Shelikof Street in downtown Kodiak is all cinder block and corrugated metal walls, rust and diesel exhaust. It’s home to much of the industry in a still-industrial town, and it looks like it too.
But last week, something different appeared. On Wednesday, two workers hauled a six-by-four-foot, black-and-white photo of a woman up a ladder and attached it to the outside wall of Kodiak Marine Supply.
The photo is of Peggy Smith, who fished for king crab in Kodiak during the 1970s and 1980s, one of the first women to do so. In it, she’s holding a color photo of herself from that time, wearing orange oilskins and clutching a crab.
A similar portrait of Calvin Skonberg, another king crab fisherman, went up next to Smith’s. Biologist Guy Powell, Coast Guard helicopter pilot Jimmy Ng and others went up, too, in other locations around town.
The stark portraits, printed on aluminum composite panels, are the newest project from the Kodiak Maritime Museum’s celebration and documentation of Kodiak’s king crab era, when fortunes were made and the town boomed.
“We wanted to highlight the difference between the present and the past,” said Toby Sullivan, executive director of the Maritime Museum.
“For a lot of these people, the king crab era was the highlight of their lives. It was a boom town, there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of money, there’s a lot of activity in town. That was a time in their lives when most of the people were young and pretty vital and those color photographs hopefully show that.”
They’re the third segment of the long-running exhibit by the Maritime Museum. First, there was an oral history. Then there was a museum piece. And now, it’s moving out into the physical space of the town that king crab helped create.
The project started in 2008, when Maggie Wall, a former editor at KMXT, interviewed people involved in the king crab fishery and created an oral history that ran on the radio for several years.
It wasn’t just fishermen, but bartenders, doctors and biologists, too.
“Then we started thinking, how can we make a visual element out of this oral history?” Sullivan said.
He, photographer Alf Pryor and the Maritime Museum board came up with the idea of creating portraits to accompany the interviews.
Pryor shot black-and-white photos of 40 of the people interviewed in front of a neutral background. Each of them held another color photo of themselves in their younger days.
Those photos ended up as an exhibit at what was then the Baranof Museum, now the Kodiak History Museum, in 2010. A phone tour accompanied the photos, where viewers could dial a number and listen to the oral histories of the people they saw in the photos.
It also toured to the Anchorage Public Library, the Dorothy Page Museum in Wasilla, an art gallery in Astoria, Oregon, and elsewhere.
The Maritime Museum doesn’t have a physical space. Instead, its exhibits dot downtown Kodiak, like the Thelma C project and the interpretive panels around St. Paul Harbor.
The board and staff at the museum decided the images were too good to only be shown a few times in Kodiak. So, last fall, Sullivan started calling on downtown businesses, asking if any of them would be interested in hosting one of the photos on their exterior walls.
“And people were pretty open to the idea,” he said.
“Not everyone totally understood what we were trying to do, but they were open to the experiment.”
About 10 businesses said “yes.” GraphicWorks in Anchorage made the 20 portraits.
Six or seven of the images are up so far, adorning the walls of Kodiak Marine Supply, Monk’s Rock and Cactus Flats. Once the weather calms down, the others will go up. Eventually, there will be a QR code placed on all the images that viewers can scan with their cell phones, which will take them to oral histories on the museum’s website.
They will all hang for at least a year. Funding for the project comes from the city of Kodiak, Kodiak Island Borough and Alaska Humanities Forum.
The Kodiak Maritime Museum is still working on raising the money for the other 20 portraits. Sullivan said the hugely positive response might mean that he can find wall space for all of them.
Someday all 40 will look down at those passing by, reminding them of Kodiak’s past. Or maybe reminding them of something else. Sullivan said he doesn’t want to complicate the images or over-explain them.
“I think they sort of stand on their own,” he said.
“There’s an emotional narrative to these images that people can connect with.”