I shot club photos for the yearbook in collage, and I later fooled with aurora borealis and studio photography while I was a graduate student—but I never felt as if I had found something in photography, and even videography, that I loved for the sake of standing with a camera, stooped, or in the cold, or on my knees—until one day at the UA museum in 2000. Wanda Chin, then Director of Exhibits, called my attention to an artist working in the museum lobby. This was Selina Alexander, Athabascan artist, who was demonstrating caribou hair tufting for museum visitors. The museum didn’t have much for group-use cameras back then, and at home I still shot on slides and only when traveling, but Wanda suggested I take a look and get what Selina was doing on film. I wasn’t in any way known as a museum photographer. I’m still not, so I can only assume Wanda couldn’t find anyone else that afternoon. The only digital photographic camera in the building was an Olympus used by the Fine Arts Collections Manager, Barry McWayne. The education department, where I worked, had a smallish digital video camera that lived at the front of a file drawer. I grabbed that camera to film the artist in the lobby.
Selina had dyed the caribou hair bright colors to produce a design in forget-me-nots. The lighting was decent due to Selina’s work lights, but the wall at her back was a dull off white, and the tablecloth on the folding table she worked at was cluttered. So, except for a basic establishing shot, I shot everything as close as I could while staying in focus. I spent half an hour finding, tracking, and watching the artist’s hands move over her materials. From the small digital video screen mounted on a rickety tripod, I expected I’d find a few seconds here and there where I had found the focus and the center of the breadbox-sized action. I would later stitch together a story of the process that led to the moment that had inspired the Exhibits Director. Selina pulled tight on the threads, and the tufted hairs spread like blooming thistles against the brown felt. After that, I filmed the hands of more than 30 other artists at museums and artists’ studios throughout in Alaska.
So, really, much of the time I’m pointing a camera at you, I’m looking at your hands and sometimes, only your hands—what they are making happen, or just making… The hands of an artist and the hands of a scientist are not so different, I think, whether painting or tightening a bolt, arranging nets, carving wood, or positioning specimens on a slide.
The hands speak volumes.
So, really, those facial expressions you make when a big piece of glass turns your way—they might already be cropped out. With my eye to the viewfinder, I can’t even see you making them—some of the time. I can’t always just look at your hands, of course, though I might like to. Often, I’d like to forget the big picture, because it’s complicated and scary.
Maybe this is inevitable, being on a ship and looking at very small and very important things: the water chemistry, the zooplankton, the fish. We’re here in the Beaufort Sea because we can’t learn about the effects of upwelling on the shelf-break without going to the shelf-break and getting our hands dirty in the process.
I’m not going to stump for the quality of these few shots, but I will say, I really enjoy sneaking these into the trip’s photographic catalog. Maybe the odd one will make it into a report somewhere, or a PowerPoint presentation.
There’s perhaps a lot to say regarding big ideas captured by the small, bare business of working hands. And I could say something about the continued strengths and the need for dexterity and hands-on labor in a world of heavy machines, but I think I’ll save that for tomorrow morning, and scratch it into my notebook in handwriting far too small to read back easily. I’ll confess, I started to write something but bailed, preferring just to look at the pictures.
You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp& @Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.]
—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.