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Review: Observant eye of Hall Anderson revealed in new photo journal

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Posted: Sunday, February 6, 2011 4:35 pm | Updated: 1:50 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - Hall Anderson snagged a gig as staff photographer at the Ketchikan Daily News in 1984. For the last 26 years, this “great photographer,” as Brad Matsen and Ray Troll describe Anderson in the foreword, has documented the daily lives and events of Ketchikan’s citizens, visitors and landscapes, “all the tragedies and joys of life from which we would have been excluded without the presence of his masterful eye and his camera.”

“Still Rainin’, Still Dreamin’: Hall Anderson’s Ketchikan,” a collection of some of Anderson’s black and white photos gathered from the thousands taken over the years, celebrates the “small town on a rainswept rock in the North Pacific,” with its attendant ups and downs, sunny days and rainy ones, building and tearing down, and the rest of life’s events and opportunities.

Anderson’s interest in photography was born on a family vacation in San Francisco, when he took his mother’s Kodak in hand at age 12. His love of photography grew not just from knowing the pictures he took would be tangible backup to his memories, but also from composing the shots and the process (back then) of developing the pictures in a darkroom.

He attended the University of Oregon, finding there his first mentor, well-known photographer Bernard Freemesser, who instilled numerous credos into Anderson’s psyche, most indelibly that black and white photos were more interpretive than color, a creed it is obvious Anderson took to heart. Another mentor was John Baugess, who turned Anderson away from largeformat to 35 mm cameras. Henri Cartier-Bresson was a big influence on the young Anderson, and his declaration that “capturing the decisive moment is the single most important artistic purpose for a photographer,” seems to have guided Anderson throughout his career. Anderson was able to combine his love of photography with his need to pay the bills when he was hired by the Southeast Island School District to teach photography to the district’s students. After some freelancing and temping for the Daily News, he finally got his dream job: staff photographer for a local newspaper.

Ketchikan became his home, his “Paris,” the authors recount.

Paging through the book, the photos are vaguely familiar. We’ve all seen photos just like them in our local newspapers throughout our lives — holiday parades; people fishing, jumping into the river or going about their lives cheerfully or grimly; and the sun rising and setting each day. But as you look at each photo individually, you begin to see Anderson’s genius — his eye for composition, the balancing of all elements in the photo, an “uncanny ability to recognize the charged, fleeting moments in the daily life of a small town.” Anyone who has taken pictures regularly knows it takes more than one shot to get that one shot. In the days of developing and film, this could get expensive.

Newspapers didn’t enjoy paying for shots that didn’t pay the bills. Perhaps that is why Anderson became so good at “shooting from the hip” or instantly composing his shots on the viewfinder.

Matsen and Troll praise his ability to find the shot and tell the story with seemingly minimal effort. They compare his work to Alfred Hitchcock (“enamored of the dark possibilities in everyday scenes”), Frank Capra (“conveying a unique sense of small-town American optimism”) and David Lynch (“dark, surrealistic humor pervades [some] photos …”).

As the reader views the pictures that follow these words, we see the darkness, the surreal character, the sunny days of which the foreword writers speak. We see shades of Anderson’s heroes, his homage to them, such as Dorothea Lange’s Oklahoma migrants in the Tent City inhabitants.

Anderson tells us: “For nearly 50 years I have been intrigued by the inherent drama in natural and urban landscapes and in the ways ordinary people interact with their surroundings. I am fascinated by the unintentional choreography and the uncanny juxtapositions in everyday life.” Unlike the foreword authors, I will refrain from describing the photos for the readers — although they do a marvelously detailed job of it, you don’t really get what they are saying from their words — it isn’t until you see the actual photo that their words make sense. Yet, Anderson is so talented, those words are pretty much unnecessary.

Anderson is a natural storyteller — the epitome of “A picture paints a thousand words.” “Hard-working Ketchikan plays out before our eyes in these pages,” the writers tell us. “For a quarter of a century, Hall Anderson has captured the streets of this island town with his roving camera, recording the slow process of history transforming the town he lives in and aging the friends he has made.”

Every photo has some element of fascination and attraction, even the socalled “routine” shots of ordinary people. Some, however, really struck me, and I can’t quite begin to say why. “A work day with dad,” a simple shot of a suited gentleman walking down the street with his similarly suit-clad son, made me stop. Dad looks down, son looks up, and their relationship is laid out in their gazes, simple and poignant. And compelling.

Anderson’s knack for catching the raw emotion in the moment is superbly demonstrated in the photo “Abandoned bear cub.”

Small ursine baby, with wicked long claws, is held on the shoulder of a woman, her face nestled in the bear’s fur. The way the cub clings to the human, the looks of terror and relief, tells us everything we need to know about this story — a small, frightened baby is comforted by someone who cares, and it matters not they aren’t even the same species.

You must see these pictures, study them, to see the story, and to appreciate the greatness of a small town newspaper photographer, who could have been successful in a much larger sense, in a larger, probably more financially rewarding world, who chose to give his talent and ability to a small town that benefited as much, if not more, than he did. This book is worth buying, not just because the photos are worth looking at once, but because you will go back to them again and again, viewing the stories and knowing the people they represent.

Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at

Still Rainin’, Still Dreamin’: Hall Anderson’s Ketchikan

Photos by Hall Anderson;

Foreword by Brad Matsen and Ray Troll University of Alaska Press 2010 $35


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