Mark Mahaney documents a town in Alaska’s 65 days of winter darkness

For two months each year, the northernmost town in the US experiences total darkness. In Polar Night, the photographer documents the isolation this creates and comments on the effects of climate change on the area.

Date
17 January 2020
Reading Time
4 minute read

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Utqiagvik, formerly named Barrow, in Alaska is the northernmost town in the US. For most of the year, this remote location is only accessible by plane – “there are no trees, no roads leading in or out, no fresh food, other than what’s hunted,” says photographer Mark Mahaney. Around a year ago, Mark was doing some research, hoping it would spark an idea for a personal project, when he stumbled upon a headline about this isolated town, which was about to enter into Polar Night: 65 days of unremitting darkness.

The resulting series is ghostly in its portrayal of these winter months. Each image depicts yet another scene devoid of life and strangely lit by the unnatural orange vapour lights that serve as a stand-in for the sun. After reading about Utqiagvik, Mark was reminded of another series by photographer Dana Lixenberg titled The Last Days of Shishmaref, in which she documents a small village on Alaska’s western coast. “I love her work,” Mark tells us, “but some of the images didn’t come to life fully for me until I read the captions which contained stuff like, ‘Kids playing baseball, 1 AM.’ It was 1 AM and entirely bright out. Her project was of course photographed during the summer, when the sun doesn’t go down for several months.”

Mark’s work, titled Polar Night, serves as the antithesis of this, exploring the darker sides of a lifestyle so dictated by nature. It was this that initially drew him to want to document the town, he explains: “During the dark months, darkness breeds there. Crime increases, substance abuse spikes, depression spikes, suicide rates increase (they’re the highest in the nation). I found a clip of a local police officer saying they receive calls regularly from disoriented citizens not knowing the time or the day.” While the lack of light is one issue, these months also bring with them bitter cold and the town’s population of 4,500 has to deal with temperatures dipping below -30 degrees Fahrenheit. “It was my goal to photograph the town within this frame; a period of time so taxing on the mind and the spirit,” he says.

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Mark Mahaney: Polar Night

While Polar Night deals with the immediate struggles faced by the townspeople, it also serves as a meditation on the devastating effects climate change is having on areas such as these. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet and it’s having a massive impact on the culture of the native Inupiat community. “The sea ice has forever protected the shoreline from brutal coastal storms, but the ice is thinning so rapidly that it can no longer play that role,” Mark explains. “The town is eroding away with each storm.”

Houses that previously had large gardens are now backed up against the shoreline, and in some cases, entire towns have packed up and moved miles inland. Things have become so bad that the Alaskan government recently warned of the rapid spread of a condition called solastalgia, the distress caused by severe disruption to the environment near one’s home.

As you’d imagine, actually shooting in these conditions was tricky. “We heard numerous horror stories of cameras just failing suddenly, shocked by the cold, never to be fixed,” Mark says. Working with an assistant, Mark had to put the equipment in dry bags (the kind used for water sports) as they transitioned from the extreme outdoor conditions to the indoor temperatures. “At times, that difference was 80 degrees,” he remarks. While outside, they “looked like marshmallows” in full down suits, woollen thermals, masks and goggles. In order to actually work the cameras, Mark had to remove his gloves but his skin could only be exposed to the cold for ten seconds before pain would set in. Miraculously, however, everything worked as it was supposed to and these extreme conditions actually drove the aesthetic of the series.

“I didn’t stick to one visual approach,” he says. “This town was the most bizarre place I’ve ever been to, for better or worse. And the weather conditions accentuated that reality immensely. Aesthetically, I wanted the imagery to reflect that feeling of bizarreness.” If he’d stuck to one method of lighting images (some are lit by the LED panels, others shot in complete darkness on long exposures) or even one mood, it just wouldn’t have reflected the complexities of the location. In turn, “the project is a visual poem of sorts,” Mark outlines, “not only about endurance and isolation and survival, but also about the strange beauty of this moonlike place as so much of it, including the visual signals of climate change, are buried under layers of ice and snow.”

On what he has taken away from the project, though, Mark explains that it’s a sense of achievement. Prior to this, Mark hadn’t produced personal work for around eight years, since becoming a father. Due to financial priorities and obligations at home, but also due to pressures he put on himself, he had found himself only producing images for others and for commercial contexts. “The act of doing this project, for me, serves as the start of something. The gates are open now. It was an intense project to bite off as my first; not only was it fraught with challenges, but it was also an emotionally complicated place to try to internally navigate the newness of creating work that was self-assigned. Holding the finished book in my hand makes me excited to start on something new.”

Polar Night is published by Trespasser and also available from Kominek and Photobook Store.

GalleryMark Mahaney: Polar Night

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Mark Mahaney: Polar Night

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.

rbd@itsnicethat.com

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