Arts and Culture

Alaskan landscape shaped by volcano inspires professors' collaboration

by Janet Smith

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes image by Gary Freeburg
Gary Freeburg's photographs of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes are awe-inspiring, but understanding the surreal setting created by one of the largest volcanic eruptions in history requires a trip there.

Dr. George C. Johnson was up for the challenge and the two James Madison University faculty members, each with over 40 years of experience as photographic artists, found a way to blend their shared awe of the power of nature's wilderness to record life in one of Earth's harshest, yet beautiful places.

Freeburg, director of Sawhill Gallery and associate professor of art, design and art history, and Johnson, professor of media arts and design, have produced two works of art to offer viewers a glimpse of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the area of the Alaska Peninsula that was radically changed by the powerful eruption of a volcano a century ago.

Taking its name from the "smokes," actually fumaroles that steamed when water buried underneath deep layers of ash superheated, the Valley is part of Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Their collaboration began in the fall of 2007 when Johnson attended an exhibition of Freeburg's photographs of portions of the 56-square-mile Valley. "I was fascinated by the place and appreciative of Gary's interpretation of the area," Johnson recalls. The men also discovered they had a common link to famed photographer Ansel Adams whose black-and-white images of the American West are icons still studied and respected. Freeburg studied in workshops with Adams in 1975, while Johnson studied the following year.

"So I asked, 'What do you think about doing a film of the work that you've been doing in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes?'"

"Well, I think it's a great idea, but you know what this means. We're going to have to go out there," was the reply from Freeburg.

So "out there" to the Valley they went for five days in June 2008 for Freeburg to photograph more images to add to the collection he began building in 2000 and for Johnson to film the "other world" landscape and Freeburg at work interpreting the area.

After their pilot landed his small plane on the terrain, helped them unload their gear and flew off, both men were engulfed by "the sense of vacancy out there," Freeburg said. Deposits of ash and pumice expelled from the volcano June 6-8, 1912, when an estimated 7 cubic miles of material was displaced, make the terrain barren and dangerous.

Johnson described it as "this great big sandbox that's a place that's completely out of place."

"It looks exactly like a glacier," Freeburg said, "but it's all rock, made up of pumice and ash." In some places the ash is estimated to be 1,000 feet deep.

"It can be dangerous. You learn to walk slowly and carefully," Freeburg said. He and Johnson carried 85-pound packs of equipment to photograph and film the impressive vistas and the terrain that has been compared to the moon's surface. Indeed, the Valley was a test range for the lunar rover, Johnson mentioned.

He recalls sinking in ash up to his knees and Freeburg has experienced the pelting of wind-driven pumice the size of peas on earlier expeditions. "Fortunately, when we were there, the weather was about as good as you can have," Johnson said. "Still, you've really got to want to be there."

Since their trip to the Valley was fairly brief, the men took advantage of the 19 hours of sunlight each day during the summer solstice to shoot images that formed the basis for Freeburg's book, "The Valley of 10,000 Smokes: Revisiting the Alaskan Sublime," from George F. Thompson Publishing, and Johnson's 30-minute documentary, "An Artist's Journey to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes: The Photography of Gary Freeburg," which chronicles what happened in 1912 and explains the geology of the Valley before showing what Freeburg endures to capture images.

"I can appreciate Gary's interpretation of the Valley even more having been there," Johnson said. "It's overwhelming. Gary takes the vistas that are a scar on the land and turns them into something beautiful to look at. To me, that's one of the roles of an artist. If you understand why that happened you start to look at the bigger picture and greater understanding."

"George has really helped tell the story," Freeburg said. "We're both off in our own creative worlds and it's fun when we can both be doing our creative research and bring these things together. Hopefully, the book enhances George's movie and certainly the movie enhances the book."

Beyond the link between still photography and film, both men hope the subject of their projects will make people think about the role of the environment in their lives. "We both love wilderness and learned from Ansel, don't take the wilderness for granted," Freeburg said.

"Take every opportunity that comes," he recommends. "Maybe the images will pique someone else's interest in wanting to go out and take a look."

Related link:

Gary Freeburg's website

Back to Top

Published: Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

Related Articles