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Brian Adams

Photographer Brian Adams turns to film for intimate portraits that give a sense of the person and their place in the world. His book, "I Am Inuit," took him to 20 Alaska villages over 12 months as he made the turn from outsider to one with, as The New York Times called it, "An Insider's View."

    2018

  • Fellowship
  • Visual Arts

The View From the Inside

Photographer Brian Adams grew up skateboarding in Girdwood, a proven way to build resilience. “You fall. You get back up. After that first good fall,” he says, “your body’s woken up. You get that first fall out of the way and you’re ready to go.”

The Myers-Brigg Type Indicator identifies Adams as “super introverted,” he says. Skateboarding was a way for him to get out and be with people, and so is photography. He got into photography sideways. It started with him taking skate videos of his buddies.

Adams is naturally quiet, yet friendly. His inclination for introversion makes freelance photography an ideal profession. He’s struck the right mix of portraiture, editorial and commercial work. The part that puts him out in the world is balanced with a lot of solitary time spent planning and tending to his equipment.

He’s sort of a neatnik. Adams lives in a small house with walls painted a calm white. It’s furnished sparely, each piece carefully considered. 

Adams collects photographs, cameras and watches. Nothing digital. One-hundred percent mechanical. He shoots only film, either with a Hasselblad or a Mamiya 6, and doesn’t own a digital camera. “You never have to worry about batteries dying, even in the cold,” he says. He doesn’t think of himself as a gearhead. He appreciates functionality and equipment that works in any situation.

There’s no TV in the house. A turntable spins Elvis gospel songs. Adams was raised in a Christian household. It’s something he thinks of a lot. It seems so far away from the life he’s made for himself. Yet he still makes comments like, “I was taught not to covet, but I do like that car.” 

On one side of Adams’ front room is a small wall tent, a miniature version of those found at fish camp. The tent is filled with pillows and toys for his kids, Elliott and Ellis, when they’re at their dad’s. The bathtub is filled with a mound of plastic dinosaurs and four large plastic rats.

A skateboard designed by his friend, artist Ted Kim, hangs on one wall. On another hangs an oversized painting of Adams’ first camera, a Hasselblad, by Julie Decker, CEO of the Anchorage Museum. There’s a framed photo by photojournalist Ash Adams, his ex, who is “one of my favorite photographers, poets, writers and friends,” says Adams. In one corner hangs four photos taken by Clark James Mishler that evoke the 1940s, though they were shot in 1975. 

Three months out of high school, Adams got a job assisting Mishler, a commercial photographer who specialized in location portraiture. In two years, Adams learned how to run a business and “everything about lighting,” he says.

In 2005, Adams struck out on his own. Kaladi Brothers Coffee was his first paying client. He has been freelancing ever since, almost 15 years.

In 2009, Adams’s photo of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin landed on the cover of Time magazine. They called her “that most exotic of American creatures: an Alaska original, raised and ripened in an environment remote, extreme, unfamiliar — and free.”

Adams’s first book, “I Am Alaskan,” was published in 2013. The collection celebrated “what it means to be an Alaskan” and included portraits of dog musher Lance Mackey and ex-governor Palin. The Chicago Tribune also noted Adams’s affinity for artists, skateboarders and deejays. Adams’s use of vivid colors and natural light “perfectly suit his subjects’ vibrant individuality.”

After “I am Alaskan” was published, Kelly Eningowuk, executive director of the Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska, reached out to Adams with the idea for “I am Inuit.” It was to be “our version of ‘Humans of New York,’ ” a collection of interviews and portraits. 

“I am Inuit” took a straight year of shooting: 20 villages over 12 months with four to five days in each. In Quinhagak, the first village he visited, Adams did 25 interviews.

Wherever he traveled for “I am Inuit,” Adams was always asked, “Who’s your family?”

Adams is part Iñupiaq. His “pop,” Ron, is from Kivalina. The first time Adams went to Kivalina he was 8. In 2005, as a young man, he went again. This time, he says, “I was an outsider, but I was at home.”

In Kivalina, the young Ron grew up in a sod house. His family herded reindeer and traveled by dog team. They lived a traditional life, but they wanted Ron to be educated, so they spoke only English to him. To get that education, they sent Ron to Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools in Wrangell, Oregon and Kansas and then, finally, to Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka where he met Virginia, his wife.

Maybe one day Adams will do “a fictional photo series on boarding schools,” he says, but these storytelling projects require years of planning and persistence to create.

“I’m not a photojournalist,” Adams says. “ ‘I am Inuit’ made me a better documentary photographer.” Typically, on editorial projects, he will work with a writer, listen to the story first, then shoot. For “I am Inuit,” Adams took all the photos first, before doing the interviews himself.

“I am Inuit” started as a Facebook page and grew. Katie Orlinksky, a National Geographic photographer, followed the project and encouraged others to do so. Adams says, “We went from 1,500 to 40,000 followers in one week.” The Anchorage Museum organized an exhibition and produced a book. The New York Times posted a selection of photos on their Lens blog. They called it “An Insider’s View” and wrote, “These are not images of exotic places and quaint people. Mr. Adams offers more intimate views, thanks to his background.”

“What’s important about this project to us,” Decker says, “is to present the authenticity of people and place.” 

Adams is starting to lay the groundwork for an international version of “I am Inuit.” The project is called “Itatka: The Inuit Word for My Relatives.” His first trip on this expanded journey was a 350-mile trek from Kaktovik, on Alaska’s North Slope, to Aklavik, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Bruce Inglangasak travels between the two communities by boat in the summer and invited Adams along.

Adams is ready to go. He has family to visit.

Carol Richards is an Iñupiaq writer and designer. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review and Best Creative Nonfiction (Volume 2) and was selected as a notable essay in Best American Essays.

Image credits - Artist portrait is by Ash Adams. Gallery images 1-3 are by the writer, Carol Richards. Images 4-8 are by the artist. Image 4 shows Jonas Mackenzie of Kaktovik, Alaska. Image 5 shows a dog team on Kotzebue Sound. In image 6,, Marie Rexford prepares maktak for a Thanksgiving feast in Kaktovik. Image 7 shows Makayla Nayokpuk watching her dad, Dennis Davis, operate his drone in Shishmaref. The final image is from the Southwestern Alaska village of Quinhagak. Writer portrait is courtesy of the writer.