A blog by Bill Hess

Running Dog Publications

P.O. Box 872383 Wasilla, Alaska 99687


All photos and text © Bill Hess, unless otherwise noted 
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Wasilla is the place where I have lived for the past 29 years - sort of. The house in which my wife and I raised our family sits here, but I have made my rather odd career as a different sort of photojournalist by continually wandering off to other places to photograph people and gather information, which I have then put together in various publications that have served the Alaska Native Eskimo, Indian and Aleut communities.

Although I did not have a great of free time to devote to this rather strange community, named after a Tanaina Athabascan Indian chief who knew Wasilla in the way that I so impossibly long to, I have still documented it regularly over the past quarter-century plus. In the early days, my Wasilla photographs focused mostly upon my children and the events they participated in - baseball, football, figure skating, hockey, frog catching, fire cracker detonation, Fourth of July parade - that sort of thing. 

In 2002, I purchased my first digital camera and then, whenever I was home, I began to photograph Wasilla upon a daily basis, but not in a conventional way. These were grab shots - whatever caught my eye as I took my many long walks or drove through the town, shooting through the car window at people and scenes that appeared and disappeared before I could even focus and compose in the traditional photographic way.

Thus, the Wasilla portion of this blog will be devoted both to the images that I take as I wander about and those that I have taken in the past. Despite the odd, random, nature of the images, I believe they communicate something powerful about this town that I have never seen expressed anywhere else. 

Wasilla is a sprawling community that has been slapped down hodge-podge upon what was so recently wilderness of the most exquisite beauty. In its design, it is deliberately anti-zoned, anti-planned. In the building of Wasilla, the desire to make a buck has trumped aesthetics and all other considerations. This town, built in the midst of exquisite beauty, has largely become an unsightly, unattractive, mess of urban sprawl. Largely because of this, it often seems to me that Wasilla is a community with no sense of community, a town devoid of town soul.

Yet - Wasilla is my home and if I am lucky it will be until I grow old and die. Despite its horrific failings, it is still made of the stuff of any small city: people; moms and dads, grammas and grampas, teens, children, churches, bars, professionals, laborers, soldiers, missionaries, artists, athletes, geniuses, do-gooders, hoodlums, the wealthy, the homeless, the rational and logical, the slightly insane and the wholly insane - and, yes, as is now obvious to the whole world, politicians, too.

So perhaps, if one were to search hard enough, it might just be possible to find a sense of community here, and a town soul. So, using my skills as a photojournalist and a writer, I hope to do just that. If this place has a sense of community, I will find it. If there is a town soul to Wasilla, I will document it. I won't compete with the newspapers. Hell no! But as time and income allow, it will be fun to wander into the places where the folks described above gather, and then put what I find on this blog.


by 300...

Anywhere within a 300 mile radius of Wasilla. This encompasses perhaps the most wild, dramatic, gorgeous, beautiful section of land and sea to be found in any comparable space anywhere on Earth. I can never explore it all, but I will do the best that I can, and will here share what I find and experience with you.  

and then some...

Anywhere else in the world that I happen to get to, such as Point Lay, Alaska; Missoula, Montana; Serenki, Chukotka, Russia; or Bangalore, India. Perhaps even Lagos, Nigeria. I have both a desire and scheme to get me there. It is a long shot. We shall see if I succeed.

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From my time of hiatus: I make a friend in Arctic Village and now I can't remember his name; a color vs black and white experiment

It had been my intention to run a series of fiddle dance pictures that I took in the Gwich'in community of Arctic Village on the night of August 15, but there are a lot of images, it is late and right now I do not feel like I want to spend another hour or two or three to narrow them down, convert them to black and white and post.

But I saw these three, right together, so I am posting them all by themselves. I feel a bit like a fool, because I cannot remember the little boy's name and we became quite good friends during my short stay in Arctic. We were housemates in fact.

Our first night together, I pulled out my iPad and showed him a children's picture book that I put in there for Kalib and Jobe and some day, for Lynxton too. He had no experience with an iPad, but he figured it out just like that. He was turning pages and making little men hop into the air, shoot arrows, flip coins and do all kinds of things.

When he came to the dance the next night, he spotted me and came running right over.

If anyone sees this who knows his name and can send it to me in comments, I will add it in.

Trouble is, internet service is not very good in Arctic, but the school and the tribe have wireless and I think there might be a couple of other spots, too. So maybe.

My little housemate who figured out the iPad just like that draws nearer.

And here he is!


Now, a little experiment:

I told you that I needed to convert the pictures to black and white. This is because the light in Tribal Hall was not good and in my pictures the colors all look pretty dingy - even after I process them in Lightroom and photoshop.

As I shoot everything RAW, I always start out in Lightroom, where I make my conversions to jpeg or tiff, depending on what I am outputting for. I also do my initial adjustments for color, tone, contrast and such. 

In this case, the first adjustment was to convert to black and white, as I had given up on the idea of getting good color.

While a single click of the mouse will convert color to black and white, it seldom looks very good at first. So you have to tweak the image and it can take a fair amount of work and time to get the black and white to look the way I want it.

In fact, I have never totally succeeded. I have been able to make digital black and white conversions look as good as the Tri-X and T-Max films that I used to shoot almost exclusively.

After I had converted the last image to black and white in Lightroom, I accidently clicked color and so it changed back to color. I was amazed, because the adjustments I had to make it a fairly decent black and white brought out the color in a new way.

It didn't make the color look natural, but it did make it vibrant, more saturated.

So, as an experiment, I decided to run this little series both ways - black and white and color - and then see which I like best.

I don't know. In some ways, I still like the black and white better.

But in some ways, I like the color better. Take the dancer slapping his head in the background, for instance. His hand stands out much better in color. Of course, if I had spent a little more time working on the black and white, I could bring that hand out better than it is right now.

I'm not asking readers to give me an opinion, because then I'd be embarassed if only two or three people did, but if two or three of you want to give want to give me your opinion, I will be grateful.

As usual, anyone who wants to see the images a bit larger can click on them or view as slide show. They look much better in the slide show - particularly if your screen is large enough to view them full size. Whatever size your screen is, they will automatically adjust to fit it.

Trimble Gilbert was the master fiddler at this dance, and I will come back to it and him on another post - maybe tomorrow night, but another possibility is cooking in my head. 


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Reader Comments (8)

I've been told that Black n White pictures are more artistic. I've never found that to be true. Gotta admit, I'm addicted to color, passionately addicted to color. Black & White photos always seem to be dark, dreary & somewhat depressing. Just my opinion. Others feel just as passionately about Black & White.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKatzKids

As a photographer, I've always been a fan of black and white.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjustafarmer

I like the drama of the black and white. For some reason, it seems to draw my eye more to the child. I work with photoshop too and love that feeling when an accidental click turns into an ah-ha moment, when a new trick is revealed.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdahli22

I have to go with Katz, I love the color photos. Black and white photos rarely "speak" to me or grab my attention. I loev the color photo of the child so much more, the rosy color of his cheeks, the twinkle in his eye that color just seens to enhance....

December 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisaJ

I like what happened with the color, Bill. It may not be "pretty" color but it sure gives a sense of the place at the time and the rosy cheeked boy is a delight. Neat discovery!

December 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJerrianne

For me, B&W has an ageless quality that makes the images seem like a historical narrative of an indefinable time period called, "back then". But the colour version with, for example, the purple sole on the female dancer's shoe, makes it so contemporary and "RIGHT NOW", not just because back then they never had purple soled trainers but colour itself gives it an immediacy and speaks to me in almost a different language, as different from B&W as poetry is from narrative. So I guess "what you are trying to say" is as much a factor as "how effectively it can be said" in choosing your medium.

I always used to shoot Pan-X, which I found could be pushed anywhere I wanted it to go.

December 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMartin

Well, for those of you who commented, it looks like a pretty even split between black and white and color. So my decision on whether or not to do the fiddle dance post in color or black and white is still going to be tough to make.

December 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterWasilla, Alaska, by 300

My father is an artist. He used to participate in many exhibits (paintings, sculpture), and lately he's published 4 books of poetry; one of which is an English translation of about half of his poems... by me. And he used to take lots of photographs of me. LOTS of them. He was actually the "go to" person in our little Romanian town, for anything "photography". During those times and in those days, he was one of the very few, (at one point, the only one) who had access to that sort of equipment. I must have been the most photographed child of my generation :) He also ran a "photo-club" for everyone who'd want to come, but mostly for young students. During those times, everything was black and white, but in some of his photos I swear I can tell the colors. After all these years of stillness and change, I feel that black and white works best to render a mood, an emotion, or a story. For me, black and white hits a nostalgic spot, and understandably so. Color awakens my spirit, stirs up my passions and feeds my soul with gratitude for all there is around me.
The little boy looks beautiful in color - to me.
Feel better, Bill, so you can be our eyes to that part of the world every day :)
lily m.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlily m.

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