So far, the 21st century hasn't offered much to cheer Alaskans. Twenty years ago there were crab in the sea, surpluses in the state coffers and good-paying jobs in the classifieds. The early 1980s are starting to look like the good old days.
Now we can get a belly-laugh full of comic relief from 21st-century concerns, thanks to Tom Sadowski, Jimmie Froehlich and Jeff Brown. The three photographers have reissued 60 of their classic 1980s comedy postcards in the book "On the Road to Tok and Other Photographic Travesties."
The images have aged well, their humor just as timely now as it was then.
They remind us that, in the days before digital imaging and photo editing software, a person still could have a lot of fun with a good Exacto knife and a wild imagination.
These visual puns, weird images and anti-scenic views are difficult to describe without spoiling the jokes to those who have not yet seen them. Most people who lived in Alaska two decades ago recognize the black and white postcards with delight. More than a few myself included have kept some squirreled away all these years because they are too wonderful to discard.
Many are straightforward gags playing on phrases such as "Bear Malling" and "Devil's Club." Some are loopy fantasies on Alaska themes such as "Bunny Boot Ballet" and "First Oldsmobile Ascent of Mt. McKinley." Others go straight to the seedier side of life in Alaska, such as the title image chosen for the cover, which shows an unconscious man lying part way onto the highway. A white stripe painted around him suggests that his presence has been noted and ignored for quite a while.
The "model" for that one, it turns out, was Froehlich himself.
Another friend of the photographers who appeared on cards was Mr. Whitekeys of the Fly By Night Club. He shows up, among other things, trying to sell freezers to Eskimos in "My New Job in Alaska." He graciously penned an introduction to the book, and in it he describes the making of one of the greatest of the series.
"One night Sadowski had an idea to photograph the old Alaska line, "There Are Ten Good Men for Every Woman." He came into The Fly By Night Club and convinced a particularly gorgeous waitress to be the model. He then came to the stage and talked me into announcing that there was a photographer who needed 10 dorky-looking guys for a photo shoot. ... He got dozens of volunteers, and the dorkiest guy in the photo wound up marrying the waitress," Whitekeys writes.
The photos are quintessentially Alaskan and, like much of the state's best comedy, might leave Outsiders bewildered. But anyone who has spent a winter in the state will get the jokes such as "Hunting for Sign of Moose."
During the years they made the cards, no part of the state was off-limits to the trio's probing lenses.
Their subjects ranged, geographically, from "Sunshine Terrorizes Southeast Alaska Residents" through the Anch-orage Municipal Landfill to "Beautiful Bethel Beaches."
The postcards were classics of their genre, so the book, by preserving them, is an instant classic in its own right.
Two ingredients, however, are missing.
First, the postcards' fronts are reproduced, but the oddball little captions from the backs of the originals are nowhere to be found. Although the brief comments were not as strong as the images themselves, they had their own charm. For example, the caption on "Waiting in Whittier for the Alaska State Ferry," said:
"A contingent of warships and one elderly tourist from Michigan await the arrival of the USS Bartlett of the Alaska State Ferry System in Whittier, Alaska. The USS Bartlett connects Valdez, Cordova and Whittier. It is also suspected of running handguns from Detroit to South America during its off season."
A more serious question "On the Road to Tok" leaves hanging is: Why did they stop making these? On the last page, the book explains that Brown still does spoofs, Froehlich became a school teacher, and Sadowski moved to Maine.
With Alaska in its current condition, we could use a fresh infusion of wit.
Maybe this book will inspire a new generation to take up comic photography. The gender ratio may have evened out over the past generation, but the "Grate Land" still offers plenty of entertaining goofiness.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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