The title "With a Camera in My Hands" doesn't explain what this book is about. But coming up with a better title to describe William O. Field's multifaceted life would be difficult.
Field combined the science of glaciology with the art of photography in a productive career spanning most of the 20th century. But wilderness, family, internationalism, a sense of adventure and a self-effacing, patient work ethic also shaped his life.
"With a Camera in My Hands" is an autobiography with a few key additions. The book is the third in a series of oral biographies published by the University of Alaska. The text is based on extensive taped interviews with Field until his death in 1994.
C. Suzanne Brown, who worked in the U.S. Geological Survey's Project Office of Glaciology, ably organized the book. She spent 20 years working with Field on his memoir and archiving his collection of scientific photos and documents.
"This man was a font of living history, whether one's interest was early Alaska, glaciers, the Canadian Rockies, filmmaking, the Caucasus, foreign affairs or global climate change," she writes in her preface.
The book emphasizes Field's life in science, recounting his adventurous field trips to remote glaciers, paying homage to the generations of colleagues with whom he worked and illustrating the dramatic changes during his lifetime.
"I think my main contribution to glaciology has been bridging the gap between the early work of these [pioneer scientists] in Alaska beginning in the 1880s until the end of the boundary survey work in 1914, and the modern-day research begun after World War II," Field says when he reflects on his life.
Field was born in 1904, into a patrician New York City family. His parents gave their children a love of outdoor activities, taking young Bill on backcountry excursions to Banff, where he saw his first glaciers.
"Those trips to the Canadian Rockies had an effect on my life which wasn't obvious at the time," he recalled. " We came back home full of exuberance, and a love of travel, of the mountains, and the fun of taking pictures."
Field attended Harvard, where he studied geology and spent vacations exploring and climbing mountains in Canada and the Swiss Alps. By graduation in 1926, he already was an invited member of the American Alpine Club.
He first came to Alaska the summer before his senior year. With a friend on a steamer northbound from Seattle, he sailed the Inside Passage, across Prince William Sound with stops in Cordova and Valdez, to the end of the line in Seward. They continued by train to Anchorage and Fairbanks before returning to the Kenai Peninsula. The grand finale was a hike to Trail Glacier between Portage and Seward.
By the trip's end, Field was hooked on Alaska and more interested in glaciers than ever.
After graduation, he returned to Glacier Bay, where he hiked, climbed mountains and took detailed glacier photos. The Appalachian Mountain Club asked him to write an article about the trip for its newsletter. Such publications and his academic contacts led to work with the glaciologists of the day.
The discipline was in a curious hiatus. During the gold rush, scientists followed the crowds to Alaska and initiated studies of the region's glaciers. But interest faded for a generation. Field was able to photograph and map glaciers no one had documented for decades.
His knack with cameras led to his first professional position. From 1927 to 1935, he made documentary and travelogue films around the world. His favorite exotic locale was the Caucasus, in what is now Georgia. Experiences there led to a lifelong sideline promoting cultural contacts between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
He visited the glaciers of the Pacific Northwest as often as possible, continuing his photo documentation and self-directed studies. His work drew increasing attention from glacier specialists until, in 1940, the American Geographical Society hired him to work in its Department of Exploration and Field Research. Excepting World War II, he worked for the AGS until retiring in 1968.
Field's major projects included organizing research for the International Geophysical Year in 1958, studying effects of the 1964 Alaska earthquake and editing the landmark reference "Mountain Glaciers of the Northern Hemis-phere."
He organized programs, served on professional advisory panels and, most famously, promoted and organized long-term monitoring projects.
Field often stayed behind the scenes. Despite his modesty, colleagues showered him with awards, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His archives, donated to UAF, are a valuable resource for contemporary climate research.
Nearly 300 black-and-white photographs enrich the book. With a professional's eye, Field shows times and places from Alaska's towns of the 1920s to mustachioed Georgians to glaciologists balancing jerry-rigged equipment over plunging crevasses. And, of course, lots of glaciers: in maps, historic postcards and his own, meticulous images showing them as almost-living things moving upon the land.
Field's life story is a low-key, likeable portrait of a life in science. For readers with particular interest in glaciers, old photographs or Alaska's past, this is an unusual and well-executed retrospective of a life well lived.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.