Mark Kelley believes there is no other place on earth better than Juneau.
And that’s not boosterism, he said. “It’s truly what I feel.”
For more than 30 years, the acclaimed local photographer has made his home in this little town, a sliver of civilization wedged into a wilderness teeming with wonders of the wild — a photographer’s playground, some might say.
He’s built a career on capturing Alaska through his lens — first as a photojournalist for the Juneau Empire, then as a freelance photographer, a publisher and business owner cultivating products such as annual calendars, books, postcards, greeting cards, magnets and this year, bookmarks. His images, primarily of Southeast Alaska and Juneau, have graced the covers of magazines, such as Alaska Magazine and Outside. He’s sold more than 60,000 copies of his photo book, “Glacier Bay National Park,” and was honored with the Benjamin Franklin Award for that publication in 2001. Annually, Kelley said he sells between 12 to 15 thousand books a year.
Tonight, Kelley will kick of this year’s Fireside Lecture series at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center with a slideshow presentation titled “Juneau’s Backyard: Bears, Whales and Wilderness.” He said he’ll share images of Juneau and it’s wildlife and talk about why he decided to make his home in Alaska’s capital city.
Kelley’s reasons are simple, he said.
“(We) have the Mendenhall Glacier fifteen minutes away, the end of the road is a half an hour away, Eaglecrest is a half an hour away, I can go to the Auke Bay docks in fifteen minutes, then be out whale watching in another 15 minutes. In the summer, I can go whale watching in the morning, and can come back here in bad light and do a couple hours of work and then I can kayak to the front of the glacier and shoot ice bergs, or whatever else, then on the way back I can photograph bears,” he said. “Tell me where else in the world I can be able to have that access to that stuff.”
Combine those opportunities with the community of Juneau — a vibrant group of roughly 30,000 residents who have access to an indoor ice rink, multiple turf fields (one of which features an indoor track), two swimming pools, theater and a city-owned ski area ... it’s a recipe for an amazing place, Kelley said.
Sure, he’s had offers to work elsewhere. Like the time Kelley won “student of the year” while enrolled in a Masters program at the University of Ohio. He said his professors tried to coerce him to accept job offers at high profile newspapers, but ultimately he was only concerned with getting back to Juneau.
Initially, Kelley moved to Alaska in 1974 to attend the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. He graduated in 1978 with a degree in journalism and northern studies and went on to work as a photographer for the local paper for 14 years until 1993, when he left to freelance full-time.
“I got what I went for; to further my education,” Kelley said of his studies in Ohio.
It was around that time, in the early 80s, that he decided Juneau would be home — for good.
“It was April,” he said. “And it was one of those beautiful days where it had snowed, you know, one of those rare days where it snowed, and then the next morning it was blue sky day. I went skiing. I was working for the newspaper, at the time. So then, I went out and (covered) the first sailboat race of the year. I sailed around and took some pictures. Once I finished, I went back and skied at Eaglecrest. I got done skiing and went to Mike’s, down in Douglas. And when I walked out that night, there were northern lights. I said, ‘Ok, now where else could you ski, sail, ski in the same day?’”
It’s this multilayered environment, Kelley said, that locals have access to, which is hugely engaging and intriguing.
“And then you stuff in a bunch of whales and bears ... it’s an amazing place,” he said.
Of course, then there’s the weather.
“Everyone says, ‘Oh, but the weather is miserable.’ It is miserable. It can be miserable,” Kelley said.
But when it’s great — he said as he gestured to a tabletop covered in his photos — it’s really great.
Kelley’s lecture, at 6:30 p.m. and again at 8 p.m. tonight, will mark the second time he’s spoken at the annual Fireside Lectures, which have been held every winter since 1962.
Laurie Craig, lead naturalist for the U.S. Forest Service managed Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, said she’s excited for the public to see Kelley’s presentation.
“Of course, everyone knows Mark’s pictures are beautiful,” she said. “But to see them on the big screen ... they are just breathtaking.”
Craig said the photos not only underscore the aesthetics of this region, but they also highlight the fact Juneau residents are on the edge of an incredible wilderness.
One image in particular, a scenic shot taken from Spaulding Meadows in the twilight of winter, will open the presentation.
“We can have one foot in the civilized world and one in the wild world. It’s the magic of living here,” Craig said. “And yet we don’t have to suffer — we’re not sleeping in tents — we have great amenities and great assets right outside the door.”
Kelley kicks off a series of lectures which will be held every Friday night through March. Each is free and open to the public and Craig, who plans the lineup for each season, said they will touch on everything from earthquakes and tsunamis in Southeast, to sea otters, bears and Arctic terns. She said over the years she’s learned a thing to two about what folks want to hear about.
“I try not to be redundant, to get a good mix of topics, but above all else fur sells,” she said. “Bears, wolves ... animals are the keenest thing that people are interested in.”
Just the other day, Kelley said he grew tired of working inside.
“So, I walked out to the Menenhall Glacier, and there wasn’t much going on. But then somebody said, well there’s goats ...” he said. “And so I jogged back around the corner ... and there — in the most perfect light — were two to three. In roughly 30 minutes I was out photographing wild mountain goats. Tell me where I’m going to do that in any other part of the world — and then also have this community.”
“We’re on the edge of this unbelievable wilderness,” Kelley said. “I think, that’s what keeps me here. And that’s why I won’t leave.”
• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at email@example.com.