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A view of life's zoo: APU hosts rare show for prize-winning Fairbanks photographer Charles Mason

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published January 7, 2016

It's been a long time since Charles Mason had a solo show in Anchorage. Alaska Pacific University, where his "Zoo Show" series opens on Friday, Jan. 8, featured his work in a two-man show with the late Barry McWayne five years ago. He was also in a group show at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art in 2010. But the last time he remembers having an exhibit exclusively of his art photos in Alaska's largest city was 20 years ago or more.

Yet Mason, who teaches photojournalism at University of Alaska Fairbanks, is one of Alaska's best-known photographers on the national scene. In 1988 he won the Oskar Barnack Award from World Press Photo, the Amsterdam-based group that sponsors the largest -- and many say most prestigious -- annual press photography contest in the world.

His work has appeared in The New York Times, Outside magazine, Time, Life and the annual photography edition of Communication Arts.

So has he been snubbed by Anchorage? Not exactly.

"I just haven't applied for a show down there," he said in a phone call from Fairbanks. "I don't really promote myself."

He has plenty of commercial work, "but I don't have to rely on it for dinner."

Frustrated artist

Mason got interested in photography when he growing up in Virginia. "I was a geeky science kid when my dad brought me a camera from Japan and gave me a darkroom kit. I set it up in my bedroom. The first photo came out and I got the bug."

A neighbor ran the local newspaper and Mason started taking news photos at around 14.

"I think I'm a frustrated artist," he said. "I can't draw stick figures. The camera was a perfect way to mechanically approach making images. And it appealed to my science side."

He came to Alaska in 1984 as a staff photographer for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

"When I won the Oskar Barnack Award, I was offered a five-year contract to roam the world and take pictures. Right in front of me I had what most photographers want more than anything. But I also had an offer from UAF. So I had to sit down and make a decision."

He hasn't regretted his choice. "I love teaching, I love the life here, the pace of my life here. My two kids keep me busier than the photography. It's a nice meld of things for me."

The Oskar Barnack prize goes to "professional photographers whose unerring powers of observation capture and express the relationship between man and the environment in the most graphic form." In Alaska that might be interpreted as wildlife photography and Mason has done his share, including a four-page spread of moose photos in We Alaskans.

But he's probably better known for his dinosaur pictures.

"I'm known as the Alaska guy who doesn't take pictures of Alaska," he said. "I travel a lot and everywhere I went there were dinosaurs, signs, advertising, big, goofy statues with big, goofy cartoonish faces. There was even a dinosaur topiary in Fairbanks!"

Gawkers and the gawked

"Zoo" is about living animals, but not wildlife. It consists of images taken at zoological parks around America, though the subjects are not necessarily the critters being gawked at. Several of the pictures focus on the gawkers. In fact, one from Phoenix shows only people behind and in front of a wire enclosure. Exactly what is enclosed is undisclosed.

Mason said he was inspired in part by a small book of photos taken at the Brooklyn Zoo, "The Animals" by Garry Winogrand, released in 1969-70. "The pictures were funny or beguiling in some ways, the interaction of people and animals. I just loved that book."

"Zoo" had its start at the Alaska Zoo. Mason had taken his kids there and took a picture of a two-hump camel. "Just the humps. That's the way I shoot."

As he often visited zoos in his travels, he began thinking about the series more seriously, collecting photos from more than a dozen trips.

"I was surprised as the process went on," he said. "The pictures were ironic and had strange juxtapositions. But not funny. It made me sad to watch the animals."

Fencing and barriers are visible in many of the images. Several, including the camel shot, show only glimpses of the beasts, the tail of a lion or alligator, the back halves of two giraffes posed like bookends. An elephant in the Portland Zoo is barely visible behind giant bars.

It wasn't his intent to make some kind of statement about non-human rights, he said. "But you have to wonder if it's the best thing for the animals."

Some -- the giraffes, for instance -- seem settled in herbivorous contentment. Others, primates in particular, appear frustrated and distressed.

"My feeling is the apes get it," Mason said. "If they could get out of there, we'd be the ones behind the bars."

Plexiglas illusions

It isn't easy to photograph the face of the great apes, he said. "They often approach the people, then turn around and sit with their backs toward us."

That behavior led to one of the more intriguing pictures in the show. What appears at first glance to be two gorillas sitting side by side, backs turned, is actually one ape and a woman with a fuzzy coat and dark hair on the other side of the Plexiglas.

"That was at the Seattle Zoo," Mason said. "The woman was actually down on the ground, crouched down to get a better look at the gorilla and I noticed her."

Plexiglas, a barrier not much in use in Winogrand's day, also contributed to what may be the most stunning image ever captured at a zoo. A human face is seen on a chimpanzee. While Mason used Photoshop to turn his original color images into black-and-white pictures and "the usual lightening and darkening for balance," there was no other photo manipulation used for this or any of the other photos in the series.

"The face is a reflection in the Plexiglas," he said. "You can see the little girl there in the crowd. If the lighting is right, you can get it. But you can't make it happen. I tried to do it again, just for fun, but I couldn't. Not in a hundred years."

"That photo is one of those decisive moment kind of things," said Richard Murphy, former photo editor for the Anchorage Daily News, now a colleague of Mason's at UAF. "Reflections are very fleeting things. That's part of the brilliance of this show."

Mason's ability to snatch the ephemeral and capture it in permanent form borders on the uncanny, Murphy said. "The word incisive describes this work," he said. "It's surgically precise and some of it is very funny, but not slapstick. Humor in photography is not an easy thing to achieve, especially smart humor."

Mason said he still likes to use old-school film, but the "Zoo" work is all digital, taken with a diminutive Panasonic Lumix. "You wouldn't even pay attention to it," he said. "I don't want to call attention to myself."

And, unlike a point-and-shoot, the Lumix can use different lenses. But Mason said he used only one lens with no zoom in all the photos except one picture of a gorilla in Atlanta beating its chest. "It was a very simple approach."

"I've known Charles' work for a long time," Murphy said. "And I think this is the best work he has ever done. It's truly documentary photography, but absolutely fine art photography at the same time.

"If you love zoos, you will see things that make you love zoos more. If you hate zoos, you'll see things that make you hate them more."

Fodder for voyeurs

Now 57, Mason has no plans to leave his base in the far north. "I hope the University lasts as long as I do," he said. "If I had to leave, I wouldn't be able to live in Fairbanks. I'd have to move to where there was more of a market. I really want to keep teaching for the next 10 years, but people aren't rushing to become photojournalists anymore."

Nonetheless, he sounded optimistic. It appears that his department will be merging into the Department of Communication, which he called "a good thing." And his students include art majors. And he has rare skills in a field where he flourishes.

"I was never really a good straight journalist, even though I got some awards for it," he said. "But I've gotten very good feedback through my whole life."

"The art work is what I do for myself," he said. "What I really love doing is street photography." Street photography refers to what most of us would call candid snapshots that capture random, chance images in public places. At its most refined level, the genre requires reflexes, anticipation and balance akin to those of a surfboarder and an enthusiasm for viewing one's environment with the wonder of a kid at a zoo.

"I've always been totally entertained by life," Mason said. "People complain about getting stuck at airports, but I look forward to it. It's fodder for voyeurs.

"I love the world. It's just a kick."

ZOO SHOW, photographs by Charles Mason, will be on display through January at Alaska Pacific University.