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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Meet Heather Meader-McCausland, Whose Alaskan Photos Make SFO Less Depressing

Posted By on Tue, Feb 7, 2012 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Moon Setting Over the Brooks Range Mountains - HEATHER MEADER-MCCAUSLAND
  • Heather Meader-McCausland
  • Moon Setting Over the Brooks Range Mountains

Heather Meader-McCausland grew up in rural Alaska, 100 miles above the Arctic Circle, and in Sonoma County, Calif. She was born to Elaine and Fred Meader, the filmmakers who produced the Alaskan documentary "Year of the Caribou," so nobody was surprised when she picked up a camera. Her photo exhibit, "Alaska: Moving Through the Seasons," will be shown at San Francisco International Airport's Terminal 1, B3, Gate 36, February 8 through May 4.

What are some of the practical challenges involved in photographing above the Arctic Circle?

Temperatures in the winter easily drop to 40 below zero and often much lower. At these temperatures, batteries last about 15 minutes. Grabbing the camera or tripod without gloves can freeze your fingertips. Breathing on the camera can cause lenses to crack.

The terrain is also a challenge. With no roads or trails, photographing in a land of rivers and lakes and shale-covered mountains gives ample opportunity for plenty of expensive mishaps when camera equipment takes a tumble.

click to enlarge Freeze-Up in the Brooks Range Mountains - HEATHER MEADER-MCCAUSLAND
  • Heather Meader-McCausland
  • Freeze-Up in the Brooks Range Mountains

Your early life was spent living in extremely rural conditions. How did that shape your personality and your artistic mission?

When I was younger, wilderness was synonymous with "home." It wasn't a place to explore or an adventure to be had - it was simply a home that you lived in.

Those early years gave me an opportunity to experience a world without mechanization. Daily life was paced by the speed at which we could walk or row a canoe, by the sounds of wind and rain and waves. I experienced a world that was based on cause and effect: if we needed a house, we built it; if we needed food, we hunted and fished; if we needed heat or water, we gathered it.

This connection with the land is something I find hard to communicate to others, but my hope is that the photographs communicate this intimacy in ways that I could not do with words.

click to enlarge Heather Meader-McCausland
  • Heather Meader-McCausland

What were some of your first photographic subjects? At what point did you begin to focus on landscapes?

I received my first Nikon SLR film camera when I was about 10, and my first photographs were of the places, people and animals that surrounded me. I had this simple and very driven urge to want to show people what I was seeing.

As I grew older, I struggled with trying to figure out where I belonged in relationship to the communities I lived in. Thus, in my teens and 20s I almost exclusively photographed people. I found landscapes boring and didn't identify with them or my Alaskan roots. Instead, I immersed myself in my new home and new identity in Northern California.

I returned to Alaska when I was in my late 20s, and my reaction was deeply emotional. Coming back to the mountains was like coming home to a family I hadn't seen in years. I no longer wanted to show people what I saw - I wanted to try to show them what I felt. It was a big transformation for me, but it wasn't a conscious transformation. It affected all of my future work, both with landscapes and "peoplescapes."

How did your time in northern California change your perspectives, both personally and artistically?

For a long time, I held a lot of resentment for being 'taken away' from my first home in the Arctic, and at times I still feel that loss. But my mom took me to San Francisco to museums, cultural events and film showings. These experiences broadened my understanding of art, the world, politics and the human experience.

click to enlarge Fall's Reflection, Brooks Range Mountains
  • Fall's Reflection, Brooks Range Mountains

You also spent time in the Soviet Union, Nicaragua, and the Ukraine in the early 1990s. How did that affect you and your work?

Being 15 years old - in the middle of revolutionary times, with cultures I was unfamiliar with - was incredibly eye opening and life changing. I remember students in the Soviet Union being tested on how fast they could put on their gas masks, and meeting kids who were sick from Chernobyl. I remember driving medical supplies to Nicaragua and tossing the football around with a couple other teenagers who had AK-47s strapped to their backs. I remember meeting Iraqis during my second visit to Ukraine and then throwing up when we bombed their country. These travels opened my eyes and inspired me to become involved more in social and environmental issues.

I took photos during that time to document what I was seeing and experiencing, including the day-to-day world of being a teenager. My time abroad sparked my interest in using photography to show people places they might not otherwise get a chance to see.

What do you think your photographs of the Arctic communicate to people who may never see it for themselves?

I get a lot of emails from people saying that my work emotionally affects them, that it gives them hope, while at the same time creates a sense of fear that we may lose the wilderness that exists.

What do you hope this exhibit communicates to people who might see it as they're breezing through an airplane terminal, about to travel somewhere?

I hope it will cause people to realize that this whole world is not yet covered in roads and people and buildings, and that we need places to just be for the sake of being. Each time we take the time to look deeply into a moment, our minds grow and question and reflect.

This happens a lot when people die -- we stare at images in our minds or at photographs, we question events, we reflect on moments which are suddenly frozen in time. I want my photographs to do the same and to do it before we lose places like this.

Follow Beth Winegarner on Twitter at @beth_winegarner and SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog at @ExhibitionistSF.

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Beth Winegarner


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