By Jenny Neyman
The Alaska Photographic Center’s “Rarefied Light” statewide juried photography exhibition has a reputation as a contemporary show leaning toward abstract, manipulated or otherwise nontraditional art shots. Given that, the assumption might be that it skews toward newer photographers —whippersnappers being so avant-garde, and all.
Not so. The 2013 traveling exhibition, on display through Feb. 5 at the Gary L. Freeburg Gallery at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus, displays the work of some longtime, experienced photographers in the state, including three from the central Kenai Peninsula.
Magical things happen when a practiced hand combines with an exploratory mind. Experimentation, whether with technique or perspective, opens up new frontiers of imagery, a freshness that can be particularly relished by photographers who are decades into wielding a camera.
Greg Daniels, of Kenai, has been photographing the Kenai Peninsula since moving here in 1969, and founded the Kenai Peninsula Photographers Guild 20 years ago. He’s shot the mountains, he’s shot the rivers, he’s shot the Kenai beach — more times than he can count.
“I’ve tried timed exposures with the waves coming in and shooting through ice holes at sunset and waves superimposed over one another and shooting by starlight,” Daniels said.
New techniques reinvigorate his interest, whether he’s trying them out himself or teaching them at a photo guild workshop. His latest interest has been light painting, and his success with the technique gained him entry into the 2013 “Rarefied Light” show with “Ice Eggs,” shot at the Kenai beach.
“I’d never even applied to ‘Rarefied Light,’ before, and I thought, ‘You know, this is exactly what it’s all about. If this isn’t ‘Rarefied Light,’ I don’t know what is.’ It’s very nontraditional,” Daniels said.
The volcanoes across Cook Inlet stand in dark relief against a strip of orange-and-red sunset, beneath a canopy of dissipating clouds. Nighttime seems to progress across the frame, with the grayish-blue water of Cook Inlet running aground against a frozen beach so dim that even the patches of snow have lost their luminosity. That makes a group of rounded chunks of tide-beached ice all the more striking, as they shine so bright they seem to be powered by some hidden source of electricity.
The image is actually comprised of 17 photos. Daniels set up a camera and tripod early in the evening and photographed the sky, mountains and water as the sunset progressed, never moving the camera. Once dark, he started shooting the beach, but again with the camera unmoved on the tripod.
He enlisted his daughter-in-law to shine a flashlight onto each globe of ice, while he photographed.
“I used a fairly long exposure and I had her paint with light, with a flashlight, each and every one of those little ice eggs. As long as she wore dark clothing and was moving she wouldn’t show up, it won’t register it. She would walk right through there and you never see her,” Daniels said.
He downloaded the photos onto his computer, picked his favorite shot of each area he wanted to include in the final image and composited them together with photo-processing software.
It’s a scene he’s shot many times, but “Ice Eggs” achieves a result he’s never captured before. It’s been a thrill for Daniels, and he’s using light painting in a variety of situations, including photographing historic cabins in Old Town Kenai, old cars and other artifacts both outdoors and in.
“I am really kind of into it, and I’m having a lot of fun with it,” Daniels said. “Fall colors at night, it really makes them pop. And you can do it in the wintertime, too, since you can also do it inside.”
He shared the technique at a guild meeting in January with photographers meeting on the Kenai beach to practice the highlighted low-light photography.
“They got really excited. We had a good group and they were just squealing. You just couldn’t believe what you could get with 30-second exposures,” Daniels said.
“It really is kind of an exciting, different approach of photography. I think we all get tired of doing the same thing, so I just wanted to learn one more thing,” he said.
Another longtime central peninsula photographer in this year’s show is Joe Kashi, of Soldotna. He’s had work in “Rarefied Light” every year except last since 2007, with an image chosen for honorable mention in the 2011 show.
For Kashi, it wasn’t a new technique, but a new approach that is evidenced in his works.
Though, to be accurate, it’s one he’s been working on a long time, since studying creative photography at MIT with Minor White in the 1970s.
“The way I approach it is I don’t go out looking for images, I just carry a camera with me and try and experience life. I keep my mind open for the unusual, the extraordinary as we go about our daily lives. It took me many years to get to the point where I could do it kind of intuitively, and it depends on your frame of mind and your mood. When you’re preoccupied you’re not in that kind of mindful openness,” he said.
Back in the 1970s, Kashi was frustrated with the static, staged approach to photography inevitable with camera technology at the time. But with digital cameras came the ability to be more free and spur-of-the-moment.
“To some extent the advent of digital cameras made a more spontaneous and open, rather quick-reacting style more feasible. We all aspired to that, but the equipment required so much time to set up and very linear thinking to use correctly that it was not as easy to do in a spontaneous and open kind of way,” Kashi said.
Both his images in “Rarefied Light” are instances of something just happening to catch his attention.
“Wind-deformed Birch Tree Cook Inlet Bluff, December,” was just that — a gnarled tree near the Russian Orthodox Church in Old Town Kenai that stood out against the stark, slate-gray winter sky. The shot is actually in color, though at first glance appears monochromatic.
“To get the angle right I had to go stand on a high plow berm. It’s full color, although it doesn’t appear that way. I basically just went and increased the contrast so things would stand out better against each other. You can see the natural yellow and brown of the birch bark up close,” he said.
The other, “Obscured Views,” is more abstract — horizontal bands of light and dark in shades of gold, black, gray and dark blue with a crystallized sort of fog creeping across the image. Is it a dimly lit landscape, or a reflection on a frozen lake? It evokes mountains, sea and sky, but is impossible to positively identify as such.
It’s actually a shot through a frosted window from inside Veronica’s Coffee House, in Kenai.
“That’s really all it is. The top part, that’s just sunlight. The yellowish-brown, low-angle winter sunlight striking the frost that’s built up on the top of one of the single-pane windows,” Kashi said. “The bottom part that looks dark is the snow area of the courtyard that was in shadow at the time.”
Another spontaneous shot from an experiences photographer is “Passing Reflection,” by Sue Biggs, of Soldotna.
She was on a trip to New York City about a year and a half ago for training in a program in which her music class at Redoubt Elementary School and the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra were participating — Link Up concerts, a partnership with Carnegie Hall.
She had just a few seconds to notice and capture a little girl looking out a window of a bus.
“We were just walking around and this bus pulled up and I saw her looking out the window and I just did one of those pull-up-your-camera-and-click,” Biggs said.
No time for manual focus, no time to fiddle with settings, no time to check the light or steady her hand. The result is a little blurred, dark and hazy. Technically, those might usually describe faults, but in this case imbue the image with mood and substance that Biggs wouldn’t otherwise have captured. Raindrops and reflections on the bus windows obscure the other passengers. Neon lights and a jumble of busy shapes reflected backward on the windows set the scene in a city, but the hazy, drizzly ambiance slows the moment to a long sigh. The girl is dwarfed in the frame, but her porcelain face with its round cheeks and oval eyes steal the focus.
“Children’s faces really intrigue me,” Biggs said. “And I’ve just always been in love with that picture. She just looked right at me.”
And in that look is … anticipation? Longing? A daydream? Biggs doesn’t know.
“I can’t figure out what I think she’s thinking. She just looks tired. Tired of the ride but also taking in everything she’s seeing,” Biggs said.
The photographers all have taken in the traveling “Rarefied Light” show, and suggest anyone interested in photography do the same.
“I really did think that this particular show was the best I’ve seen,” said Daniels. He sometimes finds “Rarefied Light” to be a little wild for his personal tastes, but thought this juror — Sean Kernan, a photographer, writer and teacher who has had work exhibited and published around the world — found a good balance of images to include.
Kashi also said the show had good variety.
“One of the important things is that you don’t go and so stamp your own taste on it that it stifles the work of the people who are doing it. (Kernan) put together a good-quality show that is reasonably eclectic and comprehensive without necessarily taking stuff that was strictly his own view of things,” Kashi said.
Kashi said he hopes to see more central peninsula photographers represented in future “Rarefied Light” shows. It can be nerve-racking to submit work to a juried show, but Kashi said it’s good for the artistic ego no matter the result. If the work is accepted, it’s good practice in feeling validated without getting overly inflated. If it’s not, it’s an experience at being humble but not letting that stop continued work.
“The peninsula, relative to some of the other arts the area, has a high proportion of excellent photographers here, and we really should see more of them,” he said.