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Interview with Artist Ben Huff

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Your website says you were born in LeClaire, Iowa and currently reside in Juneau with your wife, but can you fill in some of the gaps?

I was born in Iowa—1973—went to high school in Iowa, and then Western Illinois University about an hour and a half drive from Iowa. I got my BFA in 1996, in art, actually—they didn’t have a photography program. So, I painted and I drew, neither particularly well. I mean, I had technical skill I guess, but I didn’t really think of myself as an artist. Although I did really enjoy it, I never saw an end game, never viewed it as a viable career path.

Around that same time I really got into the sport of bike racing—road bicycles. After school, I packed up and moved to Colorado to race bikes. That became the “everything” for me, you know? I raced for 13-14 years, and I did all right, made a pretty good run at it and always figured I’d find a job in the industry. Toward the end of my racing career, my parents were coming to see me race, and on a strange whim—I still don’t know why—I asked my father to bring me his old camera, this ancient Sigma 35 mm, thinking that if I could make some photographs for the team maybe I could transition into a new role. So I started making photographs of bicycle racing.

But something strange happened. The more I photographed bike racing, the more I started looking at the road from a different perspective, not caring as much about the cycling as the photography itself, as well as the landscape and the people interacting with that landscape. That’s what my photography became about.

So you’re self-taught?

Yes, although that’s a disservice to some of the photographers who’ve helped me along the way, particularly Dennis Witmer, a friend from Fairbanks, and Charles Mason, chairman of the journalism department at UAF, who’s also been very generous with his time and expertise.

How did you wind up in Alaska?

My wife got into graduate school—PhD program in atmospheric sciences at UAF. We were looking for adventure and Alaska turned out to be it. We moved to Fairbanks, sight unseen, in July of 2005. I remember when she found out she was accepted to the program; it was in February or March and she called to tell me and I pulled up the weather station. It was 40 below and I was like “Yes! Absolutely.” We drove from Colorado, up the Al-Can in ten days. We didn’t muck around. It really put into perspective just how far away Alaska is from the rest of the country.

What do you do professionally, then, is it strictly photography or do you also teach?

I adjunct at the University of Alaska Southeast, photography and also art appreciation. Aside from that, I’m a professional photographer, although I don’t do editorial work, so selling prints—specifically from “The Last Road North”—is where it’s at for me right now. Kind of an interesting business model in that it’s not really a business model at all.

Where did the idea of “The Last Road North” come from?

It was specifically about the Dalton Highway. When I first got to Fairbanks, I kept making photographs of Fairbanks, specifically reconciling the idea of people’s perceptions of what Alaska is with the reality of what Alaska is – especially in Fairbanks, which is kind of like the land that design forgot. Then one day, my wife and I decided to take a day trip up the road to the Arctic Circle and that road and that landscape all of a sudden became everything to me. There was commerce and oil and the frontier all converging along this one thin line. I didn’t know what was between the Arctic Circle and the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay some 400 miles up the road. That absence of knowledge fueled the entire project for the next five years. I mean, I was struck with an undeniable need to do a contemporary story of this road.

Can you describe your process for making this exhibit? Were you originally thinking of your work along the Dalton Highway as a larger piece, or just shooting photos to see how they fit together, if they fit together?

It was always a larger project, more lyrical than documentary, but still narrative, based around the idea of road trips and following my own curiosity. In my mind, I’ve always thought of it as a book. Every time I’d make a photograph, I was editing that book—how does this photograph fit with the others, how will it help me tell the story? I used an old format view camera, four by five inch sheets of film, very expensive, so I had to be very frugal. You know, the old fashioned camera with the hood and inverted image on the ground glass? It’s a very slow, very deliberate—and again, very expensive—process. All in all, I wound up taking 1000 photos—far fewer than if I’d shot with a digital. Of those, I’m using 50 or so for the book, which I’ve almost finished editing (then begins the search for a publisher!), and 29 in the ASM exhibit. It was amazing that they all fit so perfectly, actually. I spent forever looking at the blueprint. When I finally got in the space [to mount the exhibit], we laid everything out and it worked! From what I understand, that never happens. I’ll actually have a copy of the book at my lecture at the Alaska State Museum on March 1. So, I’ll need to finish it by then.

What is your favorite photo in the exhibit and why?

There’s a portrait of a kid, Thomas. He’s sitting in a white car wearing his cammos. He’s dirty, he looks beaten down. I mean, all the portraits sort of have this road-weary, melancholy feel to them, and he really exemplifies that. But he surprised me by being so gracious in letting me make my photographs. Normally, I only shoot one or two of each subject—did I mention how expensive the film is? But I shot five of Thomas, and he would’ve let me shoot all day, he was that enthralled with the idea that someone would want to take pictures of him. He was a good a kid. A rough kid, but a good kid and a really nice guy. Not sweet, but humble.

Is there a difference between shooting a road versus biking and/or driving on that road?

I edit myself the way a novelist would, so most of my photos, no one ever sees. It’s almost like the photographs I made of bicycle racing were from a different life. I can say the discipline of cycling and photography are similar: long hours by yourself facing into the wind. Being on the road, the landscape passes by. With photography, you have the ability to get off the road and look back at it. On the [bicycle] saddle or behind the wheel, it’s only one vantage point: you looking out.

What type of reaction are you hoping to elicit in the viewer?

I don’t know. I think all art is open to interpretation. At the end of the day any artist wants the viewer to look past the surface. There are some good little underlying stories and threads woven throughout this exhibit. But if people don’t see that, that’s fine, too. At least I hope they enjoy looking at some nice pictures.

Can you explain your infatuation with “North”? How about the “great American need to head for the frontier”? I’m especially interested in what you describe as your desire to “point your wheels toward the horizon.”

There is something about that need to hop in the car and drive, and drive until you can’t anymore. That you can sit in your car with a cooler in your trunk, eat a sandwich and just watch the Porcupine caribou herd is amazing, but also criminal. It’s that dichotomy which drives me. There’s so much romanticism wrapped up in getting all the way to the end of the road, and you finally make it there, and it’s oil fields. There’s also incredible wilderness, but the only reason you’re there in the first place is development of that wilderness. There’s something to reconcile in that.

So much of this project was about photography, just photography, this great history of photographers making photographs of the frontier and my contribution to that dialogue. With photography, I also feel this need to keep going and going, getting better and better, more polished, and I think that parallels the need to drive and drive and keep going until you get to the last road. Then you get to the end of that. And then what? I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to find out.

Any other thoughts on having an exhibit at the Alaska State Museum?

To have an exhibit at the State Museum, located in my home town, is amazing. Until now, I’ve pretty much only shown my work up North. Most of my friends here in Juneau have no context for what I do. They live in the same state, but have never been that far north.

I’d also like to thank the Rasmuson Foundation, the Juneau Humanities Council, and the Connie Boochever Fellowship program, whose generous financial awards helped make "The Last Road North" possible.