Interview by Michela Coslovich
All images © Ben Huff
Ben Huff (Le Claire, Iowa, 1973) is a photographer currently based in Juneau, Alaska. He has exhibited in Alaska, as well as the lower USA and at the Lishui Festival in China.
His photographs have been printed internationally on The New York Times, PDN, Bloomberg Businessweek, Monocle, Russian Esquire, among others.
Ben is the founder and editor of the independent publisher, Ice Fog Press and a member of Cake Collective. His work “Atomic Island” is a visual representation of an abandoned Naval outpost in Alaska: lasted for five years, this project is a perfect mix between archival and contemporary pictures.
Michela Coslovich (MC): Hi Ben, welcome to Pellicola and thank you very much for this interview. How and when did you begin approaching to photography?
Ben Huff (BH): Hi, thanks for having me. I started with photography a bit later than most. It’s a long story, but the short of it is that I grew up interested in art and ultimately studied painting in college. For many reasons I didn’t pursue it seriously in my 20s. My real love was racing bicycles. I raced in Iowa where I grew up, and after college moved to Colorado to make a go at going pro, and traveled all over the West racing. Toward the end of my career, I picked up a camera to stay close to the sport. Ultimately, I found a love of the medium that wasn’t aligned with sports photography. I also found, surprisingly, that there are a lot of parallels between art and sport, and all of those long hours training alone on country roads informed my way of seeing the landscape.
(MC): You lived between United States and Alaska, did the place around you influence your artistic process?
(BH): I moved, with my wife, to Fairbanks Alaska from Colorado in the summer of 2005. I can’t overstate how life changing the move was. I had been making pictures for a few years at that point with no great focus. Alaska challenged me in a way I could never have imagined, and gave me a subject, a landscape, to spend a life trying to understand.
(MC): You are also founder of an independent publisher, Ice Frog Press, how was this project born?
(BH): From the beginning, books have been an important part of my process, both in the making and in the effort to understand other artists. I really enjoy the physicality of the book. I love paper. Ice Fog Press was a way for me to formalize these things that I was making by hand, and work with artists who I respect that are making work that is, loosely, focused on the North. I envisioned the press when I was living in Fairbanks around 2008, but I didn’t begin collaborating with other photographers until 2015.
(MC): So, I imagine it is very important for you to reproduce your artistic process through the book. You published ‘The Last Road North’, can you tell us about it?
(BH): From the beginning of my relationship with photography, the book has been the way I most appreciate the work of other photographers, and it’s been a focus of my own work since my first finished project, which was The Last Road North. From a sequence perspective, that book is very linear. The book starts in the South, the beginning of the road, and ends in the North at Prudhoe Bay. The oil fields at Prudhoe serve as both the physical and metaphorical end of the road. That travel from South to North, and the structure of that sequence was in a way very limiting, but those limitations made it a stronger, tighter, set of pictures. The structure of the road served as the backbone for the pictures. It worked for that book, but I don’t think it would for many other projects. I’m currently working on a book of the Atomic Island pictures with Fw:Books and the sequence is much broader, with more opportunities for experimentation.
(MC): Your work “Atomic Island” is the representation of the abandoned WWII and Cold War Naval outpost on the Aleutian Island of Adak (Alaska). A hybrid between present and past. Can you tell us about how your project was born and how it is developed?
(BH): I stumbled across a book on WW2 at a used bookstore in Fairbanks while I was working on The Last Road North. I wasn’t particularly interested at the time in the conflict, but the end of the book talked about Adak’s eventual shift to a submarine surveillance outpost during the Cold War. There were a few black and white photos. I did some searching online and found very few pictures. I decided that day that Adak would be the focus of my next project. It would be another six years before I finally made my first trip to the island. I went to the island each season for over four years. It’s a beautiful and complicated place, and for me, a perfect place to make work.
(MC): How did you feel about dealing with such a complex issue as war and bringing it back to a visual level? You grew up during the Cold War: how much did this aspect influence you in your work?
(BH): The work itself isn’t nostalgic to me, but my curiosity was fueled by growing up with movies like War Games, Red Dawn, Rocky, growing up in a Conservative household, and the ubiquitousness of the Soviet enemy. I’m pulling on a lot of anxieties of my youth in this work. And, with the military as the backdrop, still talking about the exploitation of the landscape, and in the case of Adak, the architecture of the militarization and suburbanization of the furthest West community in America.
(MC): What was the function of photographs in this project for you? They have an archival and narrative imprint at the same time, what do you think about it?
(BH): It became evident on my first trip to the island that I might have to bring in archival images to help inform the work. I expected there to be more overt emblems of our past military ambitions on the island, but much of what I intended to witness had been dismantled. The architecture on the island looks like Anywhere, USA. I like the banal nature of the housing and military barracks, and the archival images undermine that banality. And, although the work is not truly documentary, I wanted archival images to point to conflict.
(MC): Is there a project you would particularly like to work on, or a topic you would like to address?
(BH): I’m currently working on a project, The Light That Got Lost, which is set in a glacial landscape. I find dealing with the idea of climate change and a glacial environment extremely difficult. The work has taken many twists and turns over the past two years, as I’ve tried to work out a language for it. Lately, I’ve been building it up and tearing it down, and it’s gotten further from my original intent. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure where it’s going, and I find that uncertainty exhilarating.
(MC): Thank you for your time Ben, it was a pleasure talking to you.
(BH): Thank you, Michela, I appreciate it.