Rasmuson Foundation has named documentary photographer James H. Barker of Fairbanks the 2022 Distinguished Artist. The award, which includes $40,000, honors a lifetime of creative excellence and outstanding contribution to the state’s arts and culture. Barker is the 19th Alaskan named by the Foundation as a Distinguished Artist and the first photographer to receive the honor.
Barker “is known especially for his extensive work among Alaska Native peoples, but for more than 50 years, his keenly witnessed and deeply personal images have celebrated life from the Arctic to the Antarctic,” anthropologist Phyllis Morrow wrote.
A panel of Alaska artists and art experts helps the Foundation select a Distinguished Artist from a slate of nominees.
“His photographs are visual vignettes, capturing intimate moments that we normally never get to share. But whether he takes us to a seal hunt on the Bering Sea or a research trip to Antarctica, he finds beauty and reveals something universal in us all,” said Diane Kaplan, Rasmuson Foundation president and CEO.
The late Yup’ik educator Mary Ciuniq Pete once commented: “In his work, he has captured Yup’iks unabashedly being Yup’iks.” Reflecting on his photographs of Yup’ik subsistence, Barker says “I realize that I have responded most to … moments when the people I visited and traveled with were most at peace with themselves and with each other, when they were most thoughtful, intelligent and vital.”
Barker grew up in Pullman, Washington, studied photography at the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles, then returned to work as a research photographer at Washington State University. Outside of his day job he chose to photograph people.
In 1965, WSU gave him an unexpected opportunity to grab camera and film, fly to Selma, Alabama, and join the civil rights march to Montgomery. Barker’s photographs offer a rare window into that historic moment.
At San Francisco State College, he studied anthropology, learning about participant-observation and how culture underpins life. In this period, he undertook his first major ethnographic project, focused on a family of 11 living on welfare.
Barker came to Alaska for the first time in the winter of 1970, visiting his brother in Bethel. Three years later he returned to do a photography project for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., and there he stayed, intensely interested and deeply involved in community life. Barker’s extensive portfolio from Southwest Alaska forms the heart of his body of work. Rarely without a camera, he photographed almost everything he participated in, from steam bathing to Russian Orthodox Slaviq, from salmon processing to public meetings. Prints emerged from his home darkroom to create a visual story in books, homes, museums, galleries, public service flyers and state buildings.
In 1987, after 14 years in Bethel, Barker, his wife, Robin, and their young son moved to the Interior. There, he became an integral part of the Fairbanks arts community, teaching photography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
His photographs of Yup’ik dance made over three decades provided the imagery for the award-winning “Yupiit Yuraryarait/Yup’ik Ways of Dancing” with text by Ann Fienup-Riordan and Theresa Arevgaq John. Another book, “Always Getting Ready/Upterrlainarluta,” written with Robin, made it into the hands of President Clinton, a gift from the Alaska Federation of Natives.
Twice, the National Science Foundation accepted Barker into its Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, and those photographs have long been exhibited at McMurdo Station. The early Selma photographs landed in the Rosa Parks Museum and the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York City.
Along the way, he has been honored with the Alaska Governor’s Award in the Humanities and Lifetime Achievement awards from the Cama-i Festival and the Alaska Press Club.
Learn more about Barker and watch a film about his work at our Distinguished Artist virtual gallery.
The recognition is part of the Foundation’s Individual Artist Awards. The remaining 2022 awards — 25 Project Awards and 10 Fellowships — will be announced in the fall.