Right place, Right time

Juneau filmmaker Joel Bennett wins top prize in the prestigious Alaska Positive competition

Posted: Thursday, February 05, 2004

Six hours and 45 minutes before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and 3,160 miles from Manhattan, there was joy in Kaktovik - an Inupiat Eskimo town of 293 people, 110 miles east of Prudhoe Bay on the Beaufort Sea.

A fisherman had brought in his first whale, a 32-foot male bowhead. The carcass was resting on the beach, 30 feet from the ocean, as the village flensed the meat and muktuk. The town's youngsters danced to "I'll Fly Away," by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch.

Juneau filmmaker Joel Bennett, 60, was in town to help a conservation group film a documentary on polar bears. This was the first time he had seen a whale processed, and he decided to capture the scene for a possible film project.

"I was moving around and around to get different elements for this film, and there were people dancing, people singing, people cutting, hauling away the chunks of muktuk," he said. "There were big machines, front-end loader and bulldozers that they used to move the animal. Everyone in the village had a particular role or function to play."

He paused in front of a wooden clapboard shed - 18-feet wide, 8-feet deep and 10-feet tall - set up 60 feet from the sea as a weather shelter. It had no front wall, and it faced the whale. Inside, four elders sat and sharpened the hand-made tools the villagers used to cut away the meat and blubber. Other villagers scurried about, bringing the men knives, now blunt from use. One elder sharpened a skill saw blade, honed to a razor's edge with a grinding tool and welded on to a long pole. It was brilliant for its utility. When finished, a knife handler could stand on top of a whale and easily cut down into the flesh.

High in the shed, a series of movable, industrial lights (possibly halide), shone down and helped the elders see. The air was filled with steam from the whale.

"The whole scene was somewhat other-worldly," Bennett said.

Bennett leaned against a post and snapped two or three pictures from his roll of 36 slides. He used his manual Nikon F2 with a 20mm lens, Fuji 100 film and no flash. The shutter speed was slow, a 30th or a 60th, he can't remember for sure.

What is for certain is that the factors at play - night, daylight film, no flash, halide lights and mist - created a striking combination of orange, red and sepia-brown tones with no digital manipulation. Bennett's photo, "Kaktovik Whaling Tool Sharpeners," won the Juror's Choice Award in the juried Alaska Positive 2004 competition among 276 photographs submitted by 81 photographers from around the state. Alaska Positive is considered the most prestigious fine art photography competition in the state.

"It felt to me like a whole world was condensed with that single frame," said juror Michelle Dunn Marsh, managing director of Aperture West, a branch of the non-profit Aperture Foundation. "The light was particularly strong, and the composition had a clear focal point but moved throughout the frame. There's a very filmic quality to the frame. I could almost imagine it coming to life."

"The picture came straight out of the camera," Bennett said. "It's at least some evidence that you can do that and not feel like you have to touch up or remove or change light. Since I have a background in making movies, I try to incorporate the sense of movement into a picture, whether it's the actual subject moving or somehow getting the feeling of movement within the picture."

Dunn Marsh picked 45 photographs from 33 photographers to appear in the Alaska Positive 2004 exhibit, which opens Friday, Feb. 6, at the Alaska State Museum in conjunction with First Friday. The show will travel to museums and galleries throughout Alaska from May 2004 to March 2005. The list of exhibitors includes eight Juneau photographers.

Bennett has never entered Alaska Positive before, though he's been tinkering with photography since he moved to Juneau in 1968. He's been a professional filmmaker since 1977 and has worked on television segments - network specials to documentaries to cable channel shows - in Alaska, Japan, Mongolia, Antarctica and Greenland.

He wasn't sure how well "Kaktovik Whaling" turned out until he had it printed on the ink jet at Atelier Alaska Inc., a Juneau printer.

"They were talking about how it had sort of a Rembrandt hue to it," Bennett said. "I can't remember any photograph I've taken at night with daylight film that looked like that.

"At the time, I was making the material in my head into a movie, because it was something crazy and romantic and unusual. I recognized this scene through the viewfinder as something I would consider rare. I always tell people that when you find those situations, you really have to maximize it and make sure you concentrate on it as much as you can. Those times are few and far between."

In Kaktovik, the whale processing continued into the wee morning hours, long after Bennett went to bed at 2 a.m. When he awoke and returned to the beach in the morning, the clapboard shed was dismantled and the bowhead had been reduced to bones. Bennett filmed polar bears until 9 a.m., then drove to the house of his friend, Robert Thompson.

"They had parceled the pieces of whale and muktuk, and he was wrapping the pieces that he had been given on a table outside his house," Bennett said. "He looked up at me and said, 'They bombed America.'"

Bennett was marooned in Kaktovik for four days before he was allowed to fly to Fairbanks.

"It was just about as far away from New York City as you could get in this country in terms of geographical distance, but we were still part of the same country," Bennett said. "They still had CNN up there, and they were looking at it and trying to make sense of it and trying to assimilate it into their views."

Bennett's 412-minute short film of the whale process, "Kaktovik Nights," ties the experience on the Beaufort Sea into the attacks on Sept. 11. The award-winning picture is on the back of the DVD cover. The movie will play at the 4th Annual JUMP festival, 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Feb. 6-7, at the Back Room at the Silverbow.


• Juror's choice award: Joel Bennett, Juneau, "Kaktovik Whaling Tool Sharpeners," ink jet print.

• Recognition awards: Beverly Cover, Anchorage, "Stillwater #1," toned silver gelatin print; Barry McWayne, Fairbanks, "Bas Relief," carbon pigment print; Charles Mason, Fairbanks, "Labor Day Parade; Fairbanks, Alaska," toned silver gelatin print.

• Honorable mentions: M. Susan Condon, Anchorage, "Red Swoop," ink jet print; Sherri Schleite, Ester, "Chair," silver gelatin print.

• Other photos: Jane Cloe, Anchorage, "Marble Carver," liquid light on silk; Jane Cloe, Anchorage, "Street Kitchen," liquid light on silk; Michael Conti, Anchorage, "Creation Myth," silver gelatin print; Beverly Cover, Anchorage, #22 from "Entering Into," toned silver gelatin print; Beverly Cover, Anchorage, "#24 from "Entering Into," toned silver gelatin print; Shar Fox, Juneau, "Spring Rain," oil on silver gelatin print; Hal Gage, Anchorage, "Burden," gelatin ink transfer print; Stephen Gray, Anchorage, "Untitled," ink jet print; Kevin Harding, Soldotna, "Two Rocks and Waves," chromogenic print; Kevin Harding, Soldotna, "Rock Crevice-Kodiak," toned silver gelatin print; Bill Heubner, Anchorage, "Trail to Honolua Bay," type C print; John Hyde, Juneau, "Storm Brewing," Ink jet print; Barbara A. Kelly, Juneau, "Postcard from New York Subway Riders #1," ink jet print; Ron Klein, Juneau, "Celebration 2002," type C print; Ken Kollodge, Fairbanks, "Ready Redhawk," toned silver gelatin print; Iris Korhonen, Juneau, "Mare Insularum," ink jet print; Bonnie Landis, Anchorage, "Reflection," toned silver gelatin print; Bonnie Landis, Anchorage, "Last Light," toned silver gelatin print; Petra Lisiecki, Anchorage, "Azeri Dancer," silver gelatin print; Petra Lisiecki, Anchorage, "Armenian Girls," silver gelatin print; Charles Mason, Fairbanks, "Sculpture Garden; Washington, DC," toned silver gelatin print; Barry McWayne, Fairbanks, "Old Wood," carbon pigment print; Barry McWayne, Fairbanks, "Cushman & 2nd Fairbanks, AK," carbon pigment print; Richard J. Murphy, Anchorage, "Dredge Row Dawn," silver gelatin print; Robert D. Murton, Fairbanks, "Cow Parsnip," silver gelatin print; Michael Penn, Juneau, "Peterson Creek #1," ink jet print; George Provost, Anchorage, "McHugh Creek #7," silver gelatin chloride; George Provost, Anchorage, "Dredge," silver gelatin chloride; George Provost, Anchorage, "Interglacial," silver gelatin chloride; Nancy L. Rabener, Fairbanks, "Buddha by Day, Burma," ink jet print; Nancy L. Rabener, Fairbanks, "Buddha by Night, Burma," ink jet print; Brian Schneider, Fairbanks, "The Leaning Tree," silver gelatin print; Marge Thompson, Fairbanks, "Iris River, Tasmania," silver gelatin print; Brian E. Wallace, Juneau, "Tsimshian Princess," ink jet print; Mark Arvid White, Palmer, "Alyeska Dream #1," silver gelatin print; Kate S. Wool, Fairbanks, "Pipeline, Fairbanks, AK," silver gelatin print; Kate S. Wool, Fairbanks, "Phillips Field Road, Fairbanks, AK," silver gelatin print; Douglas Yates, Ester, "Spruce and Spiral, near Happysiding, AK Railroad," type R print; Aleda Yourdon, Homer, "Jessie," toned silver gelatin print."

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