Day in the Life of Photographer Larry McNeil, circa 1980's

Back in the early 1980’s I was struggling to make a living as a photographer in Anchorage doing all kinds of photo jobs, and never really knew what was up next, and was delighted with nearly all of it as long as it didn't involve driving a cab. As a freelancer, my gear was always at the ready and traveled frequently all over the state. Being a freelancer sounds kind of jet setting and exotic, but after a few years it really meant dealing with a grueling schedule and being on the road much of the year. You'd get no complaints from me, because it meant I was making a living as a photographer instead of cleaning fish or something (although survival jobs are good to hold you over too-- my fist winter back in Alaska was spent driving a cab and was an "official by god" census taker for the 1980 Census).

Kootznoowoo, Inc. wanted portraits of their elders; sadly, many of whom have passed on by now. They called me at my Anchorage studio and asked if I’d be willing to travel to Angoon where their elders lived. I gave them a quote over the phone and asked about logistics, because I’d be traveling with four large cases of studio gear. They gave me a remarkable amount of freedom about how to shoot the project; I asked if black and white was okay, because I was envisioning a specific look with photographs that could last for decades. It meant spending a lot of time in the darkroom later, but that sounded good to me, I liked the Zen-like aspect of making prints. I ordered a new batch of the Agfa Portriga black and white paper that I preferred for this kind of work; it had a higher silver content and made rich, warm blacks.

Upon arrival at Angoon via a small floatplane, a tall silver haired muscular man was waiting on the dock in the driving rain to greet me. As I stepped onto the dock, the first thing I noticed was the smell of the rain forest and instantly felt at home. He introduced himself as Herbert Johnson, who was easily a couple inches taller than me, and we both smiled upon noticing that we were dressed nearly identically with grey wool fisherman jackets and caps to keep the rain out of our eyes.

I also noticed that it was low tide, which meant that the ramp was at a steep angle and was a little worried about getting the large cases of gear up the ramp without dropping any of it. I wondered if my cases would float. It definitely looked like an overkill of gear, but as it turned out, everything was used. After years of doing work on the road, I was used to lugging around large heavy cases and joked that I no longer had a day rate, but now get paid by the pound. I felt more like a Sherpa than a photographer. Sometimes the person on the other end of the phone got silent when I described my payment until I laughed an gave them my real day rate, kind of like that old TV cowboy series where the hired gun had a business card that read "Have Gun Will Travel." A Sherpa cowboy photographer.

Anyway, there I was in the pouring rain with all of my gear getting soaked, when Herbert quickly slung my heavy tripod case over his shoulder, picked up the largest case of lights with one arm and picked up the aluminum camera case with his free hand. He energetically walked up the steep ramp as if he were carrying nothing and was nearly half way up when I grabbed the other two cases and followed him up the ramp.

It took me all morning to set up a small studio and was lost in concentration with the nuances of the lighting. One of my contact people stepped in to ask when he could start sending in elders to be photographed right when I had my last lighting test finished. I looked out the door and there was a line of elders all dressed in beautiful regalia. They were quietly speaking in Tlingit to each other and making low-key jokes amongst themselves. I liked it that they were all very relaxed and ready to get down to the business of being photographed.

After a while, they were laughing, patiently waiting their turns, and the feeling became kind of festive. I smiled at the line of elders because it reminded me of kids being photographed for school portraits; only this was for honored elders. After a certain point, it became kind of a blur of photographic activity and all of a sudden, Herbert was next in line, dressed in full regalia. He had some dried halibut for me, which was nice and was gobbled down nearly instantly. I fine-tuned the lights for each person and by late afternoon was finished. After work like that you get a semi-dazed feeling because it was so much precise work done in such a small window of time.

Before you knew it, I was finished and was ready to break down the studio and jump on the plane again because there was another job two days away, and it took a day to do the prep work for the next job. If I was lucky, I’d be able to get at least one good night’s rest at home that week, but it was all good. Gunalchéesh Kootznoowoo! It was a true honor to do this work for you.

Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

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