Ben Huff is a Juneau based photographer. His work explores the complexities of the contemporary Alaskan landscape. His project, The Last Road North, was published in the Fall of 2014 by Kehrer Verlag and will be exhibited at the UA Museum of the North, The Alaska Humanities Forum in Anchorage, and Newspace in Portland, Oregon in 2015. Huff is currently working on a follow up to The Last Road North about the the legacy of gold in the capital city of Juneau.
What was your experience with the Haul Road before your project began? My wife and I first drove to the Arctic Circle in 2006 as tourists. The entire drive home, I had this grant romantic idea of what the northern half looked 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. I felt during that first drive that the road held everything I was looking for – that nexus of the idea of frontier and the reality of our influence on the space.
Were you nervous about making it your base? Did you worry about feeling out of place? I was so hell bent on creating an original story of the place that I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. It was incredibly exciting. Every trip, every season, came with nervousness. I did feel out of place much of the time and I used that in the work. That road belongs to the truckers. It’s their road. I’m not of that world and 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.
Why did you use a large format camera for this project? It’s a 4x5 sheet film and view camera. I’d always wanted to make large format photographs. Most of the photographers I admire are employing large format cameras. I love the detail and special quality of the pictures. And, I wanted to employ the same dialect in dealing with my work on the road – to work within that lineage.
The first pictures I made there were with a DSLR. I used those to apply for a Rasmuson Grant in 2006. I received the award and used the money to buy a used 4x5 and a stack of film. My first-ever exposure with that camera was made just south of the Yukon River – a landscape of trees and the pipeline that ultimately failed as a picture, but I was sold.
You've described the process as laborious, what are the steps you had to take? The slowness of the camera informed how I worked. I can be a bit frantic and scattered, but the camera slowed the process down. I traveled by myself and having the big camera in the passenger seat and a limited amount of film added a degree of gravitas to the endeavor that I fed off of. Each picture had to mean something. I was very frugal, and the camera forced me to become invested in ways that I hadn’t been accustomed to – both artistically and financially.
How are the photos printed? I sort of straddle the analog and digital world. Once the image is captured on film, I have it processed. And then it’s scanned and printed digitally. Initially, I make the scans to begin piecing the story together. Eventually, Light Work in Syracuse, New York makes the larger exhibition prints – up to 30x40 inches.
Why take the extra effort use this type of camera? Why not? In many ways, I believe that the effort is critical to the picture. I think there is a common ideology these days that ‘easier’ must be better. I don’t want to be too hyperbolic here, but art isn’t meant to be easy. Telling stories isn’t easy. Exhibitions aren’t easy. Making books isn’t easy. And, I say this with the utmost love for all of these things – the effort is, in large part, what makes it worthwhile.
How is photography art? That’s the million-dollar question, and any answer sounds pretentious, I’m afraid. I like what John Baldissari has said, “If the artist calls it art, it's art.” For my own work – it’s about intent, authorship. I believe in having a viewpoint. I believe in stories, and using this visual language to assemble images in a way that are greater than their singular weight.
Why is this the medium you work in? I first started making art in high school and later as an undergrad. I believed that art could change the world. I’ve come to realize that my relationship, and interest in art is less about the belief that art can change the world, as it is being part of actively reflecting the change that is already happening. Photography is uniquely suited to reflecting this change.
I think there’s an honesty to it – not truth necessarily – but an authorship that’s involved that makes it infinitely interesting and malleable. The Last Road North deals with things that I struggle with in Alaska. I’m seeing that my current work is falling into a similar pattern. I’m much less interested in the Alaskan dream than I am the Alaskan condition.
What do you look for in a subject matter? That’s a difficult question to answer, and I’m not entirely sure. I often think about pictures, have notebooks full of notes, and usually set out with the camera to mark things off the list. But when I get out there, it’s often just about responding and solving visual problems within the frame.
I’m interested in tension and dichotomy. I’m interested in how Alaska is perceived, and the reality that I see. I’m interested in the marks of resource extraction and history. There are a hundred lifetimes worth of work to do here, and I’m beginning to see, as I make new work and look forward, how this place has influenced me, and how I am responding.
You've said you always imagined the photographs you made during those five years would become a book. How did that inform your work? Photography books, monographs, are the foundation of my life in photography. My education, appreciation, and philosophy have been informed, built really, on the books in my life by other photographers who I admire. The book is the ideal capsule for the story.
Were you imagining a narrative for the book as you took the photos? Yes, but as the pictures started to be made, they dictate the direction. I always go out looking for something specific, and on a good day, I come back with something better. I was interested in the notion that the road was this physical and psychological line between wilderness and oil. The tension is important to me, and I’m finding the similar themes coming forward in new work that I’m making in Juneau.
The Last Road North project was the focus of a kickstarter campaign and has received a good deal of attention. What does it mean to you to have public support for your project? The support of this work has been overwhelming. Really, it’s everything to me. I can’t believe how fortunate I am to have had people interested in this work and I’ve gained so many friendships made over these pictures.