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Then and now: Photography exhibit highlights Arctic changes

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Posted: Friday, May 14, 2010 5:51 pm | Updated: 1:06 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - Repeat photography — the process of retaking a photograph in the exact same location that a previous photo was taken — can be a difficult undertaking. There is the task of finding the original location on a map and then the added burden of getting there. Place the original photo points in the Alaska Arctic, and the difficulty level increases.

Yet, when viewed side by side, the results of these photos clearly make such an undertaking a worthwhile endeavor. “Then & Now: The Changing Arctic Landscape,” opening Saturday at the UA Museum of the North, uses the repeat photography of UAF graduate student Ken Tape to explore the sometimes shocking changes taking place in the Arctic.

“A lot of people who go to the exhibit have never been to the Arctic and will never go to the Arctic, so the challenge is to first introduce people to the Arctic, transport them there and then talk about how it’s changed,” said Tape, the exhibit’s guest curator. The exhibit was inspired by his recent book, “The Changing Arctic Landscape.”

“The great thing about repeat photography is that it is open to interpretation,” he added. “You don’t need a Ph.D. to interpret the data. That’s the layer that’s removed with repeat photography. You might not understand why the changes are happening, but you can still see the outcome.”

The exhibit also features 360-degree photo panoramas by UAF researcher Matt Nolan. These show several locations on Alaska’s North Slope and in the Brooks Range. There is also one taken inside the permafrost tunnel. With these panoramas, shown on 50-inch monitors, visitors can zoom in via high-resolution imagery to see blades of grass or mountain vistas.

“It’s like you are standing in the Arctic,” Tape said, “only you can’t reach out and actually touch the tundra.”

The exhibit is rounded out with personal narratives from Native elders. These are not testimonials of change, but instead stress their relationship to the land.

“You can’t talk about the Arctic landscape of Alaska without talking about the Native people that are part of that,” Tape said. “When you spend a lot of time in the Arctic you can’t help but be impressed that people have been living in that environment for over 10,000 years.”

Tape explained that he began the project about 10 years ago and thusly took any opportunity to get out in the Arctic and Brooks Range to get his shots.

“Once you are standing there snapping the photo it’s no big deal, but getting out to that location is half the fun,” he said with a laugh.

Initially, Tape pored over old maps using vague notes on the photos, like “Glacial moraine, west side of Jago River,” in an attempt to find the original photo location. The river is more than 100 miles long amidst numerous moraines.

“It takes a lot of sleuthing, that’s the fun part; your geography becomes really good,” he said.

Then Google Earth came into being and Tape’s project became easier. “With Google Earth you can fly around and essentially recreate the scene you have in the old photo as if you are standing on the Earth,” he said. “Then you write down the GPS coordinates.”

Tape’s photos — about 15 pairs are in the exhibit — in many cases show the dramatic changes occurring in the Arctic. Shrinking glaciers provide the biggest jolt. In some photos glaciers have receded dramatically; in others they have completely disappeared.

“You can look at the glacier (in one photo) and then see (in the other) the moraine; the footprint where the glacier used to be,” he said. “They are easily the most dramatic photo pairs in the exhibit.”

Tape also included shots depicting more subtle changes, like areas of increased shrub growth or regions with almost no change.

“There is a photo pair in the exhibit that hasn’t changed at all. That’s my favorite because the sense of timelessness still does exist in select locations. It shows you just how stable up there it can be,” he said.

“There is a range of change in the exhibit from dramatic to not at all,” he added. And, “when you do see the changes you start thinking about what’s causing them.”

Contact features editor Glenn BurnSilver at 459-7510.

If you go

What: “Then & Now: The Changing Arctic Landscape”

When: 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday, through Jan. 8, 2011

Where: UA Museum of the North

Tickets: $10, $9 for seniors, $5 for youth 7-17 and free for children 6 and under. Museum members also receive free admission

Information: 474-7505 or


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