By Zirrus VanDevere, for the Redoubt Reporter
Gary Freeburg has brought back some pretty impressive photos from his trip to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, though, truth be told, it was five separate trips, and these are no simple snapshots. They are masterfully produced black-and-white, large-scale photographs of some of the most raw and dramatic scenery to be had in Alaska.
The gallery Freeburg is showing his work in at Kenai Peninsula College is actually named after him, and it’s a gallery he knows well. For years, he was the one to coordinate and hang the exhibits that passed through the college, and though he is now living and working on the East Coast, he has a multitude of fans and friends who are thrilled to see his work in this area again.
“Work” is absolutely the correct term in this case. It is painstaking and exhaustive work, and he produces images that generally have an impressive value range — a nice spread from very black through many variations of gray and off-whites leading up to crisp, clean white areas — and impeccable composition. Like Ansel Adams, with whom Freeburg has actually worked, he just makes it look effortless. And like Adams, his love for the terrain and environment is highly evident.
Freeburg uses black-and-white film, and had utilized a darkroom for studio classes when he taught here years ago. That darkroom was only last year finally dismantled. My understanding is that these were all shot on film, but in this case were printed digitally. I do feel the digital printing is not as perfect as the darkroom could ultimately produce, but it was certainly a simpler and possibly less-expensive option.
It is easy to see the main subjects in his photographs as sculptures because it is in fact what they are — landscapes sculpted by a harsh and dramatic environment.
In a Knife Creek Canyon shot, the creek is revealed below a decaying snow bridge, and the void that is produced is intense in its darkness and depth. It creates a pensive effect that is mitigated by the rounded rock shapes that seem to hug the edge of the precipice.
The wall of ice in the upper Knife Creek drainage is another favorite image of mine, and certainly reads as sculpture. Gritty and monumental, I can’t help but simultaneously imagine being dwarfed by it if I were standing there, and seeing it as a great big set of dentures dropped in the sand. In either scenario, it is awe-inspiring, and a truly beautiful object.
“A stationary fog bank on the northeastern flank of Broken Mountain” reveals an ethereal cloud and soft shadows that feel like a dream, or a memory of something pleasant but substantial somehow.
A Katmai Pass shot — “as seen from the summit of Baked Mountain, Falling Mountain (left) and Mount Cerberus (right)”— is nearly beyond description in its overwhelming beauty and scope. It’s the kind of scenery that can make a man find God, or quit drinking, or change his life is some spiritual and significant way, just by experiencing it. I can really only guess what it would be like to actually stand in that spot and see such amazing splendor, but the very cool thing is that Freeburg can get me as close as he does to experiencing it. Wow. Just, wow.
Freeburg will be back in the area as the exhibit closes Sept. 7 to talk about the images and the corresponding book he produced that is due to come out in the fall (“Revisiting the Alaska Sublime, The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes”).
Zirrus VanDevere is a local mixed-media artist and owns Art Works. She has bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and education.