Capturing the big picture

Using 100-year-old equipment, Ron Klein looks to the future with an eye for the past

Posted: Wednesday, August 05, 2009

If modern photography is like the New York Marathon, with professional shooters gripping their $50,000 digital Nikons and blasting toward a finish line, then Juneau photographer Ron Klein is not only dead last in the race - he's not even looking ahead.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

In this race, Klein is focused on the start. He uses a 1920 Cirkut camera to shoot panoramic photographs he turns into public murals, such as the picture of Mendenhall Glacier inside City Hall. The lens on the camera, a Turner Reich Triple Convertible, was made in 1895.

"Digital is fine; it just never should have been given the name 'photography' to it. It's just not the same thing," he said.

Klein's not a purist; he just likes old stuff.

He moved to Alaska in 1975, driving up from California in his 1930 Model A Woody station wagon, the ink on his photography degree from Humboldt State University still fresh. He's always taken pictures for a living, never holding a "real" job with paid vacation time or benefits.

Since his real love is history, he doesn't regret looking back toward photography's beginnings his entire career. He got his first panoramic camera in 1978, a little Widelux Japanese model that allowed him to do museum contract work reprinting historic negatives.

Klein eventually discovered the U.S.-made Cirkut camera. He now owns 12 of the 1,100 ever made, including one in every size. He has used them to produce roughly 25 public murals over the course of his career.

The cameras use rolls of film up to 4 feet long and 16 inches high. Mounted on a turntable atop a tripod, the camera pans the shot as a motor pulls the film across an opening at the front. The result is one big negative that Klein scans and develops electronically into prints.

Klein took the glacier photo in the Assembly Chambers in 1981. It was the first big mural he ever did. He replaced the image this past weekend, after a leaky roof damaged the original.

As he hung the 9-foot-high images like wallpaper on Sunday, Klein talked about why he decided to install the same black and white photograph instead of taking a new one. The picture, which stretches 53 feet across the chamber's arcing front wall, tells a story, he said.

The photo was taken late on a spring afternoon just after the ice went out on Mendenhall Lake. The day had a spring crispness in the air that hints at summer coming, Klein said.

In the photo, a rainstorm that had moved through is still visible on the right, but clouds are brighter on the left as rocks on the beach in the foreground dry out a bit, and a ray of sunlight hits the toe of the glacier.

The feeling is that a storm had passed but better times are coming, Klein said. The year after he took it, in 1982, the strongest effort yet to defeat a capital move met success at the ballot box, when Alaskans turned down a $2.8 billion bond issue to cover the costs of moving the capital to Willow. It was a close vote.

"At the time the photo was taken, nobody knew what the fate of Juneau was going to be. There was uncertainty in the air, it was like a storm coming," Klein said. "It's a good image that has that feeling about it ... it described the time so well."

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279.

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