Learning to Shoot Film in Gates of the Arctic National Park

Learning to Shoot Film in Gates of the Arctic National Park

1800 1012 Stephen Hennessy

The 13,000 square miles of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (NPP) is the designation for the portions of Koyukon, Kuuvanmiit, and Nunamiut territories protected by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980, legislation that only came about after years of conservation advocacy. It was given its name by explorer and wilderness advocate Bob Marshall, who ventured into the “blank spaces on maps” of Alaska in the early 1930s. It was on either side of the northern fork of the Koyukuk River that he named the western gate Frigid Crags, and the eastern gate Boreal Mountain. There is a double meaning to the name, however, as the east-west running Brooks Range seems to fence off the relatively hospitable foothills to the south from the expansive northern tundra.

Within the US National Park System, it is a land of superlatives: it is second in size only to its southeast neighbor, the Wrangell-St. Elias NPP. It is the northernmost park in the entire country. It is the least visited. 

How I Came To Be in the Wilderness

To explain how I ended up above the Arctic Circle in the summer of 2018 is to explain how I became a photographer. During my first year of graduate studies in music composition, I was accepted into an annual summer program called Composing in the Wilderness. Led by professor/composer/adventurer/bonafide photographer Stephen Lias, the field course gathered myself and six other composers to Fairbanks for orientation and outfitting, from which we departed via propellor plane to eventually land on a portion of the Koyukuk’s exposed river bed between the eponymous Gates. We would spend the following six days canoeing down the north fork of the Koyukuk with the help of expert guides from the Arctic Wild wilderness company, after which we would spend a few days in the remote village of Bettles to begin work on music inspired by our experiences.

I did not own a camera until a few months before this journey, but the singular nature of the experience required some sort of documentation. 35mm film struck me as an extreme medium at the time, but it was a utilitarian choice given my destination’s lack of electricity. After some research (which included perusing Casual Photophile!), I had a Canon AE-1 Program and two months to learn the basics before leaving on this trip of a lifetime. By the time I flew out of DTW, I had purchased a tripod, a 6-stop neutral density filter (for some reason), and the Canon FD 28mm f/2.8 to supplement the standard FD 50mm f/1.8 which came with the camera. 

While I did not see the results of my first few rolls until well over a month after dropping them off at the local, overpriced lab, I already knew that I particularly liked the process of working blindly towards an exposure without any clue as to how it would turn out. I knew that I would continue shooting well after my trip, but wanted results that I could still be proud of even as my skill improved. After scouring the web for opinions, I shelled out for a propack of Kodak Portra 400 due to its softer color palette, as well as its “wide and forgiving exposure latitude.” If I get excited about anything, it’s the chance to use big technical words before fully understanding what they mean!


A detail from composer John Luther Adams’s installation “The Place Where You Go To Listen,” a work that changes with the seasons in response to live weather/seismic data; Fairbanks.

River Time

As much time as I spent beforehand learning about the technical aspects of photography, I spent much longer staring at maps. Not particularly helpful maps, but maps that illustrated the absurd distance that I would be traveling: maps zoomed far out to encompass my flight itinerary (an experience all too revealing of the curvature of an Earth that is, afterall, very small), and maps zoomed in beyond any useful detail in an attempt to trace the path of a river that is endlessly recreating itself. Failing to wrap my head around the journey yet to come was exhausting, and did nothing to prepare me for the long inward-spiraling motion towards the instant that our plane touched down between two peaks.

Two years later, and details have already become hazy, with our entry into the park feeling increasingly more like a Tarkovskian shift from sepia into a quiet green world. Our party had spent the days in Fairbanks recovering from jet lag and acclimating to the manic energy of constant daylight, and now we entered a truly timeless state wherein the only concept of the passage of time comes from the biological or spatial. All of my expectations and rationale for answering the call of the north eroded away, as I became singularly occupied with existing in an environment that punishes both the inattentive and the experienced without prejudice. Banal concerns were dulled. Society as I knew it could only be remembered in the form of tactile dreams in the privacy of my tent.

In retrospect, I feel I had simply overpacked my camera bag. The perpetual sunlight meant that a tripod was unnecessary with such a responsive film as Portra 400, and the majesty of our surroundings meant that I rarely swapped the wider 28mm lens for the tighter 50mm. There were a few attempts at capturing close details, but depth of field was still a remote concept to me in these early days. If I were to go on this same trip again, I would be far more diverse in my picture taking and always have my camera at the ready.

It’s easy to forget that our real pursuit while traveling the Gates was auditory, not visual. The real treasures are difficult, if not impossible to convey in a photo: vast silence, earth-hammering footsteps and the calls of loons in the middle of the night, banjo and shakuhachi improvisations, in-jokes, cries for help masked by the rush of water, howling exchanged between our expert field guide and invisible wolves.

Takeaways for a New Life in the Lower 48

I am eternally indebted to Stephen Lias for bringing me aboard, Leslie Hogan, Cody Westheimer, Alex Nohai-Seaman, Brian Metolius, Kayla Roth, and Simon Eastwood for enduring me on the river, Arctic Wild and our guides Catherine and Andrew for their incomparable wisdom and good spirit, as well as Gates of the Arctic NPP Superintendent Gred Dudgeon for inspiring us with the living history of the occasion.

Refining my nascent skills with manual photography in this singular landscape has set the course for how I approach this art. My practice as a composer and musician is spurious and a cause for frequent existential dread, but I have never once doubted my motivations for continuing my work as a photographer, and rarely feel the need to justify it. Whether I am inspecting my own pictures or those of others, I understand the existence of a particular photograph as a necessary positive act reflecting what it is that a photographer values. While there were potential shots from this trip that I might still enjoy if I had taken them, I do not “miss” them, because I know that I had given myself to that moment all the same.

Returning from Alaska to the midwest, with its summer heat, unfamiliar vegetation, and preoccupied inhabitants, was an assault on the senses. Still to this day, I struggle to distill the adventure down to any easily digestible benefits. But there is an urgency to existence that can be learned just from being in the presence of resident Alaskans. The essentials of a quality life are practiced out of necessity: play in the summer, be clear in your intention, sing to keep the bears away, know your ability, share warmth, and always be at work on yourself.

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Stephen Hennessy

Stephen Hennessey is an analog and digital photographer, electroacoustic composer, Miata driver, and perpetual student from the central Virginia area. He often freelances in the sound and photo world as an escape from library work, and plans to begin studying Chemistry.

All stories by:Stephen Hennessy
  • Beautifully written and illustrated, truly a trip a lifetime and you came out of it with the beginnings of a new skill learned. Your photos are beautiful, thank you for sharing your unique experience.

  • Thank you for sharing your story and photographs, Stephen. Much of what you presented here resonates with me — I grew up in Fairbanks and have passed through the Brooks a few times on family expeditions to the North Slope. I coincidentally also like to take a Canon AE-1 as my only camera when I’m traveling to somewhere remote and off the grid, but I prefer a 35mm + 135mm kit. Your photos gave me some nostalgia.

  • …i would also be interested in the music you created on the trip!

  • Excellent story, would you mind explaining this sentence?:
    “ cries for help masked by the rush of water, ”

  • Loved reading this Stephen “stickman”

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Stephen Hennessy

Stephen Hennessey is an analog and digital photographer, electroacoustic composer, Miata driver, and perpetual student from the central Virginia area. He often freelances in the sound and photo world as an escape from library work, and plans to begin studying Chemistry.

All stories by:Stephen Hennessy