To capture the aurora

Young Japanese photographer seeks his Northern muse

Posted: Monday, November 15, 2004

Norio Matsumoto expected to go to college, find a job and get married. That's what you do in Japan. But a book changed all that.

The book was written by Michio Hoshino, who left his native Japan to take pictures of Alaska's landscape and people. His photographs have appeared in American journals such as National Geographic, Geo and Audubon. In 1990 he was awarded the Kimura Ihei Prize, Japan's highest recognition for photographic art. On Aug. 8, 1996, Hoshino was pulled from his tent and killed by a brown bear at Kurilskoya Lake, a remote refuge in Russia. He died at 42.

"He was in such a beautiful place, spending his precious time in the wilderness - something I would never dream of in Japan," said Matsumoto, 32. "I wanted to spend my time that way."

Inspired by Hoshino, Matsumoto quit college and came to Alaska in 1995. He first attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks and then transferred to the University of Alaska Southeast, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1999.

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Matsumoto had no experience in camping or photography before coming to the United States. But during the past nine years, he has camped alone at remote places such as Akusha Island in Stephens Passage to take pictures of whales. In winter, he flew to the Kahiltna Glacier and stayed in a snow cave he built to shoot Mount McKinley and the aurora borealis.

In a slide show at UAS last Thursday, his stories and breathtaking pictures of the northern lights amazed an audience of about 250 people.

"For me, a good picture is not enough. It's the whole experience," Matsumoto said. "There are some places where they have a platform and photographers can stand and take pictures of animals. It's like going to the zoo."

Matsumoto weighs 120 pounds and is about 5 feet 3 inches tall. He has a timid smile and large, gentle eyes. But this is a man who has chartered a plane to fly to the southwest fork of Kahiltna Glacier for the past five winters and stayed there by himself for one or two months.

His search for the northern lights first took him to Mount Saint Elias, near Wrangell.

"When I was in Juneau, I asked myself what was the most beautiful thing I could shoot," he said. "I decided to take pictures of northern lights with the highest peak of Southeast Alaska in the frame."

Then his quest took him to Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America.

"Kahiltna Glacier is the only place where you can get a whole picture of Denali," Matsumoto said, referring to the mountain by its Native name.

Matsumoto normally spends the first five days making a snow cave. As his skills have improved over the years, his cave is now big and fancy with stairs leading to a bedroom. On a shelf is a mini-snowman he jokingly named Wilson.

"The cave is about 20 degrees below. It's actually pretty warm when it's 40 degrees below outside," Matsumoto said.

When the weather is nice, he stays up all night waiting for the peak of the aurora borealis. He uses Nikon FM2 and F3 cameras because they don't need batteries. He has to hold his breath when looking through his viewfinder because his breath might freeze the camera.

When snowstorms sweep through the glacier and visibility is low, he reads books he has brought from Japan. He keeps a journal. In the first winter, his journal fell apart because it was too cold. For entertainment, he once hammered nails with a frozen banana through his books.

"Tofu worked well, too," he said.

Matsumoto said he never feels lonely in the wilderness.

"I don't think I can spend two months in an isolated room. But I have no problems spending two months on a glacier. It's fun," Matsumoto said.

The aurora borealis is only one of the many subjects he shoots.

For eight summers, Matsumoto has chartered a plane to take him to islands in Frederick Sound in southern Southeast, where he stayed for two months and photographed whales and wildlife. He traveled in his white Zodiac inflatable boat.

"When it's calm, it's fun to be out there," Matsumoto said. "But the weather can change very quickly. I have been stuck on the water. It was very scary."

On his trips, he usually lives on pasta and instant rice. He doesn't have time for fishing.

"If I can go fishing, that means the weather is nice and that I can take pictures. I don't want to waste my time," Matsumoto said.

Friend Patty Kirchhoff said Matsumoto is the most determined person she has ever met. She met Matsumoto about 10 years ago through her husband, a biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Matsumoto called him to ask where to take pictures of deer.

"When he studied at UAS, he packed two 50-pound backpacks and went to Mount Jumbo every weekend to take pictures of deer through that school year," said Kirchhoff, who calls Matsumoto her son. "He would leave one pack behind, hike all the way up and go down to get another pack."

Matsumoto was so focused that when his parents visited him two summers ago, he didn't spend any time with them because he was out taking pictures, Kirchhoff said. Matsumoto stays with the Kirchhoffs when he is in Alaska.

The success of a shoot depends not only on determination but also on chance. Matsumoto sometimes sees 100 whales a day and sometimes none. On his first trip to Mount McKinley, the weather was so bad that he came back with no pictures.

To support his passion in photography, Matsumoto flies back to Japan and does construction work in spring and fall. But last year, he didn't need to do much construction work because he made money from slide shows in Japan.

"I will do this for the rest of my life," he said with determination. "There is always a chance to get better pictures and only I can decide what better is."

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