FAIRBANKS — J. Jason Lazarus follows maps, rumors and his intuition into the Interior’s gold country. He’s after old cabins, faded newspapers, maybe one of the 10 dredges that once operated in the region.
Lazarus first became interested in photographing mines when he was a recent UAF graduate in search of an archaeological thrill. Ten years and many photographs later, he still finds exploring mining ruins thrilling and he’s developed a respect that borders on reverence for mining history.
“The boom and bust cycle of gold mining creates a culture that really isn’t into history,” he said last week at his office at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where he works as a computer technician, adjunct photography lecturer and darkroom manager.
“We’ve got the stories of E.T. Barnette. We’ve got the stories of Felix Pedro. But what about the small guys who worked these massive mines. What were their lives about?”
Many mining claims were abandoned during World War II as the men enlisted in the military or were drafted. Some of the miners never returned, leaving a part of their lives behind at abandoned mines.
Many of Lazarus’ photographs focus on daily life, with compositions that combine abandoned objects with the scene where he found them. Some of his favorite artifacts found in miner’s cabins include food orders from the Model Cafe, a half-completed handwriting workbook and correspondence in Swedish between a miner and a Minnesota travel agency about his niece’s passage to America.
To depict the mines, Lazarus takes two approaches, one brown and one colorful.
In one, he makes sepia-colored photographs using the Van Dyke Brown process, a mid-19th century technique that would have been old-fashioned at the time the mining cabins he photographs were built. First, using either a Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex camera or a Mamiya Rz67, he captures the images on medium format film. The film is then scanned and printed on photo transparency and exposed to a bright light next to watercolor paper that’s been treated with the Van Dyke Brown chemicals, which come in a small brown bottle from a company in New Mexico.
The other approach involves colored gels, glow sticks and sparklers. In these photos, Lazarus takes long-exposure photos and uses the colors to make light paintings. Often the effect is to use the sparklers to create the illusion that long abandoned machinery is running again.
Lazarus uses maps and tips to find abandoned mine sites. Most of his work has been around Ester, the Steese Highway and Elliott Highway, though he’s also been to a few non-Interior mines. Locating landowners and persuading them to give him permission to photograph is often the hardest part.
Some landowners who don’t want to attract crowds have agreed to let him photograph as long as he doesn’t disclose the location.
Lazarus keeps his photography in a portfolio box while he uses it for a master’s degree in fine arts. He wants to eventually display it in Fairbanks.
“I want people to see them (the mines and cabins),” he said. “The whole idea behind the project is to instill a sense of respect and to treasure what we have left before it’s too far gone.”