Joseph Returns from an Alaskan Back-Country Photo Expedition

July 14, 2012  •  3 Comments


Photography is funny in that locations that are photographed well once get put on every photographer’s bucket list. Look at what Galen Rowell did for Yosemite: due to his early work bringing groundbreaking images Yosemite is one of the most photographed parks in the U.S. and all thanks to a visionary in the field. Not only did Galen bring the world into our living rooms on our walls and in our hearts, he did this through dedicated and deliberate practice and with a clear vision that he wanted to convey.

_DSC2930-Edit-Edit.jpgClouds & Water Rush By; Anchorage, Alaska

Today every time we think of Yosemite, his images are likely to be those most readily conjured by our memories. This is the drive behind my philosophy as a photographer: Explore the world around us and that we live in; Learn as much as I can in the field about the habitat and environment I am working in be it extreme temperatures and remote locations; and Share this with the viewer. It is in this order I feel the image takes its form and is understood. Now before you go thinking I am comparing myself to the Man himself, I am not. I only want to point out and pay homage to his work and the work we as photographers do and what drives this passion forward.

This Alaska trip was spurred by a conversation Dan (Ballard), Andrew Vernon and I were having one afternoon here in Denver over lunch. We had been talking of a remote location we could photograph that had all of the elements we sought: rarely photographed landscape, dramatic terrain and above all - insane light. We were giving ourselves two weeks to accomplish this and we did. Peru and Alaska somehow came to be the two locations that made the cut and after careful deliberation, Alaska won as it was approaching summer solstice meaning hours and hours of sunlight each day. After all, photography is all about light and we needed to capture the environment with that element. We also were looking for a location that had not been photographed to its last breath. Sure, Alaska is probably one of the most photographed locations on the globe; however, not in the manner in which we envisioned. 

_DSC3079-Edit.jpgA lone piece of drift wood with a faint rainbow in the distance;

Our trip originated in Anchorage where we landed in an ocean of mountains, snow and amazing light and ended in Denali where the peak is typically hidden from sight due to weather patterns it creates. For anyone that has visited Alaska knows this is truly the last frontier. As you fly over this vast and empty landscape thoughts of individuals that call this territory home are never distant from your mind and a deeper appreciation is formed. Mountains that spring from out of nowhere up towards the heavens with insanely jagged peaks, water that runs incessantly from the glaciers that surround you, roads that wind along the coast and follow the tree lined highway system taking you further and further from civilization into Alaska's backcountry. This is the backcountry where one of our heli-guides told us, “This is Alaska boys, and there is no joking out here. People die.” I knew this was going to be a great trip.

An Ocean of Snow & Clouds; Columbial Glacier, Valdez, Alaska.jpgAn Ocean of Snow & Clouds; Columbial Glacier, Valdez, Alaska

We landed at nearly 11pm and after a long night of shooting and sleeping in our car; we decided to call this location quits and find a place to rest and prepare for the next shoot. After a couple of days and with zero photos in the bag we decided to head out after dinner on a hike we had heard rumored to be a great sunrise location. To reach the summit we headed out on the trail at 12:30 AM and hiked for nearly five hours following the trail and hollering “Hey, Bear” hoping this would save us should one be hungry. Man, nothing again! No photos and nothing to show for our efforts save a severe lack of sleep and a broken hiking pole. At this point we weren’t giving up or losing faith, but we were beginning to think the locals may have been right about Alaska not having much great light this time of year; most said hardly ever. We kept the faith and pressed on heading to Homer and Seward where perseverance and dedication paid off.

A Dramatic Sunset Over Resurrection Bay; Seward, Alaska.jpgA Dramatic Sunset Over Resurrection Bay; Seward, Alaska.

 This is something that I have learned over my time shooting landscapes: patience and perseverance are paramount above all else and a clear vision of what you are seeking to capture. Photography requires a clear vision and knowing what you want to convey to your viewer before you even head out on your shoot. To know this even in its most primitive form will help out immensely. You must go in to every situation prepared for the conditions and willing to endure what many may not. In doing this you will position yourself for success that you will both be proud of and will resonate with your viewer.

Homer and Seward were great locations to visit with Resurrection Bay being one of my favorites. We drove overnight; nearly 10 hours winding our way through the dark landscape, playing music at deafening levels and consuming several cans of energy drinks, stopping along the way several times to shoot, and finally ending up in Homer to an amazing sunrise. This image is the opening photo to this post. We were welcomed with an incredible sunrise with clouds and light and snow capped mountains with insanely blue water.

What I wanted to capture and embrace in the images was a sense of warmth and drama, but that also was believable. So much of what I aim for in my photography is to drive the viewer to visit the locations I capture through my lens. I also aim to inspire the viewer to enjoy and appreciate the world around us. I would be ashamed if a viewer ever wrote to me and stated they visited a location and in no way did my images represent it accurately. My photographs are honest in every form. It is the light I seek and the locations I visit that give them their feeling.

After spending several days in the Seward/Homer area hiking the countryside and driving back and forth following weather patterns we decided to move on. We broke down camp, loaded the car and headed north to Denali. I cannot explain with enough emphasis how large of a surface area Alaska has. This landscape truly goes and goes.

_DSC3792-Edit.jpgOld pilings remain from a pier that once was as the sun sets ove

Denali is without words one of the largest and most remote places I think I have ever visited. As you head north out of civilization cars and people become fewer save the fellow tourist and Subway you greet along the hundreds of miles of empty highway. We worked the Denali area over the next few days again staying up late and getting up early – we were averaging at most 3 to 4 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period for the entire trip. I have never been so sleep deprived in my life and yet it is amazing how the body begins to cope when it must. The last two days were a push and personal levels of comfort challenged. I will say; however, this push led to a greater sense of personal understanding and what I could put my body through when needed.

Sunrise over the Alaskan Range; Denali National Park, Denali, Alaska.jpgA Storm Breaks At the Horizon Over Denali; Denali National Park,

Denali was an incredible end to an incredible trip and one that I will never forget. Great friendships were made, personal growth realized and strong images to come home with. It almost seemed that the immensity of Denali’s peak that stretches up towards the sky says to all who visit to keep dreaming and reaching for what inspires us. In photography this has never been more apparent with the numbers of photographers growing each day. The goal though is not to become as prominent as Denali within one’s landscape, yet to strive to be the best you can be at your craft. Keep pushing yourself and your limits and you will be amazed at what you can achieve and accomplish. 

Sunrise over the Alaskan Range; Denali National Park, Denali, Al


These are fantastic Joe. I need to talk to you about ordering some prints.
Laura Tillinghast(non-registered)
This are spectacular Joe! Take me with you on your next trip so I can observe how you get such stunning images. :)
absolutely stunning...well done sir...
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