The University of Alaska Press has added to its collection "I Am Alaskan" (Snowy Owl Books $50), a glossy full-color photography book of the work of Brian Adams, whose medium-format portraits and landscapes cover the breadth of beauty and diversity in the 49th state.
When shooting, Adams wanted to connect with his subjects. “I need to see their eyes. It’s not right when they aren’t looking at the camera.” Adams' photos have a formal approach, one befitting the pre-digital medium. Using film, Adams is selective about where and when he takes a photograph. “I only take three at the most” says Adams.
His portraits and landscapes have intention behind them. “It all has to fall in place, the background has to fall in the way I want it to be, the light has to be the way I want it to be, the framing…” Adams said. He likes to walk around and take in a place before choosing what to shoot. “I love walks," Adams said. "Me and my wife (photographer Ash Adams) take walks everyday."
“I kind of consider (my work) documentary photography, because it has a photojournalism edge to it, but it’s still very portraiture. It’s not posed, it’s — you're doing something but look at the camera for a second.” Even Adams' landscapes have to have some human element, because he "wants the viewer to still be really connected with the image."
Adams was born in Anchorage, then lived in Kivalina (his father's village), Sitka, Bird Creek, and eventually Girdwood, where he spent his childhood snowboarding and skateboarding. Adams never felt connected to his Inupaiq heritage until he went to Kivalina eight years ago for his grandmother's funeral. After meeting people and roaming around, Adams told himself, “I want to come up here and take photos. I want to get to know all these people as much as I can, any time I can, for the rest of my life.”
“I was on fire photographing,” Adams said. Since then, he has spent numerous hours shooting in rural Alaska villages, especially coastal towns, documenting the people and coastal erosion. Adams was very aware of avoiding cultural clichés when creating the images for his book. Many people are familiar with the image of a Native wearing a parka with a giant fur ruff. “There’s some ruffs in the book, of course," Adams said, "because they’re beautiful. They’re timeless. You can’t go wrong with them…”
But he wanted to show a broader vision of what it means to be Alaskan. Not only a Native Alaskan, either -- but people who've made a contribution to the community.
Adams is well versed in the history of photography, and he looks to photo books for inspiration. “I know what I’m looking for when I look in the camera."
Medium-format photographers Diane Arbus, Alison V. Smith, and Cig Harvey are the photographers he looks to most. “I like shooting square because it throws you off as a photographer; you can’t always shoot rule of thirds.” He was taught to never put people or objects directly in the center of the photo. But like Arbus, he often breaks the rules, and aligns his subjects dead center because “the photo just flows way better.”
Contact Tara Young at tara(at)alaskadispatch.com