This was your first shoot for Dwell and we sent you to Alaska! Had you been before and were you excited?
That was my reaction too! I was like, you want to send me where?! I couldn't book my flight quickly enough, in fact, I think I emailed Anna Alexander (Dwell's Photo Director) and said I'd get there any way I had to—even by dogsled, and as it turned out, I wasn't too far off the mark as I ended up photographing Martin Buser's (and Kathy's) home. I had definitely spent some time in the north previously, traveling and photographing around the Yukon and southern Alaska. Lovely place with a lot of variety to the landscape, coastal forests and fiords, peaks for miles (I mean, kilometres) and dry barren interiors. I was stoked to be going back as I feel really comfortable in that landscape!
How did you prepare going into the shoot?
To be honest, knowing how much the landscape varies in the north, I really wanted to know what kind of land the house was built around—was it in a forest or by a mountain, so after a quick Google search, I saw it was atop one of the highest hills around, I knew we'd have killer light all day (in Alaska, the sun is lower on the horizon that time of year than further south), it would be pretty much a perfect 45 degree angle. After that, I truly wanted to get to know Martin and Kathy, so I gave them a call and we agreed that I'd come over for a scout on the first evening I flew in. Driving down a silent weaving country road, I knew I'd found the house from about a mile away, it just stood out as a black silhouette against a midnight blue sky, except I took the wrong driveway in and ended up amongst Martin's dog kennels—the dogs went batshit crazy and started howling like a pack of wolves 200 strong—not viciously at all, just kind of singing in unison. I could see the house I should have ended up at quite a way up the hill, and so of course the dogs alerted Martin that a city boy was lost, but on his way. From the first hello, they were the warmest hosts I had ever met—beer was passed around, introductions were made, and we checked out a scaled model of the home that Martin brought out and put atop the kitchen counter; and then guided me on what felt like such a surreal (surreal because of the 12+ hours of travel, low blood sugar, and a beer) tour of his property—I was amazed at everything he was pointing out, and with such passion, pride, and attention to detail. I remember standing outside in his courtyard, watching the windows glow under a clear sky, and I knew right away that tomorrow was going to be magic.
Tell us about a favorite moment from the shoot?
The morning of the shoot, we (my assistant and I) woke up at 4am to find the weather beautifully clear, crisp, and significantly colder than we expected. So after a really hearty breakfast to keep us going all day in the outdoors, we walked to the car and ended up putting on all the clothes we had—I had thankfully brought a down jacket, but Chris didn't so I think he wore two button down shirts on top of one another, and then a raincoat. It was quite funny, but we were stoked. We then drove to about 4 gas stations looking for hand warmers, and no one had them in stock because it wasn't officially winter yet! We found some eventually, and taped them to the strobes and battery grip to keep us shooting without worry when outside.
Most challenging moment from the shoot?
There wasn't really a single challenging moment, but I think the biggest challenge throughout the shoot was covering all the little customizations that Martin and Kathy had dreamed up and implemented into their home, and trying to tell a complete story by including them in photos. There were just so many little nuances, for example, the interior walls are covered with single piece floor to ceiling pieces of yellow cedar... one piece running top to bottom vertically, something like that is beautifully rare. Or the fact that when you stand in the courtyard, on a clear day you can see Denali when looking through the windows down the length of the house. Or how, why, and where Martin decided to place a little spruce tree in his courtyard, named Bruce The Spruce. Or how despite there not being artwork on walls, the windows act as frames to the changing light and colours outside which create living and evolving art, allowing blue light from the sky, and gold light from sunset to come in. Or how certain cement blocks in the courtyard wall are off-set to allow snow to settle on their edges, and instead of having a grey wall in winter, you get beautiful patterns appearing. There were many many more nuances like this, all that I had to keep in mind when shooting, because those customizations are what Kathy and Martin most loved about their place.
Y'know it's a hard one, because I feel there were two stories here, one of the house that Kathy and Martin built, and one of Martin and his dogs and the property. And each photo is just one piece of their story.
But for me, the one that sums up my experience on their property, is one of running with Martin and the dogs down on the frozen lake on their land, just with my camera in the golden sunshine and auburn grass. Frozen lake, fresh air and blue skies with perfect light. It was a dream time to shoot. To me this one says so much about Martin, his land and home. Look at his face—he's so stoked to be out on his land with the dogs!
What did you like most about the house/location?
Everything f'real!! But if you made me pick, I'd say that it felt like a perfect integration of indoor and outdoors living—not easy to do when you're in Alaska. The home brings outdoors in—through windows, views, decks, and courtyards, and the indoors out with heated walkways, choices of wood paneling, inset fire pit. It doesn't suck to have Denali as the view out of any window in your home.
Any words of advice for our readers who may be taking a trip to Alaska in the future?
Alaska is huge—you won't see it all in one go. Figure out what you want to do, and that'll decide where you should head. Feel like fjords and mountains—Skagway/Haines are great bets with their summer festivals, and country town vibes. Feel like interiorgreat hiking in mountains. Coastal—great fishing! Winter time—check out the Iditarod dog race in which Martin competes.
If you could choose one modern element to add to your home, what would you choose?
I've been looking for our own little hideaway in the forests/mountains of BC for a couple of years. Nothing yet, but whenever I step on to beautifully polished heated concrete floors, I always dream of having them in a place of my own. Also, I love wood paneling indoors, so I'd love to have that too someday.
A little more about you:
Who are you?
Grew up in Toronto and moved to Vancouver, BC for the ocean and mountains. I've since adopted a pretty stereotypical PNW life: I surf, fly fish, do yoga, drink strong IPAs, make my own bread, and roam the mountains in search of adventures.
Where are you from?
Born in Poland, and moved to Toronto as a tot. Grew up there, and lived downtown, Big Smoke for many years. Moved to Vancouver, BC in early 2010, and I'm not ever moving away from the coast.
What type of assignments are you shooting these days?
It's mostly story-telling reportage-y and people-focused. Some travel, and always lovely folks with interesting lives. That's what is so amazing about my career—it's the variety. I'll be shooting travel and food one day, meeting compelling people for environmental or fashion-y portraits the next, and be flying to Alaska for Dwell another month. It certainly doesn't suck.
Type of camera?
Mamiya 7, and Mamiya 645 (film & digi).
Film or Digital?
Both! Don't hate. But my preference always goes to my Mamiya 7 and film. It's a wonderful tool.
Julia Sabot is passionate about everything photography related, and is a lover of the outdoors.