Photographer brings Alaska images to life in book

JUNEAU (AP) — Larry Johansen was the Director of Southeast Operations for Cruise West when they folded in 2010. Born in Ketchikan, he had made a career taking visitors around Southeast Alaska and showing them the natural wonders he called home. Johansen is a seasoned photographer, and he saw the end of his days with Cruise West as an opportunity.

The year 2014 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which allowed for the federal designation of wilderness areas. Through Johansen's career, he had explored many of the wilderness areas that have been established around Southeast Alaska, and he decided to create a book that captured images of the 18 wilderness areas located in the Alexander Archipelago.

"It came to me that I had the time and inspiration and the background that a lot of people didn't have. I just decided to go for it," Johansen said at a presentation in early July at the Juneau Downtown Public Library that was sponsored by Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

Johansen spent about two years traveling to the 18 areas, and the result is a book named "The Alexander Eighteen."

"There's a lot of books that depict Alaska wilderness, but nobody told the story that clearly defines or recognizes the areas that are designated," he said.

Though there are 19 wilderness areas in the Tongass National Forest, Johansen explained he chose to focus on the 18 that exist within the Alexander Archipelago for two reasons: there are a lot of books with "Tongass" in their title and as their focus, and the 19th wilderness area in the Tongass, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, receives a fair amount of attention. His hope with this book is to raise awareness about the other 18.

"The name begs further inquiry," he said.

The book begins with an excerpt of the Wilderness Act:

"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

In presenting images of each wilderness area in his book, Johansen also assigned each one a theme.

"Beyond the pictures, one of the responsibilities I felt was to talk to people and discuss issues about the areas," he said. "Each particular chapter covers a theme that provides the best example that runs throughout all the wilderness areas but is best exemplified by that particular area."

For example, the Misty Fjords wilderness area is designated with the theme of political conflict.

"It was slated to be a timber reserve," Johansen said. "There was contention between user groups," who fought over "What the land should be used for. It was a battleground."

The Karta River area has the theme of multiple-use. Johansen explained that there are million dollar yachts, kayakers, fly fisherman and native Alaskans that harvest salmon in the area.

Johansen said that the themes help focus a message on the "Concepts that are important. It's an organizational tool. Otherwise organization becomes too scattered. If you ask someone what they learned, it's the themes that may resonate with them."

In addition to the photographs, the 18 chapters of his book also provide some text about the areas. However, he is quick to explain that he is not in a position to take an authoritative stand on the issues that each area faces.

"The photographs and stories and the perspective is very personal," Johansen said. "It's from my point of view. I'm a tour guide, really, and that's the point of the book, a tour of the wilderness areas in the archipelago. There's some pretty special places out there that should be recognized."

Johansen said he hopes that the book will act as a conversation starter.

"I don't offer solutions, I just say these are the areas, let's talk about them," he said.

When Johansen was growing up in Ketchikan, the saw and pulp mills were in full swing.

"If you claimed you were a conservationist, you were on the same level as a communist," he said. "People lost their jobs by taking environmental stands."

Upon graduating high school, he was confused on what route to take.

"The prospects were limited," he said.

He could find a job at one of the mills or become a fisherman. After obtaining a political science degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo., Johansen said he "Realized I'd be sentencing myself to a cubicle all day." Which is what led him to his decision to work as a tour guide.

"The fascination I had when people came to Alaska resonated with me," he said.

This fascination was apparent during the 15-minute slideshow Johansen showed at the library presentation. Close-up images of Devil's Club rolled across the screen, followed by photographs of black bears, sea otters and beaches full of orange seaweed next to brilliantly green sea grass.

Johansen concluded his presentation with a personal perspective.

"There's an attitude that Alaska is the Wild West, and we can do anything we want to, that none of our actions have repercussions," he said. "In the last 20 years that's changed. People who are old school realize that there are choices that need to be made. It's become clear that now is a critical time. I think that's why the 50th anniversary is important, to reiterate the values of the act of the 1964."

07/23/2012 - 7:26am