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Paul Andrew Lawrence

From his pilot seat in a Bush air taxi, Paul Andrew Lawrence saw Alaska's changing ecosystem and turned to photography and film to document it. He produced and directed "Boneyard Alaska," a film about Alaska miner John Reeves's find of a massive fossil deposit of bison, woolly mammoths and prehistoric bears.


  • Project Award
  • Media Arts

'Story Is King'

As a schoolboy growing up in southwest Norway, Paul Andrew Lawrence had finished his assignments for the year when a teacher pulled him aside to show him something new. There, in a darkroom at school, he recalled, he watched a black-and-white image come to the surface of the developer and spread across a blank piece of paper under the red light. The image he had photographed and seen in the negative now took the shape of a positive.

“A new world was opened up for me,” Lawrence said. “It was magical.”

That was the beginning. Lawrence acquired his own camera, kept working in the darkroom, and soon, still a teenager, saw his work published on the front page of the local newspaper — a feature about a local hatchery releasing fish into an area stream to bolster the fish population.

The experiences paved the way to a lifetime of photographic discovery, from fish farms to factories, making images — both photographs and videos — of everything from aerial landscapes to industrial workers. Throughout it all, he followed a common thread.

“Story is king,” Lawrence said. “If you don’t have a story, what do you have? Very little.”

His introduction to industrial photography came when he was allowed to photograph at a factory his father built in his home country of Norway, he said. He assisted a professional photographer working at the facility and learned another important lesson — that it was possible to make a living that way.

In school at the University of Leeds, he studied metallurgy and continued photographing industrial plants. But he still enjoyed photography, he said, and found he had a knack for communicating with people, for understanding body language and helping people feel comfortable in front of the camera.

He went on to study film and video production at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara. His work — characterized by rich color, striking composition and good lighting — went on to appear in high-end advertising campaigns in the United States and Europe. He highlighted the human resource: industrial workers who made the company and the product.

But a recession in 1990 took a heavy toll on the artistic community, he said. Lawrence decided to learn to fly.

It was aviation that brought him north to Alaska. He arrived in 1995, just after finishing his flight training, drawn by the allure of Bush flying, he said.

In the air over the Last Frontier, his perspective changed. Braided rivers, verdant wetlands and rolling landscapes unfolded beneath him. Piloting an air taxi out of Dillingham, he saw the deep blue abundance of Bristol Bay. Later, he saw Columbia Glacier rapidly melting away in Prince William Sound. Beyond the Sound by just a few mountains, he saw Portage Glacier pulling back to reveal the silty lake below.

He was struck by a realization. “The ecosystem is totally changing,” he said. “You can see from the air. And photographing it and illustrating it and making illustrations available for publication, I think, is important.”

He was still drawn to industrial photography — mining, oil, tourism — but now there was a new element to his work. The impact of climate change became “exceedingly important,” he said. The things he’d seen made it impossible to ignore. And documenting those stories in a way that could last meant using the cutting edge of technology.

The environment is not the only thing that’s experienced dramatic change: So, too, has the field of photography and videography. When Lawrence began editing video, he worked reel-to-reel, then, later, with a cassette deck. Since then, the industry has seen the shift to digital formats, an endless landslide of technological innovations. Staying up to date is key to sharing stories that will last, he said.

Nearly five years ago, a story was “dumped in his lap.” It had emerged from the mud at a miner’s claim outside Fairbanks, and “when the story is dumped in your lap, you have to do something about it,” Lawrence said.

The resulting film, “Boneyard Alaska,” tells the story of a massive fossil deposit — bison, woolly mammoths and prehistoric bears — uncovered by Alaska miner John Reeves. Lawrence plans to produce a sequel, incorporating strong science and possibly answers about what caused the extinction event originally responsible for the Ice Age boneyard. He wondered: What can we learn? Melting permafrost has profound implications for the entire ecosystem, he said.

Across Alaska, the impact is clear. Villages face the prospect of moving as rivers and oceans eat away at coastlines newly unprotected by ice. Southeast Alaska, a temperate rainforest, is now susceptible to drought. Wildfires increasingly ravage over-dry forests. The state is among the fastest warming regions on Earth, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Consequences are wide-ranging and profound.

That story needs people to tell it, Lawrence said. It’s important to document the changes reshaping the world around us. Lawrence hopes his work will show people just how beautiful that world is — and how disruptive the enormous human impact can be.

And he hopes viewers might learn a few things; see honor and respect, human interaction, true feeling and compassion, he said. “And then if they can see or feel the enjoyment of discovery, what a gift that is to share,” he said. “If you can inspire a child—how lucky you’ve been.”

Watch the trailer for “Boneyard” here.

Kirsten Swann is a journalist based in Anchorage, Alaska. She currently works as a producer and reporter for Alaska Public Media. She’s reported everywhere from Anchorage to eastern Siberia and founded the Mountain View Post blog and magazine, which she still runs.

Image credits - Artist portrait courtesy of the artist. Gallery images 1 and 2 are by Michael Seto and were previously published on a Paul Andrew Lawrence website, locationsound.us. They show Lawrence working on the Frank Hall Green feature film "Wildlike." Gallery images 3-8 are ©2020 Paul Andrew Lawrence and are from his film "Boneyard." Writer portrait courtesy of the writer.