With new book, longtime Alaska photographer reflects on Mendenhall Glacier

Author talks about personal history with glacier, his process and more

Standing outside his studio, photographer Mark Kelley grinned broadly and pointed to a tree next to the parking lot.

 

Two bald eagles perched at the top of the tree, silhouetted against the cloudy sky. Even after nearly 40 years of photographing some of the most scenic locations in Alaska, Kelley still finds excitement in seeing eagles perched on a tree beside Glacier Highway in Juneau.

Once inside his studio, Kelley sat down and leafed through his 12th book of photos, “Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier.” The photos inside it span five decades of his photography and even include historic photos that date back to 1894.

The dozens of photos in the book mark the passing of time both for the glacier and the people of Juneau. Kelley spoke for more than an hour about photographing the glacier, his own relationship with it, and more.

On his professional history with shooting the glacier:

I started photographing in ’79 and have been doing it ever since. The real problem was, I was never smart enough to think of, ‘I should just go out there every July Fourth or whatever, take a picture standing at one place and then I would have had 42 years of what it looked like.’

So I had to settle for this concept. In the ’80s and even in the early ’90s, it didn’t seem like it was going back that fast. Then it all of a sudden, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, it just started like, ‘Oh my God.’

On his personal history with the glacier:

I like the book a whole lot. I’ve been photographing it for a really long time. I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of days there, in, on, around and under it. We raised our kids there. This book is full of, this is my son and some friends, this is my wife and some friends, this is our favorite camping spot. …

It’s the place I spend the most time of any place, both recreationally and professionally. This is just really my history here. …

The photos are supposed to be illustrative. It really bugged me that I haven’t done what I spoke of before, taking a picture once a year. In the 2000s, 2010, 2012, I was thinking, ‘How do I illustrate this?’ I remembered, I had taken that picture in ’86.

I just think that’s illustrative of why they need a new book. My thinking, I’m always trying to illustrate what I think is important and it just talks about the passage of time and history. That’s what this book is all about.

On his co-collaborator Nick Jans’ claim that the Mendenhall Glacier is “postcard perfection,” and what sets it apart from other glaciers:

I think that might be a little hyperbole, but it’s a really clean, wonderful, white glacier. …The classic shot that’s the postcard picture is of course the view from the Brotherhood Bridge. Now that’s the postcard. You’ve got this incredible set of mountains, you’ve got flowers, you can’t get more picture-perfect, postcard-perfect than that. So I think maybe it’s not hyperbole. …

When you shoot Tracy Arm, like I love Tracy Arm, but when you shoot them, they don’t have that beautiful, beautiful setting. Let’s just start comparing glaciers. Saywer Glacier (at Tracy Arm), that’s OK, but I don’t think it has ‘postcard perfection.’ It’s kind of all dirty. It’s just very cold.

On his favorite section of the book:

‘Local Time,’ just talks about when (tourists) have left. People often wonder, ‘How long does it take?’ I was looking for an iceberg and the fall colors. It took me four or five years, I forget, to get this shot. First of all, I wanted a big iceberg.

I needed good fall colors and I needed it to be sunny, like late September, early October. Usually it just rains all October. October is just miserable. I’m out there in my kayak, year after year, and maybe there are years where I couldn’t (take the photo) because it rained and rained.

This fall color, it happens. You never think of Juneau in fall colors, and this is a pretty good display of it. It took four or five years from when I finally figured it out. I was out there in my kayak paddling around and thought, ‘Oh man, wouldn’t that be cool?’ And then to get the peak colors, with the light, with the big berg, I think the picture’s really successful. It illustrates that we do have fall. It’s a rare moment.

On what’s next for him:

I always have projects. I could do a book a year with all the pictures. We’re doing a Northern Lights scarf. Ladies’ apparel, I never thought I’d be into it, but it’s been doing really well. I think it’s really beautiful. Now with the success of this, I’ll probably have a scarf line. I’ve got a couple of books in me; I’m just getting to the point where I need to retire.

 


 

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at alex.mccarthy@juneauempire.com.

 


 

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