There is little snow in Robert Ketchum’s Alaska. Spring, summer and fall — brief as they are in the northern latitudes — serve as a vibrant muse for the photographer, whose work forms the heart of a new exhibition at the Illinois State Museum.
There is little snow in Robert Ketchum’s Alaska. Spring, summer and fall — brief as they are in the northern latitudes — serve as a vibrant muse for the photographer.
More than 30 of his prints form the heart of a new exhibition at the Illinois State Museum: “North to Alaska: The Photographs of Robert Glenn Ketchum.”
Looking at Ketchum’s large photographs of the Alaskan wilderness, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by the color.
In “Kadashan II (blackwater),” dark-green moss drips from the trees of a sodden forest. Nearby, red flowers explode across a green clearing in “Boreal Boogie Woogie.”
Across the room, brightly painted houses enliven the coastal village of “Sisimiut, Greenland.” In what appears to be the result of municipal fiat — or perhaps neighborly pressure — every building is painted cherry red, royal blue, mustard yellow or hunter green.
And while you might associate the word “tundra” with a barren, lifeless place, Ketchum’s “Saturated Tundra” is vigorously alive.
The “Saturated Tundra” print is one of three particularly large photographs that dominate the main wall of the exhibit. Unlike the other pictures on display, they’re not behind glass; they are, however, a safe distance behind a rope barrier.
Kent Smith, director of art for the Illinois State Museum, said that’s because the prints are quite fragile.
“These are completely vulnerable photographic surfaces. There is nothing between the public and the image,” he said in a recent interview.
All of the prints on display were produced by one of two processes: as Cibachrome dye destruction prints and Fuji Crystal Archive chromogenic prints.
Drawing you in with awe-inspiring images, Ketchum seems to want his viewers to walk away with more than appreciation for pretty pictures.
Smith likened Ketchum to the artists Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, whose late-19th century paintings of Yosemite Valley helped prod Congress to protect the area as the first national park.
“He is a contemporary artist who photographs the magnificence of nature in these wild areas and then presents them in exhibitions which advocate for their preservation as wilderness,” Smith said.
According to a sign in the exhibit, Audubon magazine ranked Ketchum among the 100 people “who shaped the environmental movement of the 20th century.”
But only one of the photographs has an overt political message: countless stumps and other pieces of arboreal detritus cover a clear-cut wasteland as the title asks, “Forest of the Future?”
The photographs are only half of the exhibition.
The rest of the space is filled with artifacts from the archives of the Illinois State Museum: mounted animals and objects from the Tlingit, Koyukon, Aleut and Inuit peoples.
Smith said he was the organizing curator of the exhibition along with Jonathan Reyman, the museum’s curator of anthropology, and Meredith Mahoney, the assistant curator of zoology.
“Because we’re a medium-sized museum — and because we are a museum that focuses on anthropology, natural history, art, culture — we can bring together objects from these different collections and present them on the floor at the same time,” Smith said. “The hope is that people will have a larger experience” of Alaska.
The objects on display include Tlingit baskets woven as finely as fabric, Inuit tools used to pound blubber into lamp oil more than 150 years ago, and a towering Kodiak bear rearing back on its hind legs.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Smith marveled at an Inuit kayak made from nine sealskins that were tanned, treated and sewn together around a cedar frame. It was obtained by the U.S. Fish Commission in 1884 and displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
“Many of our great-grandparents would have traveled from this part of Illinois to Chicago to see it,” Smith said.
He said the good condition of the kayak more than 100 years later was a “remarkable accomplishment.”
“That’s the people of Illinois saying that preserving culture is important,” Smith said.
You can see the exhibit, and continue to send that message about preserving culture, through March 28.
Brian Mackey can be reached at (217) 747-9587 or firstname.lastname@example.org.