An installation of photographs by Alaska artist Ben Huff at the University of Alaska Museum of the North examines a highway not seen by many. “The Last Road North” features about a dozen images Huff made along Alaska’s Haul Road with a large format camera during a five-year period.
Huff and his wife first drove the route on a tourist trip to the Arctic Circle in 2006, but they only covered a fraction of the length of the highway. “The entire drive home, I had this grand romantic idea of what the northern stretch would look like. When we got back to Fairbanks, I began looking online for pictures, and was surprised to find that a contemporary portrait of the road hadn’t been made,” Huff said.
The Haul Road, technically Alaska Route 11 or the James W. Dalton Highway, was built in 1974 as a supply route for the trans-Alaska pipeline and the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. It starts in Livengood, about 80 miles north of Fairbanks, and runs 414 miles to Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean. Only a quarter of the road has a hardtop. The other 75 percent is gravel.
The road is one of the most treacherous and isolated highways in the country. Huff’s curiosity about what lay beyond milepost 115 led to a five-year commitment to photographing the Haul Road.
“It was incredibly exciting. Every trip, every season, came with nervousness,” he said. “I did feel out of place much of the time, and I used that in the work. That road belongs to the truckers. I respected the job they had to do. In many instances, the pictures show that distance of being a bit on the outside — not being entirely comfortable in the space.”
Eventually, Huff earned grants from the Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska Humanities Forum to complete his book, “The Last Road North.” It was published by Kehrer Verlag and contains original essays by author Barry Lopez and Karen Irvine, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago.
Mareca Guthrie, the fine arts curator at the UA Museum of the North, said it was important to purchase a series of these photographs for the permanent fine arts collection.
“Artistically, these photographs are very important,” Guthrie said. “Not only is Ben the first photographer to focus specifically on the road, but this series has received a great deal of positive attention outside of Alaska.”
The photographs have been exhibited internationally at the Lishui Photo festival in China. The collection has also been included in the “America Now” exhibition at the Montserrat College of Art just outside Boston, Massachusetts; an upcoming solo exhibition at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon; and an upcoming solo exhibition at the Alaska Humanities Forum in Anchorage.
Guthrie felt it was important to showcase “The Last Road North” in Fairbanks. “Many of our visitors don’t know about the Dalton Highway or what it looks like, so I’m hoping the exhibit will pique their curiosity.”
The photographs from “The Last Road North” collection will be on display inside the museum’s west entrance through the summer of 2016. More information about the artist, the highway and the project is available on the museum’s website.