel you were at the edge of something. And that was really attractive to me.”
Still, as an aritst, Huff, 38, who’d only been serious about photography for a handful of years at that point, wasn’t really finding what he wanted in the urban landscape. Up until 2007, he was shooting “anything and everything,” with only partial success
The Haul Road project signaled a significant shift.
“It sounds really corny, but somewhere on that road I discovered how to be a photographer,” he said. “I found a voice and a found a comfort and I found a process and I found a rhythm that I hadn’t discovered until there.”
Beginning in 2008, Huff dedicated himself to the Haul Road. Making multiple trips up and down the highway, usually alone, sometimes in the winter, often sleeping in his car. A Rasmuson grant he received in 2008 allowed him the freedom to travel and to make the switch from digital to large-format film, a medium he embraced not only for the end product it would give him but for the slow and deliberate approach it required of him as a photographer.
Part of what intrigued him about the project was the idea of Alaska as an “extraction state,” where people come up to get what they want — gold, oil, whatever — and then leave. He was also interested in the idea of a modern frontier, and Alaska’s position at the end of a long push west and north.
“That whole body of work is about being able to drive to this frontier that may or may not exist,” he said.
“It’s that last bit of frontier — but by us being there, its not frontier anymore.”
Huff and his wife arrived in Juneau in May, after Deanna accepted a job at the Department of Environmental Conservation. Since they got here, Huff has been working on putting together a book of images from the Haul Road project, a task he’s nearly completed. He’s also finishing up a master’s degree in fine arts through UAF, teaching a photography class at UAS and working at Hearthside Books. Although he misses Fairbanks, Huff said he’s glad to be back in the mountains — something he missed in Fairbanks — and to be living on the coast.
As for the “get in, get out” mentality he once had about Alaska, he’s happy to have gotten past it, and is now focused on “getting out” to experience more of the state, adjusting his vision to accommodate the dramatically different, vertical landscape of Southeast.
“I’m trying to just get out and respond to what’s in front of me,” he said.
Huff is scheduled to have a solo show at The Canvas in 2013.
To see more of Huff’s photos, visit huffphoto.com.