Within just a few pages of Mark Stadsklev's beautiful and riveting coffee table book "Alaskan Air," it becomes obvious that this is not an average collection of photographs of our state.
Stadsklev, a pilot by trade and photographer on the side, has a remarkable ability to capture northern topographies from his cockpit and the ground in ways that show not just their magnitude, but also the unexpected details highlighted by aiming the lens at precisely the correct angle and direction, revealing what his book's subtitle describes as "Nature's Artwork on the Alaskan Landscape."
Stadsklev's work covers quite a bit of territory in addition to the countryside, but what characterizes many of the finest pictures here is his eye for patterns that appear in nature, many that can only be properly seen from above.
A small stream cuts a nearly full teardrop shaped route through forested land in full fall color. Blue creeks, strips of green foliage, swaths of reddening plants, splotches of yellow, and ridges of white frost abut one another as they flow downward across a picture of the tundra shot from above during fall.
Spruce trees cross a page and a half spread in near horizontal lines, enveloped by fog and looking desolate and ominous in an impressive black and white image. The intimidating east face of Mount Dickey, lined and crevassed, swoops upward from the Ruth Glacier.
In each of these pictures it's the patterns that immediately grab the eye, and the same is true of many of the close-ups and ground photos Stadsklev takes when he lands his plane and gets out. Windstorm-blown grasses lie flat on the surface of a lake, creating green and brown strips of foliage interspersed with blue water, creating an effect that brings dyed satin fabric to mind.
An extreme close-up of some cattails reveals the patterns found in the leaves themselves. Birch bark, backlit by the sun, kindles with an orange glow. Were that not enough to lend the appearance of flame, a second shot of the same bark, taken with a longer exposure time and some camera panning by Stadsklev, would be mistaken for an actual fire had he not explained the effect in his text.
And birch leaves reflected on a rippling pond create a Monet-like scene that's oddly civilized for having been taken in a state primarily known for its wilderness.
In all of these photographs and many others, Stadsklev is finding more than just the scenery Alaskans live with every day. He's discovering the art of nature and, in sharing it, asking us to look at our surroundings anew.
Stadsklev also tries his hand at wildlife photography, and here too he excels. A pair of cranes stand sentinel-like on a field of snow, having found themselves early arrivals in springtime with no open ground to forage. A curious black bear eyes Stadsklev from a treetop perch. Bison thunder across the landscape. Newborn animals nuzzle their mothers. A flock of trumpeter swans are seen from above, migrating south, their curved wingtips demonstrating the efficient adaptation that has recently been applied by humans to jets.
The most impressive wildlife shot involves a grizzly that came angrily charging though a stream at Stadsklev, who stood his ground and aimed his camera for what very well could have been his final shot. Almost as impressive is a more sedate but still threatening grizzly walking along a trail, its head low, eyes focused forward, jaw slightly ajar, and its enormous claws on full display thanks to the angle of its front paw stepping forward.
Plenty of large animals are here, but so are creatures rarely seen in Alaska photo books. An ant gingerly finds its way along a flower bloom. A frog peeks out from the foliage it blends so perfectly into. And while many photographers offer images of salmon swimming upstream toward their spawning grounds, Stadsklev finds one dead on the rocks, its mouth wide open and eye sockets empty, looking like a fossilized prehistoric creature rather than the fish every Alaskan loves.
From his plane, Stadsklev takes numerous mountain pictures. He seems particularly drawn to Mount Redoubt, which is shown several times here, including one shot with steam rising from its caldera. An exceptionally stunning photo shows it darkened in the background while an astonishingly bright rainbow bisects the picture, illuminating the ridge in the foreground.
Denali also makes several appearances from a variety of angles and from distances both far and very near (contrary to the habit of most Alaskans, Stadsklev refers to it by its legal name, Mount McKinley). Several two-page spreads show wide, mountain-littered horizons.
Glaciers are shown in wide angle and close-up form (sometimes too close; Stadsklev climbs right into a few for some of those perfect shots). Northern lights also flare up repeatedly throughout the book.
The book isn't without its shortcomings. Like many self-published works (and an increasing number of titles coming from major publishing houses), this one contains a lot of editing errors and a couple of pictures lack captions.
This shouldn't deter readers from adding this book to their collections, however, because Stadsklev is a phenomenal photographer with a unique vision. Even those who have seen their share of Alaska photo books will find many images here unlike any they've encountered elsewhere. Stadsklev's originality and his eye for the artistic element inherent in nature is distinct. And unlike many photographers who stick to one thing (wildlife, landscapes, etc.), Stadsklev's work ranges from insects to mountain ranges and everything in between, all captured well. "Alaskan Air" lives up to its subtitle. It's a work of art.