Feature: Alaska’s “Last Road North”

Ben Huff's photo "Mile 323. Thomas, 2012." Huff said he approahed Thomas while he was parked at a rest stop, taking a break. "I was very drawn to him, visually," Huff said. "He had a very apocalyptic kind of look." After he got the shot, Huff said Thomas was "very appreciative" and "amazed that (Huff) wanted to make a photo of him." Photo: Ben Huff. Alaska Dispatch. Ben Huff’s highly anticipated new photo series, “The Last Road North,” took the photographer five years, a small fortune in gasoline and over 1,000 cumulative images to complete enough to “call it quits” and have an exhibition.

The Iowa native, who moved to Alaska from Colorado in 2005, has spent half a decade patiently documenting the precarious life on one of the world’s most remote roadways, Alaska’s James W. Dalton Highway, which begins just outside of Fairbanks and runs north to the Arctic coast. 

Huff’s project, which won partial funding from the Rasmuson Foundation via a 2008 grant, opened at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau at the beginning of February.

It features 29 color photographs varying in size and taken with a rather large, cumbersome camera.

“All the shots (in the series) were made with a 4×5 film view camera, you know with an accordion and a hood,” Huff laughed. “The process (of making photos this way) is quite slow and deliberate and kind of unwieldy, but it served the work really well.”

Although 4×5 film is notoriously expensive, Huff was committed to his vision for the images he’d planned on making. “I thought, ‘I’m going to do this, I don’t know how, I don’t know if it’s going to bankrupt me’ but I was going to do it.”

The result is, as Huff describes, “an untreated exploration of people and place” in which the viewer is exposes to an “apocalyptic kind of look.”

But the idea behind Huff’s project looms larger than its forlorn, often sentimental images.

“Largely, what I was trying to suss out was ‘our’ idea of ‘frontier and wilderness’ in contrast with all the oil and resource development that happens in this area of the world,” Huff said. “And, to some extent, I was trying to navigate what Alaska, and Alaska mythology, meant to me, personally.”

The Dalton Highway is a 414-mile gouge of bare gravel traversing through the heart of Alaska’s Interior, from Livengood to Deadhorse, a work camp and airport near the crest of the state’s border with the Arctic Ocean. Huff describes it as a “no frills” kind of place.

“I’m drawn to the melancholy feel (of the Dalton Highway) and this idea that we can’t really sustain what we’re doing up there (in Prudhoe Bay) coupled with the feeling that you shouldn’t be there in the first place,” Huff said. “I wanted them (my images) to sort of feel like the bust after the boom: Kind of heavy and tenor.”

Of the small grouping of photographs viewable above, hand selected from his larger exhibit, Huff explains that these best express his “need to wonder and to drive and to bear witness.”

“I’m not really a portrait person,” Huff said, “It takes me a while to get into that space (because) I only take one shot. If it doesn’t work it’s not meant to be.” But, he adds, that the portraits are an important part of his work. Indeed, an important part of “bearing witness” to life on the Dalton.

To see more photos featured in “The Last Road North” visit Huff’s webpage and, if you’re in Anchorage, check out his pieces in Alaska Positive from now until March 7 at the Anchorage Museum.

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