Works of Alaska photojournalists come into focus in town

Mike Dunham
Steve McCutcheon is shown near the Porcupine River in an undated photo.
Courtesy Anchorage Museum
Anchorage Fire Department Senior Capt. Jim Kenshalo was soot-covered after just a few minutes inside the warehouse office trying to salvage company documents in 2002.
Jim Lavrakas
During the 1989 eruption of Mount Redoubt, when days went by with no obvious impact on Anchorage, Lavrakas raced to the Carrs grocery store in Kenai, a 21/2-hour drive one way, just to get this photo of grocery baggers there wearing respirators after ash rained down on their community.
Jim Lavrakas
Gov. Ernest Gruening with king crab at Stan McCutcheon’s house on 11th Avenue, Anchorage, April 7, 1952.
Stephen McCutcheon
Ruth Gruber’s photo titled “Three young women in jail, Sitka, Alaska Territory, 1941-43” piques the viewer’s curiosity.
Ruth Gruber
.Swallowed alive, a rainbow fingerling peered out of the gullet of a northern pike and got its last glimpse of life just before the pike turned out the lights. Taken for a story on invasive species, Lavrakas shot this photo at the fish tank in the lobby of the Deptartment of Fish and Game in Anchorage.
Jim Lavrakas
“Eklutna woman reading Life Magazine, Hooper Bay, Alaska, 1941-43” does not appear to have been taken in Hooper Bay. The magazine cover shows baseball player Ted Williams.
Ruth Gruber
his is one of two photos Lavrakas produced for a small photo essay as part of “A People in Peril,” the Daily News’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series. Called “One Man’s Lonely Weekend”, his essay followed George Logusak, a homeless person, for a couple of days in the fall of 1988. Lavrakas found George passed out on the Delaney Park Strip and called paramedics when he couldn’t rouse him and he was being covered up by snow.
Jim Lavrakas
Two captains connected by history: Caption Joe Hazelwood ran the Exxon Valdez onto Bligh Reef, a maritime hazard named by Captain James Cook.
Jim Lavrakas

Journalism is said to be the rough draft of history, hastily jotted notes from which volumes of analysis may later be drawn. Photojournalism, on the other hand, records history in what often turns out to be its most permanent form.

Few implements have advanced the art of documentation as much as the camera. Film not only freezes people, places and things in time, it also captures nuances and details that convey the mood of the individuals in the frame. Not only can we can see with remarkable accuracy how someone looked 100 years ago, we can also perceive something of how they felt as the shudder clicked. The image of the moment remains unchanged in perpetuity.

Work of three documentary photographers with strong Alaska ties are featured in Anchorage this month. Each preserved a piece of Alaska in ways that show them to be masters of the craft. But their approaches indicate a shift in the meaning of "photojournalism" over the years.


Recording refugees

In terms of international reputation, Ruth Gruber is the most famous of the three -- though not for her work in Alaska.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1911 (and alive at 101), she traveled through the Russian far east and Siberia in the 1930s, taking photographs for a book on the region.

Though she is said to be "the first U.S. journalist to photograph the Siberian Gulag," the items in the exhibit now at the Anchorage Museum, "Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist," don't contain such images. Perhaps some of the people in the photos were internal exiles or so called "free settlers," former prisoners who lived near the Gulags after their release. Her correspondence, included in the display, doesn't mention prison camps but describes a folksy arctic Stalinist paradise.

In 1944 Gruber traveled on a troop ship, Henry Gibbins, bringing 1,000 survivors of concentration camps to America. Gruber recorded their horrific stories and took mesmerizing photographs. The event changed her life, she said, and led her to dedicate her energies to recording the plight of refugees.

A few years later she photographed refugees on the Exodus. The ship, loaded with 4,500 survivors of the Holocaust, tried to enter Palestine but was intercepted in a confrontation with casualties. Gruber's pictures helped create public sympathy for the plight of Holocaust victims.

She continued to document rescue efforts, from Operation Magic Carpet -- the airlift of Yemenite Jews in 1949-50, in which Alaska Airlines played an important role -- to the extraction of African Jews from Somalia in 1985. Those photos form the bulk of the current exhibit.

But from 1941 to 1943, Gruber took pictures in Alaska towns and villages on behalf of the Department of the Interior. Pictures on display in the show include mine workers in Platinum, a boy in Bethel and an Orthodox priest in Unalaska.

The Alaska photos are far more polished than the smattering from Russia included in the show. They suggest that it was here that Gruber learned how to use the camera like a professional.

But a contemporary viewer may feel frustrated at the lack of information in the Alaska pictures. Only one person besides Gruber is identified by name. Dates and details seem misleading or vague.

Example: "Eklutna woman reading Life Magazine, Hooper Bay, Alaska, 1941-43." The mountain in the background doesn't look like the tundra terrain around Hooper Bay, but it does resemble the Chugach Mountains seen from Eklutna, site of a vocational school attended by many Native Alaskans from the 1920s through the 1940s. The woman is wearing a coastal-style parka and could be from Hooper Bay. Perhaps a reader will recognize her.

Likewise: "Three young women in jail, Sitka, Alaska Territory, 1941-43." The prisoners are dressed like school girls. Who were they? What was their infraction? We're not told.

The girl in the middle glares defiantly through the bars. Placed at the end of the Alaska section, just before the series of refugee photos, this picture seems to be the first in the record of the detained that would form Gruber's legacy.


Preserving old Alaska

In contrast with Ruth Gruber's far-flung career, Steve McCutcheon's life's work centered on Alaska -- Anchorage in particular. He moved here from Cordova in 1915 and became interested in photography as a way to occupy his time while working at remote sites on the Alaska Railroad.

He gained a reputation as the man to call when you needed stock photos of Alaska scenery and wildlife. His pictures ran again and again in magazines and textbooks.

He documented the explosive growth of Alaska from the end of the war through the construction of the Alaska pipeline, daily life and epochal events. His photos of the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 are particularly famed. His shop, Mac's Foto, was at ground zero of the slide area along Fourth Avenue. He took several pictures of the jumbled concrete chasm that had been the city's main street with his store sign plainly visible, though sunken about 15 feet.

Some of those earthquake photos show the hand-written sign he hung over the shattered storefront: "Closed due to early breakup."

McCutcheon's portraits are featured in a separate exhibit that opened Friday at the Anchorage Museum. The pictures are drawn from the more than 140,000 images he donated to the museum prior to his death in 1998.

"It's actually a few more than that," said Sara Piasecki, photo archivist for the Atwood Alaska Resource Center at the museum. "We haven't done an exact count yet."

McCutcheon had unusual access to Alaska's movers and shakers, Piasecki said. He served in the territorial legislature in the 1940s and was a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention. He brought his camera and, he later recalled, took pictures of everything and everyone in sight.

When providing written details to accompany the photos, he could be uneven, Piasecki said, depending on whether he considered the job to be commercial, casual or something for posterity.

"The pictures of the Constitutional Convention come with a lot of information," she said. "But for things he sort of shot on the fly, he didn't necessarily capture the data."

In several cases McCutcheon was careful to record names and circumstances, as in "Billie Weber's first whale after five years of whale hunting, Point Hope, Spring 1970."

And many of subjects are so well known that they need no identification, like territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening holding a king crab at McCutcheon's brother's house, or state Gov. Bill Egan standing in a crowd of other Democratic Party members.

Other subjects, like a boy in Cordova in 1940, remain anonymous. The archive would love to find out more.

"Sometimes we put a picture on the Web and people contact us saying, 'Hey, that's my cousin,' " Piasecki said. "It would be wonderful if something like that happened with this exhibit."


News as history

The third photojournalist, self-described "ambulance chaser" Jim Lavrakas, has just released a new book, "Snap Decisions: My 30 Years as an Alaska News Photographer." Readers of the Daily News will recognize many of the images from stories that ran in the paper.

The book includes the expected photos of wilderness, wildlife and his long-running coverage of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The final entry in the book is a famous photo of a pike swallowing a trout fingerling. He calls it "the best photo I ever shot."

"It's not like I went out expecting to get that picture," he said. "But I was there when it happened and all the skills I'd learned over the years let me get it. It was the apex of my career."

Short essays provide context for each photo and almost everyone is carefully identified. That includes the famous and infamous -- Capt. Joe Hazelwood, Gov. Sarah Palin, Athabascan elder Walter Northway, musher Susan Butcher and murderer Kirby Anthoney.

But it also includes the obscure. Like George Logusak, a homeless man seen sleeping in the Delaney Park Strip as snow falls.

"I had taken a picture of him the day before," Lavrakas says. "I was driving home and saw this lump behind the hedge -- and it was George, curled up. I called the paramedics and took the picture while I was with him waiting for them to get there. It seemed to tell the story about despair and the horrible, helpless condition that one can get into in the biggest city in the state."

Lavrakas, who now lives in Homer and guides saltwater excursions, had hundreds of stories and thousands of photographs in his files by the time he left the Daily News in 2008. Winnowing them down to 150 well-illustrated pages was a project in which a host of friends and colleagues collaborated.

"When I was thinking about making this book, I realized I really needed to remember the stories that go with these photographs and get them down before I forget them," he said. "I like to think that what I have in this book is the cream of the crop," he said.

Lavrakas believes that supplying a solid back story is at the core of modern photo documentation. "Some of the most intriguing aspects of a photo is the who, what, where," he said.

"That's what we do in journalism."





  Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.