35 years of Alaska Photography

Posted: Thursday, December 08, 2005

When Fairbanks photographer and curator Barry McWayne moved to Alaska from San Francisco in 1968, photography was starting to generate some buzz nationally in the art world but the medium was not yet widely collected.

"There wasn't a single gallery in the state of Alaska that showed photography in any serious fashion," McWayne said. "There were very few that would even put photography into the mix with other art forms."

There were a lot of Alaskans who were taking photographs, though, and many of them were serious about their craft. Soon, they had a way to communicate across the state.

The Alaska State Museum organized the first Alaska Positive exhibition in 1970. It was limited to Alaska residents, and the event prospectus hailed it as "the first statewide juried photography competition to be held in Alaska." Fred Belcher, photographer of the state of Alaska, coordinated the show. And though no records of the award winners exist, the exhibition quickly caught on as a vital annual showcase.

"It gave everybody a chance to see what was going on around the state and who was interested in the medium of photography," McWayne said. "Before, you only knew about the people who you happened to know about. There was no place where you could really learn about Anchorage or Ketchikan."

Alaska Positive, held biennially since 1985, celebrates 35 years of documenting the evolution of Alaska photography with "The Best of Alaska Positive: 35 Years of Award-Winning Photographs." The show opened Friday, Dec. 2, and runs through Jan. 28.

Alaska State Museum curator Mark Daughhetee, a multiple-award winner between 1979 and 1985, has coordinated the event for the last 17 years. All of the photographs in the show are part of the museum's collection.

"We've been very fortunate to get some top-flight jurors for the exhibition," Daughhetee said. "Ultimately, this kind of stuff is not like doing math. It's personal preference, and you can see that reflected in what the jurors selected."

"I think it's interesting to look at the 35-year history of it," he said. "In recent years, we've seen a lot more digital media and that didn't exist when Alaska Positive began. There are some changes that helped realize new kinds of ways of using the medium. And photography as a general heading is very broad."

Seattle photographer Brian Allen lived in Fairbanks from the late 1970s through 1986, and again from 1992 to 1999. Still known for his street-style and architecture photography, he submitted photographs nearly every year he was an Alaska resident. In 1978, he won his first Alaska Positive honor, the Black and White Award for "Northern Geometry #2," a gelatin silver print.

"(The show) was really important for me, because it's a big state and I really couldn't afford to introduce myself to people in Anchorage and Juneau," Allen said. "I imagine it's still the same now, but back in the 1980s, if you had work in the show consistently, people would remember you. When I finally did make it down to Juneau and Anchorage, people knew who I was."

"That's something I really miss (in Seattle)," he said. "It's a bigger town, and it's harder to make those connections."

In 1981, the juror was Gary Winogrand, another photographer famed for his street photography. He evidently liked Allen's style. Allen won the Black and White Award for "National Guard Open House," a shot of a small boy reassembling a clip of bullets while sitting in the street outside a National Guard-sponsored open house in Fairbanks. He also earned the coveted Juror's Choice Award for "Tanana Fair Grounds," a group of kids preparing horses under dramatic late summer 10 p.m. light. Both those pictures are in the retrospective.

"The show is a very workable way to get a good survey of what's happening around the state," Allen said. "In Fairbanks, we would often find out about a new photographer in town because their work would show up in Alaska Positive. Dennis Witmer (1996 Juror's Choice winner) first showed up when he submitted from Kotzebue. Since then he's become a good friend of mine."

Photographer James Barker had a solo show at the San Francisco Art Museum in 1965. He came to Alaska in the summer of 1973 and has lived here full-time since 1974. Two years ago, he was presented with the Governor's Award for lifetime achievement in the humanities.

Barker moved to Bethel in 1974 to photograph the Yup'ik living along the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. He stayed for 13 years. Two photos from this period are in the show. "Carrying River Water," two children carrying a bucket of water to a home in Kwetkluk (up river from Bethel), won the Black and White Award in 1975. "Entering Church Slough," a group of men in a motorboat who were giving Barker a ride from Kwetkluk to Bethel, won Juror's Choice in 1976. Barker's distinct photography of the delta was later published in "Always Getting Ready," a 40,000-word photo book about the region.

"Alaska Positive is certainly an important avenue for work to get seen in the state, and it has been a perennially good show," he said.

McWayne, the curator of fine arts at the Museum of the North, is the only Alaska artist who has ever been invited to jury the show. He was selected in 1982.

Two of his photographs are also in the show. "Mosaic #1 - Divers," a 1989 portrait of a Fairbanks couple wearing diving gear and taken around the time they married underwater in Hawaii, is captured in Ektaflex. The Kodak-produced color material used one chemical and no water and was processed in much the same way as a giant Polaroid. Inspired by the Polaroid collages of David Hockney, McWayne assembled his own collage to play with the idea of multiple-point perspective.

"Bas Relief," a carbon pigment print that won a Recognition Award in 2004, is a stark portrait of a pair of sweatpants and other flotsam abandoned and trampled by the side of a river.

McWayne used Alaska Positive as one of his main references when he began collecting fine art photography for the University of Alaska Museum in 1982.

"I was able to travel to Southeast, including Juneau, two or three times in the early 1980s to buy photographs," McWayne said. "I would try to arrange my visit when Alaska Positive was there, so that I could see the works that were available for the jurors to choose. It became a really important help to build the collection, both in terms of the works that I saw but also as far as learning the names."

"The museum has been phenomenal with sharing the jurors with the state," McWayne said. "We've had some astounding people come through, just amazing people that you'd just normally ever get to cross paths with."

One such memorable juror was San Francisco artist Jack Fulton, who judged in 1984. As McWayne recalls, Fulton was so overwhelmed by the variety of submissions that he asked for a night's sleep to mull his choices. The next morning, he claimed he dreamed he was a shaman and that his show would ultimately reflect the life and death struggles of man. He arranged his picks around the museum to convey a certain flow, saying in his juror's statement:

"The works finally spoke to me, and in a last burst I put the show together in what I consider to be a visual poem that represents the attitudes and aspirations of Alaskans in 1984 who are using the medium of photography as a device to say, "Yes, this is what I believe ... this is what I see and is important."

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