Carl Battreall - Remote and Wild on the 650-mile Alaska Range

I like that piece of land where the glaciers end and the mountains begin; I like to travel in that zone. Here in Alaska, I focus on a lot of really remote places. I like to say that the number one caption in my photographs is, “Unnamed.”

First camera

My first camera was a 110 film camera. I was probably 11 years old. I took a silhouette of this oak tree. My parents printed it and hung it on the wall. It’s still there. I look at it and cringe these days, but it did plant a seed that photography can go on the wall and be appreciated.

The first camera that made me fall in love with photography was the 8x10 view camera. It taught me about simplicity. Even still, I like to do everything in-camera. I draw upon those early years of training with a view camera heavily still. Things like simplicity. Light. You metered with a handheld meter, very precisely. Slowing down. Preparing. Almost a meditative process. That was critical in shaping me as a photographer.

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Photography or love of mountains?

Both of my parents were in the forest service, and so I grew up in the mountains, but while I was in high school I just wanted to escape the mountains and go skateboard in the city where all my friends lived.

Through photography I made a big circle back to the mountains. Then, I moved to Santa Cruz, CA so I could study with a bunch of the “old-timer” large-format photographers like John Sexton, Ruth Bernhard, and all them. Then, I was back in the mountains.

I needed to live near glaciers. I needed to live near the mountains. After a couple trips to the Himalayas, it was getting too expensive. So, in 2001 my wife and I moved—sight unseen—to Anchorage, Alaska.

Alaska Range project

I started the Alaska Range project—the one I’m working on now—in 2005. The book is to be published 2016. This is the first time there’s ever been a book on the entire 650 mile Alaska Range.

Last year was a tough season—bad river crossings, bad weather, and some other problems. But that’s just the name of the game in the mountains. 

In order to get onto this glacier, we had to do this 50-mile traverse. But we had to cross this river. The guy in front went first, then the next guy floated down. Then, the water hit me, and I hate cold water. Every time I flipped, the pack would hold me underwater. I know what you’re supposed to do, but I didn’t do it. One guy lost his pack. I had to strip down, put on warm clothes, setup a tent, jump inside and get in my sleeping bag or I would've gone hypothermic.

Shooting from the air

It takes a lot of flying. I like little planes. I like to fly at that mid-heighth so it looks like I might be on a mountain next to it. I want the book to have a good flow and not have any images jerk you away from these totally different aerial photographs.

Impact of the project

Only about 1/3 of the Alaska Range is protected; it’s open to lots of stuff. I kind of like to think 50 or 100 years ahead. I document these places. Then, when decisions come later—maybe 20 years from now—they can make some decisions based on this body of work that already exists. I see that we are often in this game of catching up. ‘Oh, you want to build this giant mine over there. Hey, hey, we need to send some photographers over there!’

Also, it is going to be just a pure celebration of big mountains!

Alive

When I'm in my tent—tucked inside my sleeping bag—and it’s 30 or 40 below, and I think to myself ‘sunrise is coming, sunrise is coming.’ If it wasn’t for photography, I wouldn’t be getting out. I wouldn’t be experiencing these cold, cold, mornings, and that fresh, crisp air.

[Photography] kind of kicks me in the bottom these days and says, “Get out there. Wake up. Climb harder. Get up higher. Explore farther!’ The camera does motivate me to get moving in the mountains, get up early, stay out late, get cold.

I’ve tried to quit photography. Haha! I’ve tried, but I can’t. I walked out of high school, and I started being a photographer. It's me. It's in my blood. I can't shake it.

When you’re young and you’re starting, the camera is like a new eye!

I’m always seeing like a photographer these days. I’m not the type that carries a camera with me everywhere I go. But I’m always seeing light in a very critical way.

The tool must match the vision.

At the time the view camera matched the way I saw. One of the reasons I switched to digital is that the view camera became a burden because of its weight and it’s size. It no longer matched what I was seeing. I wanted to be remote and wild.

When I left the view camera, it was almost like I stabbed my mentors in the back. I don’t miss the darkroom! I know a lot of people talk eloquently about the darkroom, but I hated it. I hated the chemicals. I just didn’t like it. Haha! But I learned a lot there that I apply to my Lightroom process now.

Advice

Find work that is inspiring to you, then try to recreate it. That will take many years, and then you’ll find your own vision and style. In terms of being a professional, go get a science degree. I wish I had gone back and become a glaciologist. The funders and publishers now like to hire one guy who does it all. You’ll have more opportunities.

See more about Carl’s 11-year project at TheAlaskaRange and his website PhotographAlaska.