Gary Freeburg's exhibit "Beneath the Surface: Images of Katmai," at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center offers viewers a glimpse into a volcanic landscape so barren and alien that Apollo astronauts once trained for moon walks there.
A 1912 explosion at Novarupta on Mount Katmai, in what is now Katmai National Park and Preserve, was one of the largest volcanic explosions in the world during the 20th century. The ash that spewed forth filled the Lethe River valley and covered many Southcentral Alaska villages, creating an instant geological wonder called the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
When a National Geographic scientific expedition led by Robert F. Griggs studied the site four years after the explosion, they found the landscape was still a hotbed of steam, thinly crusted lava beds and hissing vents.
Freeburg, a professor of art at Kenai Peninsula College, and Jerry McDonnell, KPC Career Center coordinator, spent about one week in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in June 2000 to retrace the steps of the original Griggs Expedition. They traveled to the same valley to document what changes time had brought to the remote place. The time the two spent exploring Katmai was a volunteer effort for the park.
"Erosion, north bank Lethe River,"
by Gary Freeburg
The exhibition is filled with black-and-white and color images of the desolate valley the two explored. They each carried packs weighing more than 80 pounds.
McDonnell said Freeburg was focused the entire time on the landscape. Both men went to the valley to capture the wonder of the natural disaster that occurred many years ago.
"We were looking at the valley from an artistic point of view," McDonnell said.
In the exhibition statement, Freeburg describes his intentions.
"Baked Mountain from the Northwest"
by Gary Freeburg
"My visual documents of the valley, as that is indeed the strength of photography, will give the viewer an intimate connection with this foreboding area. The valley is as dangerous as it is beautiful, having claimed lives in the deep river canyons of the Lethe River. Where there is danger, there is also the magical connection with nature.
"It is my imagination and this newly completed visual work that represents the link between a perception of this place and the knowledge it exists."
The photographs offer a look into the barren area that once was home to a vast array of plants and animals. McDonnell said the area now is completely hostile and dramatic. Also, when the light changes, so does the look of the landscape.
Ricky Gease, manager of exhibits at the center, said he found Freeburg's attention to detail appealing.
"Broken Erratic and Navarupta Plug"
by Gary Freeburg
Gease said the longer one views the images, the more the lines and details are apparent.
Freeburg's black-and-white images include several shots of the plug that seals Novarupta and the many now-docile steam vents. The color photographs in the show reveal the multi-hued soil just beneath the surface.
"It wasn't until the last day of shooting in the valley that I noticed the bright colors revealed in the indentations of my footprints in the soil," Freeburg said in a press release. "With my foot I simply dragged a line in the ground and it revealed the wonderful colors that lay just beneath the surface."
Both Freeburg and McDonnell have plans for a second trip into the unfriendly wilderness.
"I definitely want to go back," McDonnell said.
The exhibit is on display through April 14. Freeburg dedicated the show to those who had been his mentors in the past, including John Schultz, Oliver Gagliani and Ansel Adams.
Freeburg summarized his feelings for the valley in his artist's statement.
"The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is a place of organic forms that are monumental in appearance. The formal relationships of these natural monuments with their surrounding environment will culminate in photographic images that will change the way we perceive this area.
"The finished collection of images may be likened to a geological garden of contemplation, as that is truly what this valley presents to me.
"To be alone in nature of this magnitude is remarkable. To photographic this place to convey this expressive import is my intention."
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