When Debra Bloomfield was first pitching Wilderness, her book of Alaska photos, to University of New Mexico Press, the publisher was dubious. New Mexico had published her sumptuous book Four Corners in 2004, and those stunning images of the Southwest landscape were more in line with the publisher's list.
"UNM was not interested in a book on Alaska," Bloomfield said by phone from her home in Berkeley last week. "I said, 'It's not about Alaska. It's about wilderness. It's not about what Alaska looks like. But I hope to convey what it feels like to experience wilderness.'"
She got the contract.
Twenty-eight of the photos published in Wilderness are now on view in Wild America, a two-person summer show at Etherton Gallery—the other photographer is Ansel Adams, no less. Bloomfield is right that her dreamy Alaska images don't have the kind of information embodied in, say, Adams's crisp "Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico." That famous Adams photo pictures a specific ranch, in a specific part of New Mexico, at a specific time of evening.
By contrast, Bloomfield's photos—of glistening water, of islands rising out of estuaries, of thick stands of trees—are more atmospheric. They're lovely and poetic, but they do not so much evoke a specific place as they conjure up a universal wilderness. These pictures, many taken in the dead of the Alaska winter, are nearly black and white. The color sneaks up subtly, in the beige scars on a tree trunk, or in the gray-blue of the water enclosing an island's shore.
"I have fallen into a new landscape," she wrote during the five years that she traveled again and again to Alaska. She worked on Baronof Island, a mountainous forested island in the Alexander Archipelago, in the southeast Alaskan "Panhandle" that stretches down the western coast of British Columbia. "I was wide open. What I was seeing was new and different. It was deafening, silent, beautiful."
On her first visit, she said, she became entranced, literally, by the call of the wild.
"I heard a sound, up in the trees," she said. "I saw a massive black bird. It flew out of a tree—making an amazing, deep guttural sound."
The bird was a raven, and Bloomfield photographed Baronof's ravens again and again, flying in twos out of a stand of trees, soaring solo on huge wings into the sky. The bird's cry also led her to compile a soundscape of Baronof: The book comes with a CD that records not only birdsong but the clicking sounds of Bloomfield's Hasselblad camera.
She traveled by boat and by foot around the island's 1,600 square miles, immersing herself slowly into the woods and along the shores. "I liked the effort it took to get there," she said. "I like to experience how the landscape feels and changes as I move through it."
A retired Game and Fish man from Arizona took her around in his 20-foot skiff. Some of the pictures taken from the boat are deliberately blurred, conveying its slow motion. Other photos, of mountain peaks, of ice-encrusted tree branches, are as chiseled as Adams's.
The Etherton exhibition coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which put 9.1 million acres under federal protection, and created a process to designate many more.
Bloomfield said she hopes her own work inspires Americans to protect their wild places, and she's honored to have her work paired with Adams's.
"Ansel is the one we all respect," she said. "He was instrumental and monumental for having landscape be recognized" as an art form, and "instrumental in working for wilderness."