I first met Ben Huff
in 2011 in China of all places. There was an international photography festival there, through the lush valleys and surreal mountains on a 13-hour train ride (I'll mention briefly that I was standing for this entire ride) straight west from Shanghai, in the small city (3 million people) of Lishui. This place was picturesque and humid and a mix of ancient and brand new (they were still building the hotel we were staying in). The festival unfortunately no longer exists, but I remember walking into the American Pavilion (for lack of a better description for the amazing abandoned factory building that housed our photography) and seeing Ben's photographs from his documentary project, The Last Road North.
It was as if I was transported straight out of steamy China to the desolate Dalton Highway and a barren stretch of tundra in Alaska. I spent a lot of my time in that corner of the exhibition hall in Lishui, thinking about distances traveled and about how Ben photographed the land and the people.
This might be the time to mention that my upstate New York family had always been obsessed with Alaska, to the extent that throughout middle school and high school in the 1980s, my brother had his own subscription to the Anchorage Times. A daily subscription. I myself just consumed any books I could get my hands on, my favorite still being Coming into the Country by John McPhee (really a must read, even if you're not an Alaska-phile).
Anyway, all this leads me to the magical moment, somewhere in the middle of the alphabet when wading through the 780 portfolios submitted to Aint-Bad Magazine's
Issue 12 competition, when I saw Ben Huff's work again. This time, a different project: Atomic Island, Adak
. I grew up near an air force base too and I've noted how a lot has changed since it closed. Nothing like the shift in Adak though.
Here is what Ben had to say about this ongoing series:
The island of Adak, Alaska is situated half way out the Aleutian Chain. Bering Sea to the North and Pacific Ocean to the South. Closer to mainland Russia than to Anchorage.
My interest in Adak began several years ago after reading the account of the bombing of Dutch Harbor during WW2, and learning more about the Japanese occupation of Attu, the furthest west island in Alaska. I was stunned to find an island out the chain that was once home to nearly ten thousand army personal, and later the air force, and finally the navy during the Cold War as a nuclear submarine surveillance outpost.
I was born, in the Midwest, during the height of the Cold War. I'm a product of duck and cover drills, Red Dawn, War Games and the perpetual fear of the USSR. The island is a sort of time for me - at once menacing and strangely comforting. But, always a symbol of our waste and a relic of deteriorated power.
In 1997, the army left the island. In the span of two weeks, nearly 6,000 people left the landscape. Now, 78 people live among the detritus of our military ambition.
Atomic Island, Adak is an ongoing project. My next trip to the island was over the week of the 4th of July, where I made pictures of the red white and blue, fireworks, and celebration of independence against the backdrop of an abandoned military outpost in the Westernmost city in America.
Ben Huff (b.1973) was born in LeClaire Iowa, migrated to Colorado in his 20's and moved to Fairbanks, Alaska in 2005. He currently lives with his wife in Juneau.
His first monograph, The Last Road North, was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2014. He's had solo exhibitions at the Pratt Museum, Alaska State Museum, Museum of the North and Newspace in Portland, Oregon. He was an artist-in-residence at Lightwork, in Syracuse, New York, in 2014, awarded a Rasmuson Fellowship in 2016, and received Alaska Humanities Forum grants in 2015 and 2016, most recently for his ongoing work on the post-cold war military outpost on the Aleutian Island of Adak.