By Jenny Neyman
Greatness can exist, in and of itself, as simply the supersized extreme of whatever metric is used for quantification — great size, great weight, great wealth, great distance.
To attain the level of sublime, however — that mythical, mysterious quality of greatness — takes more than just counting preponderance plus some. It’s the heightened realization that only comes from appreciating what’s there from what’s missing.
In camping, the sweetest comfort is the alleviation of whatever was causing the discomfort — drying out after being soaked, warming up after being cold, walking unburdened after schlepping a heavy pack. In geology, there can only be a valley with heights to frame the lows. In ecology, regeneration is a measure of growth from what was ruined or removed. In photography, creamy midtones only gain prominence when stewed in a base of rich shadows peppered with piquant highlights. In contemplation, quiet truly resonates after the explosiveness of war or volcanic eruption.
In Southwest Alaska’s Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, and Gary Freeburg’s photography of it, sublime beauty is the result of unlikely arithmetic: the sum of what is there from the contrast of what is not. What’s there is 44 miles of rock, grit, acidity and wind, created when the valley was smothered by 1,000 feet of ash when nearby Novarupta Volcano erupted on June 1912 and ejected more than five cubic miles of volcanic debris in less than 72 hours. What isn’t there is comfort, color, vibrancy, life and the other typical hallmarks of natural beauty.
“How can you look at 44 square miles of desolation as being beautiful? There’s a quality about it, I think, that’s instilled,” said Freeburg, retired art department chair at Kenai Peninsula College, who has an excerpt of his exhibition, “Revisiting the Alaska Sublime, The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes,” on display this spring and summer at the college’s gallery at the Kenai River Campus. “You can find the sublime in a lot of things, it’s really a heightened sense of awareness of beauty.
“This is really a true wilderness, because there are no trees, there’s no water, there’s no animals. It truly is a desolate place. … But there are certain periods of the day where the light just dances all over the valley and it’s so beautiful, and then other times when the sun is high and it just flattens everything. But when the sun goes down all of a sudden the shadows begin to lengthen, the direction and intensity of the light makes things really stand out and it creates contrast, certain things stand out from others. I take what I can get out there and love it.”
It took time, experience and five separate trips over 11 years for Freeburg to amass the 2,200 negatives and digital exposures, journal entries and graphite sketches from which he created his art exhibition and his larger project, a book on the valley to be released in September. That measured, patient approach is much longer than it took the valley to be created in its current state, born as it was in the sudden violence of a three-day eruption in 1912 that still ranks as the fourth largest in history.
Even longer than his work in the valley is how long it took Freeburg to get to the state of being ready for such work — the better part of his so far 46-year history as an artist to develop the skill set, aesthetic and philosophy that forms his approach to the unique and challenging location.
The valley, for its part, has been ready since the dust settled after the eruption, now just a hair
shy of a century ago, smothered the Knife Creek drainage, Katmai Caldera, Mount Trident and other geologic features in stark, ashy relief to be explored and marveled at. Not that the valley is interested whether anyone comes to lay eyes — much less behold or marvel — on it. Yet that’s part of the allure for Freeburg.
“The wilderness doesn’t care,” he said. “The Katmai really doesn’t care if you’re there or not. It’s not a moody or an emotional place — the wilderness is none of that. It’s what you bring to it. I can create that (in photography or drawings), but it’s my experience out there. That’s what I see in it, it’s not that that’s what the place is, it’s just what I’ve experienced and what I’ve brought back.”
The nature of those experiences, and Freeburg’s nature to want to pursue and document them, have built over his lifetime, layer upon layer, not unlike Novarupta’s ash building atop ash.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, the seed of Freeburg’s interest in photography, in general,
and Alaska, in particular, was planted when he was a kid. He traces it to a fishing trip with his grandfather. While waiting for a bite, floating slow on a shallow lake surface, his grandfather extracted a folded-up photograph of Denali from his billfold.
“He must have clipped it out of a National Geographic, because back in that period of time, this was back in ’63, everybody seemed to have the Geographic. He was a guy who never traveled anywhere — he worked hard, owned an implement company — but in his mind this sort of virtual reality was in the Geographic, and everybody traveled through the National Geographic back then. He said, ‘I’m never going to make it to Alaska, but if you get a chance, you need to go there,’” Freeburg said.
He didn’t think much of it at the time, but when his grandfather died of cancer a few months later, the exchange took on more weight than any fish they could have caught that day.
“It did two really important things in my life,” he said. “Number one is that by showing me that picture — I remember that picture vividly — I saw the power of an image and how important this photograph was. And, secondly, it instilled in me the idea of adventure. Because Alaska was always an adventure.”
His Alaska adventure would have to wait. He went off to college after high school, but was drafted into the service and spent six years, 1969-1975, in the U.S. Navy, including two years deployed to Vietnam, which gave him a start in his appreciation of counterintuitive contrast. While on leave in Japan, he sought out respite from the “noise and the destruction and all the things associated with war.” He found it in a Buddhist rock garden.
“I went in there and sat down and it was just the complete opposite of all the activity of war. There were 15 stones, some life-size, some smaller, and all this raked sand. I went back the next day and the stones stayed right where they were but the sand had changed — they had raked it around — so there was a sense of stability but at the same time this sense of change. And I became really fascinated by that. It really sort of relieved me. I’m not Buddhist by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s just this sense of stability and purpose, almost, to the garden, where in the war a lot of times you kind of questioned the purpose of what was going on there,” he said.
He obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in photography and drawing from Minnesota State University in 1974 and 1977, and a master’s of fine art in photography from the University of Iowa in 1978, studying under renowned photographers, including Oliver Gagliani, Ansel Adams and John Schultz. Following that he moved to Alaska, first to Sitka, where the rocky marine shoreline evoked reminiscence of the rock gardens in Japan.
“These really wonderful rock formations would show themselves, then the tide would come back in, the rocks were back underwater, the tide would go out and all the sand around them would completely change again. I would sit by the ocean for hours to see what would be given to me when the tide would go back out again, and I started doing photography there,” he said.
Ernest Suazo, superintendent of Sitka National Historical Park at the time, in the 1980s, saw the photos and remarked that they reminded him of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Freeburg had never heard of it before, but the name became a fixed boulder in his head, with other thoughts and priorities swirling around, but never dislodging it.
“It sounded like a place that would be really wonderful to visit, but I really didn’t know what it was,” he said.
In 1982, Freeburg took a job as the art department chair at Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna, much closer to Katmai National Park, across Shelikof Straight from Kodiak, than he had been in Sitka, though he didn’t think much on it at the time. He spent 20 years at KPC, constructing the gallery that now bears his name in 1987. He curated 153 exhibits there, establishing the space as an anchor of visual arts both for the college and wider central peninsula community.
At the time, though, it was roughed together over a weekend. Freeburg and Paul Rochon, in the college maintenance department, framed in walls and hung drywall panels to define a space between the library and a bordering classroom. He hung the gallery’s first show straight on the drywall. After seeing the resulting gouges, Freeburg spent his own money on 4-by-8 sheets of plywood to drill onto the wall studs. When he was told that wouldn’t fly — not fireproof — he literally sealed the deal of the gallery’s establishment with seven coats of plaster.
After retiring in 2000, the gallery was renamed in his honor in 2003. He’s taken his experiences there to his new positions in Virginia, where he moved with his wife, Kathy Schwartz, after leaving KPC. He currently is the director of the Sawhill Gallery at James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Va.
“This little space has just been wonderful all these years. It’s had a lot of great exhibitions. It’s just nice to come back and visit. This little gallery has given me a lot of background,” he said at his show opening April 5.
* * * * *
Retirement from KPC freed up time for Freeburg to get better acquainted with the valley. He took his first trip there in 2000, as sort of an inquiry to see if the place would be worth a return trip. At first, it was difficult to discern the future potential of the imagery from the immediately obvious logistical pain inherent in the trip.
“When you’re out there camping and all of a sudden the wind comes up, the pumice starts flying. You get all this stuff into everything. There is nothing to hide behind. You’re exposed, like being in a big parking lot,” he said.
It is a rocky, harsh place to camp, with no trees to offer shelter from the rain or wind, no
foliage to suppress the omnipresent grit, no animals to alleviate the sense of desolation.
“The hardship, and harshness and carrying a big load with all the camera equipment. It was a backpacking experience (more than an artistic one). That first time I think I wasn’t really that impressed, but when I got back to the studio and when I began looking at some of the photographs — I took about 60 rolls, I was photographing absolutely everything — I began experiencing the images differently. The place began to take on a totally different feel. Being out there, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but when I began to see the images come back, then all of a sudden it just really struck me that I would have to go back,” Freeburg said.
* * * * *
He would go back better-prepared. He delved into research — geology of the area, history of the Natives in the region that relocated after the eruption, information on the eruption itself, the photography and writings of Robert Griggs. Griggs was the first to visit the site after the eruption, sent on assignment with the National Geographic Society in 1916. He documented the still-steaming surface and gave the valley its dramatic name.
Upon Freeburg’s return in 2002, the valley held a sense of wonder in its desolation. Or, rather, Freeburg was better able to set aside the filter of his preconceptions and simply perceive the place as he found it through the dispassionately precise focus of his camera lens.
“The idea of the power of observation, where you just observe what’s going on around you and adapt to it, is such an important element. I can begin to really change my way of thinking when I begin to see what’s happening around me,” he said.
The concept of observation, adaptation and change is one he gleaned from his military service, just deployed in a different use.
“What they’re talking about there is changing what’s happening around them, not changing you so much but changing everything else. What I did is I focus that back on me, where I have to observe first. This place is not going to adapt to me, it couldn’t care less about me, so my adaptation is to get into the rhythm of this place,” he said.
The weather, wind and conditions, rather than maps or schedules or clocks, began to dictate
his activity each day in the valley. He fell into a pattern of waking early, around 3:30 a.m., to shoot in the morning light until around 9 a.m., when he’d nap or hike some more to get to another shooting location, then work again in the evening light until about 11 p.m. He’d hike three or four miles, or even up to 22, as conditions allowed.
Some days the skies were clear and winds calm, others he’d be huddled in his tent to escape the flying pumice. One day his willowy, 6-foot-3-inch, 165-pound frame with 30-pound pack was swept off his feet and redeposited up a hill — twice — in winds gusting to 70 or 80 mph. During that same trip, in June 2011, he took less than 200 images in over a week, only able to work about five days out of nine.
“The other four I was stuck because the winds were blowing so hard and the pumice was flying. You just can’t go out into that stuff, it really hurts. It’s like hail, it comes at you sideways,” Freeburg said. “Out of all the trips out there it was the greatest adventure of all. I was getting hypothermic and it was really a difficult time to be there — cold and snowy. And it rained on me and everything was soaked, and stayed soaked for nine straight days. When I came back out I felt like I had really accomplished something, not necessarily from a photographic point of view but having had the opportunity to get to know the place that much better.”
He also discovered during his visits that getting into the rhythm of the place was more completely done in solitude. His second trip, in 2002, he went with a friend. Though the two were comfortable with each other, having climbed Denali together, the presence of another human inevitably drew some attention from the lifeless landscape. In 2008, Freeburg took a filmmaker he had met in Virginia, George Johnson, who wanted to film a documentary on Freeburg’s work in the valley. Again, Freeburg found that the trip wasn’t as productive, artistically, as when he traveled alone, particularly in 2004 when he captured the bulk of his images.
“It really is a wonderful experience to be absolutely alone in a place like this. You watch the
airplane fly away and it’s a little strange for a few moments. You’re pretty well on your own until they come back. But it is a great experience. I think there was almost more of an intimacy with the landscape. I was there without any distractions from other people. There’s nothing else, just you and the environment,” he said.
He began to cue into the weather patterns, wind and conditions of the valley, and let that guide his travels.
“When I saw fog coming in in the lower part of the valley I realized it was time to get back to the shelter because in an hour or two it’s going to be completely enveloped. I began to see what was happening out there. It had nothing to do with time, it was weather dictating what I did every day,” he said.
He’d start each morning writing in his journal, laying out a loose plan for the day, then photographing whatever the valley gave him.
“Oftentimes I’m not thinking when I’m doing the photography, I just walk and I’ll see specific shapes or things that seem to just come at me. It’s the shapes and the textures that really grab my attention, and I work with those things,” Freeburg said.
Though he studied with the titans of grandiose landscape photography, like Ansel Adams, Freeburg’s interest is more in finding the grandeur in smaller scenes, in the “quietness,” as he calls it, found in the middle values between shadows and highlights.
“One of the things I’ve learned about this place, and most volcanic regions, is that when a volcano blows up there’s a tremendous amount of noise. It’s not unlike a war zone, when someone drops a bomb you have all this deafening noise, it’s just unbelievable. Then when that stops it leaves a vacuum. Volcanism is the same thing. The amount of material that’s thrown into the air, the amount of force, the amount of noise associated. But that’s all gone and it leaves this really wonderful vacuum.
“The higher-contrast stuff is more eye-popping, but at the same time it’s a little more noisy. It’s the stillness after all of that that really appeals to me. The middle values, especially, because that’s where the quiet is. That’s what I saw in a lot of the images, there’s a real quiet solitude — all of those things that I guess sort of balance out my whole life that seem to show themselves in these things.”
The massive bulk of his photography was done in black and white, preferring the focus on texture and shape afforded by the lack of distraction from color.
“It just gives you really nothing more than the subject matter and content, and if you add color to it sometimes that can be a distraction,” Freeburg said.
His book contains 57 duo-toned black and white images, and 33 images Griggs shot in 1916, which Freeburg replicated as near as he could to show the changes in the valley in the last 100 years. But he did shoot about 30 to 40 rolls of color film, and 16 color images appear in the book. In some instances, color was the subject matter, and Freeburg didn’t shy away from treating it as such.
“When I’d drag my boot heel through the ground, all this brilliant color shows from underneath. Bright red metals transported to the surface through the steam. When I saw that I just had to put color film in, because that’s what that was really all about. It really was beautiful,” he said.
The book also contains some of his sketches, in which Freeburg lets his emotional side roam. The sketches represent more of his unique experiences in the valley — Was it windy? Was it cold? Was it exhilarating? Was it lonely? — showing more of what the place felt like, rather than just how it looked.
In his photography, Freeburg is careful to not burden the imagery with his own experiences or
emotions. That’s why his photo titles read like a catalog of geologic features, stripped of any charged vocabulary. “Katmai Pass as seen from the summit of Baked Mountain, Falling Mountain (left), and Mount Cerberus (right),” and “An ash-filled canyon central in the ignimbrite sheet,” rather than something more magestic or flowery, like “Sentinels of Desolation” or “Deepening Scar.”
Freeburg wants viewers to engage the work on their own terms, rather than him as the artist steering that conversation. Ideally, Freeburg said, everyone would go visit the valley for him or herself. Trying to detach himself from the images is his next-best solution.
“I don’t want to put myself in there all. In the conceptual world of art these days, it’s all about the artist, not so much about the work. To me, so much of that rings rather hollow, and I’m more interested in storytelling. These things hopefully create their own stories as you’re looking at them,” Freeburg said. “When you see the film I say the same thing, ‘Well, I can show you pictures of this, but if you really want to understand it you really need to go there and experience it for yourself,’ which is so true. It’s so nice to sit out in the wilderness, see what’s going on out there and find how you adapt to that place. If I can give that gift to anybody, that’s what I want to do is don’t take it for granted, just go see what’s there.”
To grasp the larger importance of those sights, though, it helps to know more about the valley than what is visible to the eye. To add some of that context, the book also contains essays. John Eichelberger, who leads the Volcano Hazards Program of the U.S. Geological Survey and continues to teach a volcanology class in Katmai National Park and Preserve every summer, writes about the more scientific aspects of the geology and volcanology of the valley. Jeanne Schaaf, cultural resource manager for Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks and Preserves, writes about the anthropology of the area. Freeburg considers the collaboration as akin to a Thanksgiving dinner — the valley set the table, and he and his collaborators dish up their own unique contributions for all to share.
* * * * *
And what’s next for Freeburg to dig into? For new work, he’s shifting his focus to other volcanic features of Alaska. This summer he’ll spend a few weeks at Mount Aniakchak, which erupted about 3,500 years ago, creating a six-mile crater.
“That whole Alaska Peninsula is amazing. I’ve got 200 years of work ahead of me. I figure I could really do something with it if I had that much time,” he said.
Freeburg expects he’ll be lured back by the draw of the valley, to see again where the sands have settled around the rocks. He’s only gone through about 400 of his 2,200 negatives, and thinks there may be another book or two hidden there, waiting quietly, especially since the images now are being in service of geology and anthropology.
“Now all these photographs, which are artistic, at least from my perspective, are being seen by scientists,” he said. “The whole thing is snowballing. It’s become so much bigger than I ever envisioned, and all of a sudden I realize, ‘Well, now it’s about about “us,”’ rather than me doing artwork and trying to push it off on a gallery. I started looking at this as something beyond myself that could benefit other people.”