Young photographer captures Alaska's diversity in new book

Mike Dunham
Michael the Window Washer. Anchorage, Alaska. 2006.
Artist Julie Decker. Anchorage, Alaska. 2012.
Lucy. Newtok, Alaska. 2008
Children playing. Newtok, Alaska. 2010.
Leah Fisher Arsenault. Indian, Alaska. 2009.
Brian Adams, portrait photographer and author of “I Am Alaskan”
Photo by Ash Adams
Fish Monitor Craig. North Slope, Alaska. 2009.

If precocity had a face, it might be Brian Adams. At age 28, the Alaskan photographer has had work selected for "Rarefied Light" -- the big state juried photo show -- three times. His pictures have been featured in notable national galleries, in the New York Times, the Guardian of London and on the cover of Time magazine.

Now the University of Alaska Press has published a glossy collection of nearly 200 portraits and other images taken by him, "I Am Alaskan" (Snowy Owl Books, $50).

"Brian is a visionary, bridging the worlds of reportage and art through his photos," writes Greg Kimura, former head of the Alaska Humanities Forum, who first broached the idea of the photo book to Adams.

"I didn't even know I had a book here," Adams said. "I've just always loved taking pictures of Alaskans and Alaska. It's where I live."

Born in Anchorage, Adams spent the first part of his infancy in Kivalina, his father's home village. Later the family moved to Sitka, Bird Creek, Girdwood and, in 1997, Anchorage, where Adams attended Dimond High School. Photography was not on his mind at that time.

"I was really into skateboarding," he said. "I was interested in making skateboard videos. But the closest thing to video at Dimond at that time was photography, so I took that and found that I really liked it."

In his senior year, he took both photography and video classes at the King Career Center. "At the time, photography was just an art form to me," he said. "It never hit me that you could actually make a living off it."

That mindset prevailed until he graduated from high school and found himself without a clear idea of what to do next.

"I was three months out of school. I'd just quit my job at a snowboarding shop and wasn't doing anything. My brother got disgusted, threw the newspaper classifieds at me and said, 'Find a job!' I'm like, 'Who ever found a job in the want ads?' But I opened it up and the very first thing I saw was an ad for a photographer's assistant."

The ad was placed by prominent Alaska photographer Clark James Mishler. Adams worked for him for two years, picking up tips and -- over time -- his own freelance clients. By 2005, he had enough such clients that he went into business for himself as a commercial photographer.

Work assignments and personal projects sent him across the state -- back to Kivalina, to Barrow and Bethel, Shishmaref and Newtok. Many of the images in the book, taken between 2006 and this year, are from the bush. But it also contains a number of shots that capture the contemporary urban scene of Anchorage. Musicians, hunters, writers, restaurateurs, politicians, Iditarod champions and, yes, skateboarders are among his subjects, which comprise a cross-section of the ethnic groups that make up the Alaska mosaic.

In his foreword to "I Am Alaskan," Kimura recalls seeing a photo exhibit of portraits of mixed-race children in Los Angeles and wanting to see something like it: "a photography book of a type never done before on Alaska," he writes.

Adams is uniquely accepted both among his village Inupiat kin and his multicultural city homies, Kimura notes. "Only Brian Adams could shoot this book."

Adams said a project had fallen through at the Humanities Forum and that Kimura explained the unspent money was available. "He brought me to the UA Press and they were interested, so we went for it," Adams said.

The book is composed of square-frame shots made with a classic Hasselblad medium-format film camera. It's a medium Adams loves. Only 10 of the 189 pictures were taken with a digital camera, he said.

"And no Photoshopping!" he added, even if some of the images look like composites. The picture on the back cover of the book has one of his co-workers, David Glenn Taylor, standing on the snowy tundra in Barrow, viewed through the windows of a vacant house. The impression is that a framed photo of Taylor has been hung on the exterior wall for the purpose of the picture.

Adams said he had taken a picture of the same house before, but felt something was missing. "On that day we were just driving around looking for places to shoot for the Arctic Slope Native Association's annual report. It was really cold out that day, but the light was almost perfect, the sun just starting to set. I had Dave go the other side and told him to keep backing up until I had him where I wanted him. I shot probably a whole roll of medium format film -- which is unusual for me. But I'd been envisioning this photo for so long. So it just kind of happened, but it was also planned."

The overwhelming majority of pictures are of people, but they're not straightforward portraits. Adams seems to pay as much attention to the settings and backgrounds as he does to the humans. The viewer gets a sense of both the person and where he or she is. Adams calls this "environmental portrait photography."

"What I'm looking for is usually people in their landscape, their place. I'm basically exploring who lives in Alaska and where they choose to live. That's very interesting to me."

In some ways the landscapes act like a visual Greek chorus, commenting on the protagonist. Singer Marian Call poses in snowy birches, looking for everything in the world like a grown-up version of the title character of Eowyn Ivey's mystical novel "The Snow Child." Sarah Palin is seen at foggy Mendenhall Glacier. Radio host Steve Heimel laughs in front of racks of CDs. Ski champion Kikkan Randall holds a trophy under a sunny blue sky along Turnagain Arm. Bloody-faced skateboarder Ted Kim slumps stoically on a line of hard, straight, uncompromising stairs after taking a spill.

"He had a bad take-off, lost his board, landed on his face," Adams said. "He's a dear, close friend so it was a most painful thing to see happen to him. But we're skateboarders."

He has a story for each of the photos in the book, it seems. But his aim is for the pictures to do the talking. "I love getting as much of one story into one picture as possible," he said.

Less than a handful of the pictures are "pure" nature shots, showing nothing but wilderness. But, on close inspection, most that look like landscapes reveal some artifact of mankind. For instance, one of his most famous pictures is of windswept snow near Shishmaref, stretching into a pink-and-blue arctic horizon -- but with a basketball hoop in the foreground.

"Typically, if I'm taking a landscape in Alaska, I want to draw in some sort of human element. Something that shows this place is large and vast, but we're still here," he said.

Likewise, there are no stock images of Alaska wildlife, unless they're dead and apparently being prepared for food or some similar subsistence use. There are a couple of dogs, a chicken and a cluster of shelter cats -- one of the few black and white images in the book.

"I used to shoot a lot of black and white," Adams said. "But eventually I had to reset my mind, to understand that this is a business and, if I'm going to make a living, I need to use color."

In the vibrantly colorful photos that fill the book, the photographer is attempting to present a mosaic of his home state and its people that sharply differs from the conventional picture many non-Alaskans have -- a mosaic that may even catch long-time Alaskans off-guard -- and deliver the narrative of how he understands the place and his own role in the larger community.

"The book is about identity and finding identity in Alaska," he said. "It's kind of a personal story. I'm Alaskan. I'm Inupiat. And I'm American. It's my identity."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.