Ben Huff moved to Fairbanks, Alaska with his wife in 2005. His current project, The Last Road North, explores the people and landscape of the northernmost road in America—which serves as the sole transportation route for the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. He has exhibited in and beyond Alaska, including: a solo exhibition at the Alaska State Museum, the America Now exhibition at Montserrat College, and the Lishui China Photo Festival. His photographs have been featured in the Humble Arts Guide to Emerging Photography, Russian Esquire, Made Quarterly, and PDN, among others. He will be publishing The Last Road North with Kehrer Verlag in the Fall of 2014.
It was in 2010 that I first saw The Last Road North work of Ben Huff. His book idea, an honorable mention in Blurb’s Photography Book Now competition that year, had landed on my desk at the Indie Photobook Library, and I loved it. So much so, that I brought the work to China in 2011 for an exhibition of American photographers. The cover photograph — a desolate and dark gravel road through the Alaskan tundra flanked by white snow that disappeared into the foggy horizon — beckoned to me. What was this road? Where did it go? And what did Ben Huff want us to see?
Huff had moved to Alaska in 2005, and his journeys on this road began with a day trip to the Arctic Circle in summer 2007. The northernmost road in America, the Haul Road or Dalton Highway, follows the upper half of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline to the Arctic Ocean and ends at the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay — 414 miles of road built for the sole purpose of accessing oil, and for twenty years the road had been closed to the public.
Joining the intrepid group of locals, international travelers, and truckers hauling material north, Huff has spent five years journeying along the road with his camera in all seasons. With some people fueled by adventure and others by oil, all are challenged by the elements of this remote, harsh, and beautiful landscape of a modern-day last frontier. There are only two directions to go: north or south. One side of the road is the uninterrupted expanse of Alaskan wilderness. The view on the other side is marred by the reason the road is there to begin with. Some see the road as a scar, cutting the landscape in two. Ben Huff sees the road as a narrow stage where these disparate characters with different agendas and interests are forced to pass each other and share the same space. His photographs visually narrate the complexities of where frontier and humanity meet.
The Last Road North is now a beautifully designed monograph, prepared at Light Work and published by Kehrer Verlag (2014). Luckily the journey over the Yukon River, Arctic Circle, Brooks Range, and the North Slope can be experienced on a comfy couch in a cozy room devoid of blown-out tires, engine trouble, desolation, darkness, and the unforgiving elements. For those traveling the road, you must begin in the south in Fairbanks. For those reading the book, your journey does not need to start at the beginning and dead-end at Prudhoe Bay. You are invited to begin on the last page and travel south. Huff has sequenced his images from south to north, and we can travel in either direction along the road through the book. Amazing.
Karen Irvine, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, in her essay in the monograph talks about the place at the end of the road. There is no “idyllic endpoint,” she says. Deadhorse is a bleak town with no bar or restaurant. She continues that Huff’s reaction to reaching the end was “one of not just disappointment but also regret.” Huff writes, “I sometimes wanted to sit just south of Prudhoe Bay and advise people to just turn around. Don’t spoil it. They’ve seen the best of the landscape. They’ve seen the Yukon River, the Arctic Circle, the Brooks Range. Maybe caribou. Maybe a grizzly bear. If they’re really lucky, maybe a lynx. They’ve tried to sleep under the midnight sun. They’re now in the Arctic — incredible. And I’m urging them to turn around. The end is the reality — the oil fields. The reason they’re there. The reason I’m there. And the catch is that they can’t turn around — they need to fuel up in Deadhorse to make the trip home. We’ve come all that way to gas up and repeat the drive.”
Ben Huff’s The Last Road North does not disappoint, and the end can be just the beginning for exploring the book, looking at the relationship between man and the environment, advocacy for clean energy, or for our own life journeys we choose to pursue.
Larissa Leclair lives in Arlington, VA, and is the founder of the Indie Photobook Library. www.indiephotobooklibrary.org
Ben Huff lives in Juneau, AK, and completed his residency at Light Work in July 2014. www.huffphoto.com