Led by the Alaskan sun, the award-winning photographer Douglas A. Yates aligns himself with nature’s time as he catches astonishing images of earth, water, and ice. Each photograph is a pictorial encore to a unique natural performance between land and water.
For some 50 years, Yates has worked as a photographer. His work has been widely exhibited in group and solo shows, and his images have been published in Outdoor Photographer, Alaskan Airline Magazine, and Whole Earth Review, to name a few.
Yates also has a passion for prose; he’s an avid, published writer. His skill in both visual imagery and the written word make for a marriage fit for his purposeful images, which he says in his online artist statement are “an intersection of aesthetics and metaphor.”
Yates lives a simple life on the Alaskan landscape, just south of Fairbanks, in a cabin he built himself some 30 years ago. The cabin is surrounded by the boreal forest that sustains both him and his art.
But Yates’s life hasn’t always been like this.
In May 1968, a few years after Yates graduated from high school, he was drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps. At that time, Yates felt he was destined to become an infantryman in Vietnam but then, he says, “fate intervened.” Instead of the infantry, he was sent off to photography school in Denver, where he learned the basics of how to take photographs and how to chemically process the film in the darkroom. He was then posted to Marine Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
On leaving the Marines, Yates worked for five years as a freelance entertainment industry photographer in Reno, Nevada, where his family lived at the time.
But Yates had always wanted to build a cabin and live in the woods, a dream he made real in 1983, after he moved to Fairbanks.
Yates shares how nature and a large dose of serendipity guide him to take each photograph. As he tells his story, Yates’s words mirror the quality of water as it flows, as enthusiastic narratives burst forth full of great shots and walkabouts—a fast, rhythmic outpouring of sharings that only slow as answers need more reflection.
The Epoch Times: Can you please explain what it’s like where you live in Fairbanks?
Douglas Yates: This region in Alaska is called the interior, and it’s characterized by very deep cold in the winter with very little wind. And in the summer, it can be over 90 degrees Fahrenheit and bright blue sky.
Fairbanks is about 350 miles north of Anchorage, which is on the coast, and it’s about 350 miles south of Prudhoe Bay where all the oil comes from. So, it’s kind of the center of Alaska. It is a boreal forest: heavily forested with spruce, birch, alder, and aspen.
I am located about 10 miles south of Fairbanks on a south-facing slope, in a cabin that I built about 30 years ago. I heat with wood. I do have a telephone and electricity, but I find that the physical requirements of heating with wood keep me connected with the landscape and a simple life.
The Epoch Times: On your website it says you take photographs to record your surveys. What does that mean?
Mr. Yates: It means a walkabout. It means getting into the country, following my eyes, and letting the light tell me where I should go: following trails, and sometimes walking off the trails, following the water courses downstream and upstream. And that’s where I find my photographs—on my walkabouts.
The Epoch Times: So you just happen upon your photographs? They’re not planned?
Mr. Yates: That is correct. A lot of it has to do with serendipity and being in the right place at the right time. Over the years, of course, you gain certain skills about where to go and what to expect, but it’s basically a random walk, although my destination is that interface between water and land. That’s where I think most of the action happens. It’s very dynamic there because of the erosion and the deposition and the daily change in the level of the water. That’s where the patterns that please my eye are found, more than any other place: whether it’s moving water, whether it’s icicles, whether it’s some debris that is caught in a pool, whether it’s the patterns of bubbles that may have developed during a breakup when the ice is melting and the water is warming and finding its way to the next level and then out to a creek and then down to the river and then down to the sea.
The Epoch TImes: So there is no typical shoot?
Mr. Yates: No. Nobody’s waiting for me. There’s no timeline. I just go and I wander, and I follow my eyes, and the light tells me where to go.
From May to September, I go out late in the day—6, 7, or 8 o’clock in the evening—that is when the sun is low in the sky and the shadows are long, and that presents a dramatic opportunity for photographers. So, I will be out on the landscape for three or four hours during those months, if it is not cloudy.
Fairbanks is famous for its cloudless summer skies. That is one of the tremendous draws to this latitude; living at the 64th parallel, you have stage lighting for five to six hours a day.
In the winter, when the landscape is covered mostly in white and the running water is concealed beneath the snow cover and ice, it is not as dramatic as when the water is actually moving. Now, in about 40 to 50 days, the sun is really going to be coming back strong at this latitude, and the sun will start eroding the ice and snow, and then we will begin to see ice and snow melt. And that’s when things really become lively for my photography: when the water starts to run, whether it’s just a trickle or whether it’s the full force of the river.
I use the deep winter months to do editing and post-production work on my photographs. I’m also a writer, and I use these long winter nights to pursue nonfiction essays.
The Epoch Times: What’s the subject of the essay you are working on?
Mr. Yates: As you might suspect, I’m a contrarian, and I don’t buy into the idea of man-made climate change. The essay is a rebuttal to the mainstream idea that we’re responsible for climate change.
It’s a complicated story, but I would say that we’ve been fed misdirection. And whether there is a malevolent reason behind it, I can only speculate, but I think there is a great deal of evidence that shows that human activity simply is too small in scope and intensity to actually change the climate on Earth.
The climate does change, but it’s a consequence of the sun’s intensity, which changes, as well as of the orbital variations of the Earth’s movement around the sun. At some points, we are much closer to the sun than at other times, and if you look at the rise and fall of temperature based on climate proxies (ice cores, tree rings, and pollen grains), the climate on Earth oscillates between warm and cold—and it has a history of doing this for as far back as we can find the data.
The Epoch Times: I guess you have seen that firsthand, as nature is right at your door.
Mr. Yates: I do have a fascination with ice, so I should probably tell you a bit about that. This, of course, has to do with where I live because ice is so prevalent here. But at one time, I worked as an aide in the Alaska state legislature, and I learned about opportunities to travel to China. This was in 1984. I had been particularly interested in Paul Theroux’s “Riding the Iron Rooster, by Train Through China.” I had some connections in Harbin, and I went on my own and spent about 30 days there connecting with artists, writers, and creative people, who introduced me to the ice festival that Theroux wrote about in his book. I documented the festival with all of the ice sculpture.
When I returned to Fairbanks, I gave a slideshow about Harbin’s ice festival to the Chamber of Commerce and other public groups who rallied ’round the idea, and they created organizations here in Fairbanks that invited Chinese master carvers to come and show us how to do ice carving as part of a cross-cultural linkage that is now in its 30th year. We have ice carving here in Fairbanks every year.
The Epoch Times: I’ve seen on your website that you take photographs of the Ice Alaska festival.
Mr. Yates: I go to the festival early, when the carvers arrive and they start their projects, and then until the spring sun melts the ice sculptures away. There are wonderful opportunities for photographs after the ice sculpture park closes and the sun continues to erode the sculptures. They take on a kind of macabre life of their own.
The Epoch Times: What is your most memorable shot?
Mr. Yates: Well, that’s like asking a mother who’s her favorite kid! So, it’s the one I haven’t made yet. You’ve seen my website. Do you have some favorites?
The Epoch Times: “Isthmuses of Desire,” that’s one of my favorites, along with “Frost Forest” and “Axis Mundi.”
Mr. Yates: “Isthmuses of Desire” was an early image, probably made over 10 years ago. It was in the spring, and winter was being chased away by a warm sun, and there was a remnant of melting ice along the creek edge. And the color of the creek edge was coming up through the ice at the same time as the angled light was moving down the hillside. So, you have this side-light and reflections happening at the same time. I was kneeling on my hands and knees at the edge of the creek, selecting a specific point that seemed to have some significance in terms of weight and balance, to make that shot.
The Epoch Times: When you said you were kneeling down, it almost seems like a spiritual experience in taking these shots.
Mr. Yates: At one point, I thought I was alone out in the woods working on a shot like this, but somebody else was on the trail and stopped to watch me. After I had completed that particular shot, this person came on down the hill, and we talked for a moment and she said, “I thought you were praying.”
The Epoch Times: Please tell us about the images “Frost Forest” and “Axis Mundi.”
Mr. Yates: “Frost Forest” was taken one November. I was working as a journalist for a native organization in Fairbanks, and I carried my camera with me everywhere. One morning as I was going down to my car, I swung the door open to climb in, and then I looked through the window, which was heavily frosted, and that was the scene I saw. That’s my car window with all of the frost interfacing with the rising forest that I live in immediately behind it, and the rising sun coming up from the bottom.
“Axis Mundi,” that’s an interesting one because it’s not a so-called natural object. What you are looking at is a degrading ice sculpture. The park had closed, and I’m wandering around on my own to see what the light was telling me, and on my way out and into the parking lot, I found the remnants of an ice sculpture illuminated by the sun immediately behind it. And I rendered an image that I later found the perfect title for: “Axis Mundi,” which means the center of the world.
The Epoch Times: What do you want people to know about your work?
Mr. Yates: The act of sharing the image I select is a kind of invitation to explore my mind through a visual visitation of what I think is significant. So, at one point it’s a prayer, but it’s also a sharing.
And I also think that, not all of them, but many of my captions are leading the viewer to make some assumptions about what I’m thinking about, and to render, through words, another way to look at the image.
The Epoch Times: What criteria do you use to select your images?
Mr. Yates: It has to have a kind of subjective pleasure to my eye: the balance, the asymmetry that makes for an intriguing, interesting image, something that you want to know more about, or something that reminds you of something in your past. And it is refined and sophisticated, and it resonates on some level that is almost beyond words: ineffable—that’s what I’m looking for.
I’m looking for things that have a sense of fragility and a sense of sensitivity and a sense that, hey, this is important, but it’s not going to last very long because light is nothing but change.
And, if there are any other natural materials that we encounter in the northern hemisphere that are subject to shifting, changing temperatures, then it’s ice and snow.
The Epoch Times: As you were trained in analog photography, was there anything that surprised you when you transferred over to digital photography?
Mr. Yates: As a kid, I spent a lot of time outside, wandering on my own, even before I had a camera, so I had these innate perceptual skills. But what I learned at the Marine Corps photography school was a foundation upon which everything else has been built. And the movement toward digital photography is just a technological variation that allows more efficiency, less expense, and less time. So it’s certainly an advancement, but if you don’t have the foundations of observation and perceptual objectivity, it’s not necessarily going to make you a better photographer.
The Epoch Times: What has the ice taught you?
Mr. Yates: Everything moves and changes, and being a photographer, I’ve trained myself to slow down my perceptual discernment, and as a consequence, I think that I may have a step-up on my fellows. I think that by slowing down and sitting in one spot and just letting the landscape teach you what you want to know, it’s all there, but most of the time we are so busy, diverted, and distracted that we miss the lesson.
To see more photography by Douglas A. Yates, visit DouglasYatesPhoto.PhotoShelter.com
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.