By Laura Weeks | Photos courtesy of JT Thomas
View more photos of Gary Freeburg’s book and his Sept. 24 exhibit at Bridgewater College…

Gary Freeburg, director of JMU’s Sawhill Art Gallery, has explored volcanic regions across Alaska, most notably the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. With the photos he brings back and a recent book release, he hopes to inspire students to see ‘beauty within desolation.’

Gary Freeburg

In Alaska, Gary Freeburg, 63, faces hypothermia, five active volcanoes, 35 mph wind, volcanic ash that falls like “powdered sugar” and the threat of bears.

But carefully treading along glaciers and crevasses, equipped with whistles and bear spray, his expeditions are a time of solitude and reflection, an escape from his busy life on campus.

Gary, the director for JMU’s Sawhill Art Gallery, photographs volcanic regions in Alaska, particularly the Valley of 10,000 Smokes — a 44-square mile landscape of volcanic ash and pumice buried 1,000 feet deep. From the formation of this new earth surface, created by wind, erosion and emerging rock, Gary sees balance, a site of shapes, shadows and textures.

“The photographs give you an indication of what the place may look like, and the drawings will tell you more about how it feels,” Gary says.

He’s made five expeditions to the Valley. In June, he took one to the Aniakchak National Preserve, another volcanic region in Alaska. During the first few days of an expedition, he ventures the landscape without a camera to observe, absorb and adapt. Abandoning outside communication, he sketches and writes about his surroundings and what it’s like to be there alone.

Gary has been a landscape photographer for 40 years and has worked with legendary photographers like Ansel Adams, Oliver Gagliani and John Schultz. He directed the art program at Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula College, where he managed art classes, faculty and instilled a love of art into a community where the fine arts played little to no role in daily life. He left in 2002 before coming to JMU.

Back in Alaska, Celia Anderson is in charge of Kenai Peninsula College’s gallery, which she named the Gary L. Freeburg Art Gallery. Anderson has known Gary since 1990, when she moved to the peninsula from Anchorage.

“We would solve the world’s problems over a cup of coffee, and it usually made both of us feel better,” says Anderson, who worked with Gary to develop Kenai’s art program. “We both wanted the same thing for our little corner of the world. We wanted it to be a very high-quality art program.”

The 1912 eruption of the Valley — the largest in the 20th century — celebrated its centennial anniversary June 6. Gary’s book, “The Valley of 10,000 Smokes: Revisiting the Alaskan Sublime,” released Oct. 15. Bridgewater College featured 20 of Gary’s images in an exhibition in September, when he gave a lecture to more than 200 people and signed advanced copies of his book.

Gary discovered the region when Sitka National Historic Park superintendent Ernie Suazo in Sitka, Alaska, looked at Gary’s images of the state’s coastline, noticing remarkable similarities between those photographs and some he’d seen from park service rangers in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.

“The story is a connection I have to the wilderness and how important the wilderness is to me,” Gary says. “To live within it, to observe and adapt to it changes your life. It makes you feel good about what you have.”

After receiving a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography from the University of Iowa, he spent six years in the navy.

“Twenty-two months, four days and 11 hours of that was in Vietnam,” says Gary, who also earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and a Master of Arts degree in photography and drawing from Minnesota State University Mankato.

After five expeditions to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, Gary has developed a mental and physical process for surviving in this remote region.

“He’s able to see the big picture,” says Kathy Schwartz, Gary’s wife and director of JMU’s Art Education Center. “In the wilderness, he can scan the landscape quickly and not just see it, but feel it so that he’s in tune with his environment.”

During the first few days, Gary ventures the landscape without a camera to observe, absorb and adapt. He sketches and journals about his surroundings and what it’s like to be there alone. Abandoning outside communication, Gary is left to hike the region, where he faces hypothermia, five active volcanoes, 35 mph wind, volcanic ash that falls like “powered sugar” and the threat of bears. But carefully treading along glaciers and crevasses, equipped with whistles and bear spray, his expeditions are a time of solitude and reflection, an escape from his busy life on campus.

“The photographs give you an indication of what the place may look like, and the drawings will tell you more about how it feels,” Gary says.

Though Schwartz hasn’t accompanied her husband on these expeditions, she understands the landscape through his drawings.

“When you see the photographs, you get a feeling of isolation in the wilderness, but when you see the drawings, you see the extreme explosive power of nature,” Schwartz says.

George Johnson, a media arts and design professor at JMU, completed a documentary of Gary’s work in 2010 as a supplement to Gary’s book. Johnson, who also studied for a time under Ansel Adams, flew to Alaska with Gary for an expedition in 2008.

“When you do something like that, you’ve got to be in sync with the person,” says Johnson, who considers Gary a “kindred spirit.”

The pair spent two weeks hiking, collecting and purifying their own water and sleeping on plywood boards in makeshift shelters. The film, which took three years to finalize and is the only high-definition video of the valley, “is the journey of a photographer, the journey of a nature lover and a spiritual journey of how he started tying things together in his life,” Johnson explains.

For Johnson, the trip was one of the highlights of his life.

“If I weren’t married, and if I didn’t have children, that’s the life I would lead,” Johnson says. “He’s lived a life that I haven’t.”

That life, as Gary explains, involves adapting to the rhythm of nature, rather than to a manmade culture — a message Gary translates by presenting friends and colleagues with barometers upon their retirement, rather than gold watches.

“It’s the barometer that should be dictating your life, rather than the clock,” Gary says. “Who cares about time?”

During an expedition, time becomes “cyclical,” he explains. In fact, it’s rarely something that crosses his mind.

“It doesn’t feel like your life is progressing or proceeding, or going anywhere.  The moment I enter until the moment I leave is like one long moment,” he says.

After adapting to his new surroundings, Gary begins to photograph — a soothing and methodical process. He first uses a small pocket camera as a sketchbook before shooting with a bigger, “more serious” camera.

“I don’t want to work fast,” says Gary, who’s used to carrying around bulky equipment, including a 4-by-5 inch camera, a tripod and light meter. “You’re not going to be photographing with speed, which suits my personality.”

Gary, who hikes up to 22 miles a day during an expedition, allows his expectations of the images and of the place to dictate the type of camera equipment he’ll take. The dust in volcanic regions calls for the simplest gear possible, like his Fuji 6-by-9 centimeter film camera.

“I’m mired in the drama of black and white,” Gary says. Black and white photography, according to Gary, abstracts nature. Taking color out of an image allows the photographer to bring back values and texture. “The blue skies up there are so bright that it overwhelms the rest of the photograph. It takes away too much of the focus of the image.”

But photographing landscapes isn’t without challenges, explains Gary, who sits in an office much like the framed black and white photograph of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes that hangs on the wall across from him. His hand gestures are mirrored in the sleek, black desk, like a landscape reflected upon a still lake.

“You can never reproduce what you see,” Gary says. “When I go into the landscape, I look at it as perfection, especially the wilderness. The biggest frustration is that it’s very difficult to bring back what you see. So often, you go out there and you try to bring back the images, and what you see is disappointment.”

Despite this supreme challenge, Gary hopes his art will tell a story and inspire those who see his photos to visit photographs to visit these places.

Gary’s work is recognized by science communities in Alaska, including volcanologists, anthropologists, archeologists, and his images and introductory essay of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes have recently been featured in Alaska Park Science Journal.

“I see enough destruction in our day-to-day news that if my art isn’t helpful, I’m not interested in doing it,” Gary says. “If nothing else, I want it to create a sense that wilderness is important and needs to be taken care of and cherished, not manipulated.”

Recently, Gary’s focus has extended beyond the Valley of 10,000 Smokes into the remote region of Aniakchak. With only 50 visitors recorded since 2007, it’s one of the least visited areas of the Alaska National Park. Aniakchak features a six-mile wide, 2,500-foot deep caldera formed during a massive eruption 3,500 years ago. It also has one of the most active Kodiak bear populations in Alaska.

I see enough destruction in our day-to-day news that if my art isn’t helpful, I’m not interested in doing it.
Gary Freeburg

Armed with a seven pound, 12-gauge shot gun, an emergency locator and a bear fence that surrounded his tent at night, Gary trekked the region this summer, capturing 416 photos in eight days using two digital cameras. Although he saw fresh tracks, he never encountered any bears.

Like his expeditions to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, Gary was drawn to Aniakchak’s dramatic craters and mountains.

“The air turns to clouds, and it just pours like milk over the sides of the crater,” says Gary, who braced wind, snow and 30-degree temperatures to climb to the top of Vent Mountain, the volcano’s 2,000-foot main attraction.

“I could see the whole entire crater rim,” Gary says. “You could truly see the distance from there to back to where my camp was, which was about two miles.”

His images from Aniakchak, along with more than 2,000 negatives and several hundred digital images from his trips to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes might be used for a second book, Gary explains.

“His work is a very important part of our family’s life,” Schwartz said. “Anybody who spends a little bit of time with Gary’s work can feel what it might be like to be out there — you can actually begin to feel the wind.”