The old camera had been tucked away so long, Megan Miller never knew it existed until a few years ago when her grandfather brought it to her.
“It was a really, really old Kodak, like a solid metal brick of a camera,” said Miller, a photographer based in Los Angeles. “He thought I should have it.”
With the camera came its stories: How her grandfather Gordon Herbsleb had hauled it around Alaska in the 1950s, when the Air Force sent him north; how he’d shot 35mm slides of abandoned fox farms, reindeer herds, papoose races and snow drifts around Kotzebue, Alaska, the town where he lived in 1958.
Miller couldn’t believe she’d never seen the evidence of the great adventure of her grandpa’s early 20s.
“He was like, ‘Oh, you want to see them?’ ” said Miller, 26. “It was cool to finally get to hear that, and funny that, for a minute there, he thought it was something I might not want to see.
"That’s such a photographer thing to do.”
More powerful than seeing the images, she wanted to go to Alaska – with him.
This summer, Miller traveled to Kotzebue with her parents and her grandfather, now 75. For her family, it was a first look at what she does – how she approaches strangers with a camera or pulls off the road to capture a well-lit view.
For Miller, it was a glimpse at her grandfather, 55 years ago.
Kotzebue is known as the largest city in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough – about 3,000 residents, mostly Alaska natives. Its Air Force station is long closed, but most of the people Miller met there were young men: fishermen, teachers, train workers or college students who came to Kotzebue for summer jobs. The city’s median age is 27, 10 years younger than the U.S. median, according to the 2010 census.
Miller called her collection of Alaska images “A Young Man’s Place.” To her, it seemed to be a destination for the temporary adventure of youth, 55 years ago and today.
“(My grandfather) was only stationed there for less than a year, before he was married, before he met my father’s mother, before all of this had happened,” Miller said. “You hear the stories about your parents growing up, but sometimes we leave out what happened before.”
Much of what came before in Kotzebue is what still stands today. The main street is paved now, but Herbsleb could still find his way around, she said.
He remembered the cemetery that ran through the middle of town, a small airport, the old general store, great fields of berries and small holes for fishing. The Kotzebue Air Force Station radar tower is still there, if largely forgotten by residents; they called the old white dome “the golf ball.”
“It was surprising how much he was still up for the adventure,” Miller said. “When my grandfather would sort of follow me and walk down all these crazy steps to get down to this fishing spot … I knew he was into it. He wanted to witness what everyone was doing, and reminisce a bit.”
Although the old Kodak had stayed home for this trip, the images she loves most are those that show the Gordon Herbsleb she knows now – an early riser who doesn’t say much but loves to explore.
One morning, he left a note: “Going for coffee where we ate last nite.”
In the endless light of an Alaskan summer, he was up at 5 a.m. to walk the present version of the timeworn roads he knew. The note, she said, “describes the trip. I was scrambling every morning to get up with him.”
- Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN