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Raising the dead: Photographer aims to catch Alaska mining relics before they fade forever

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 2, 2015

The impetus for "Stories Fading Fast," an exhibit of ghostly photos of derelict Alaska mining sites, came from an old map of the Fairbanks area. "I was looking at this thing and realized it showed all kinds of small communities that are not around any more," said photographer J. Jason Lazarus.

Lazarus, who admits to having an "Indiana Jones streak," took his cameras and went exploring. "Usually I found absolutely nothing. Sometimes a foundation or maybe an outhouse. But every once in a while I'd find a whole settlement, five or six buildings and artifacts."

Though deserted, the sites retained an echo of the pulse of human activity that had once enlivened them, plucky and struggling people far from home, many grasping at their last straws, isolated in a vast, difficult landscape that was at once magnificent, bleak and lethal.

"The places weren't just dead, empty husks," Lazarus said. "I wanted to embody the buildings with stories from the past."

To tell those stories, Lazarus superimposed models on the scenes. He used a primitive print technique known as Van Dyke Brown to create images that, on first glance, seem to be historical photos. The effect is like looking through a time tunnel into the past.

Now an adjunct professor of film and digital photography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Lazarus arrived in Alaska in 1996, a self-described "military brat." As a senior at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks he found that, though his required courses were complete, he still needed some credits in order to graduate.

"I started taking all the fun classes I could find," he said. That included photography, an elective that quickly turned into an obsession. "For my last semester I exhausted the full roster of photography courses that Lathrop could offer."

He enrolled at UAF, planning to major in computer sciences, "but I soon realized that my passion was in the darkroom." He finished his undergraduate work at UAF and attained a master of fine arts degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

Mining sites became his "muse," he said. "I didn't want to do what everyone else was doing. There are thousands of photographers in Alaska doing auroras, bears, Denali. I had to find my own niche."

The abandoned relics excited him both artistically and archeologically, he said. He relished "going into the middle of nowhere and finding things," even though "getting out there has been harrowing sometimes."

One of the biggest thrills has been finding ephemera that speak directly to the human experience played out in these locales so many years ago -- newspaper clippings, food containers, tools and letters.

"There are letters from home, pen pal letters, letters detailing the sad decline of their lives," he said. "A lot of people came here expecting to get rich only (to) find out that the reality was something different."

One letter in Finnish records a miner's attempt to help a niece immigrate to America.

The decorations discovered in living quarters also tell stories. Lazarus said one of his favorite buildings is a two-story structure in Livengood, allegedly moved 80 miles by sled to its current location. "It has seven different types of wallpaper. Why would anyone want seven different kinds of wallpaper in Livengood? It's one of the elements that show a very desperate man trying to get his wife to move to Alaska."

Another peculiar element is seven different kinds of shag carpeting later added to the floor, walls and ceiling of the same building. Like many of these lost settlements, Livengood has had several spells of boom and desertion stretching from the gold rush to the pipeline boom.

"Even when the mining played out, people continued to squat in the buildings," he said. "You can literally see the evidence of several different decades, like sediment in an archeology dig."

The photos show antiques like an icebox or an ancient cast-iron stove. But they also show a 1950s-era refrigerator and oven. Furnishings include rudimentary handmade items and relatively recent store-bought chairs and beds.

Many of the artifacts seem to be in surprisingly good condition given over a century of exposure and neglect. Lazarus credits the cold, dry climate of Interior Alaska for helping to preserve household goods left behind when the last resident shut the door and walked away.

Some of them may have expected to be back in a few months or next year. At other times the miners or the companies that hired them gave up and went home. And for some there was the necessity of moving to a larger town for the sake of the children.

"What I didn't expect when I started was that I'd find traces of families," Lazarus said. "I'd always thought of it as a man-only place. But there were children's toys, a school workbook."

One of the photos shows a wooden alphabet block with the letter E on it. A little boy or girl played with it while his or her parents struggled with cold and a dwindling grubstake to stay alive and find wealth. To Lazarus, such things are as good as gold. They let him "see a slice of life and capture it."

Each of the frames in the series on display at APU includes a "ghost" image with models taken with film along with smaller digital pictures clearly showing details of the present state of the relics.

Some sites, like Livengood or Treadwell near Juneau, once the largest gold mine in Alaska, are well known. Others are not and the current owners want to keep it that way. "Some of the land owners have requested that I only vaguely refer to the locations," Lazarus said. "They understand what I'm doing, but they don't want just anyone coming around without permission."

The owners have good reason to worry, he added. "Alaska's always leaving the past behind with its boom and bust cycles. A lot of people see these historic(al) buildings as so much old, abandoned junk and would like them torn down. The people who don't feel that way are likely to be vandals.

"This last year I had to confront the fact that the Chatanika Dredge burned down," he continued.

The giant gold dredge off the Steese Highway dated to the 1920s. It was destroyed in a fire on Aug. 3, 2013. The fire was determined to be an accident, but the dredge was particularly vulnerable and its doom may have been inevitable.

"It was already ruined, full of graffiti, torn up," Lazarus said. "It was easy to get to. Everyone knew where it was. And nobody cared."

Lazarus grabbed his camera when he heard the news and raced to the dredge. He arrived in time to survey a smoldering ruin.

"I'll freely admit, there were tears."

STORIES FADING FAST, photos by J. Jason Lazarus, will be on display at the ConocoPhillips Gallery in Grant Hall at Alaska Pacific University through Jan. 31. An opening reception will take place at 5 p.m. on Jan. 2. NOTE: Access to APU may be limited due to road construction on Providence Drive west of Providence Alaska Medical Center. Consider using Elmore Road from Tudor Road or UAA Drive from Northern Lights Boulevard.

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