Visit the Arctic in the winter, and you’d think you’ve stepped through a portal to Hoth. There’s little light, the landscape and anything on it is bleached white, and the temperature hovers around -25 degrees–cold enough to snuff out a tauntaun. The fictional planet was very much on photographer Eirik Johnson’s mind when he trekked through Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the U.S., last December. He was there to document the area’s makeshift cabins, which he first encountered two years earlier.
Johnson was in Barrow working on an environmental remediation project at a decommissioned navy base. He arrived in the summer of 2010, when the sun is permanently fixed above the horizon. Finding himself unable to adapt his circadian clock to the perpetual sunlight, Johnson spent his late “nights” exploring the region. At the edge of town near the Arctic waters, he came across hunting cabins built by the native Iñupiat tribe and began photographing them.
He says the magic hour–the time of day when environmental conditions were optimal for photography–was 3 a.m., when the sunlight was less intense and the skies took on a pinkish hue. The structures, he tells Co. Design, are ingeniously configured from “whatever materials can be found, which oftentimes included old particle board, shipping palettes, and bits and pieces from the navy base.” By the end of his stay in Barrow, in late August, Johnson had compiled a portfolio of immaculate photographs depicting several of the cabins.
The images portray the dwellings in perfect clarity, with the blond, timber-sided homes popping up from the ashy coastal ground. They’re full of details and charming idiosyncrasies, like salvaged lawn furniture and, in one case, a heartbreakingly fragile basketball rim. “I connected with the cabins as portraits of their makers,” he says, pointing out how each of the cabins exuded a “whimsical individualism.”
Still, Johnson thought “something was missing.” It would take him some time to figure out just what it was. Gradually he realized that “the work was just as much about the extremes of the Arctic as much as it was about the architecture of the cabins.” He resolved to return to Barrow during winter, the counterpoint to the summertime conditions captured in his first round of pictures.
It would be more than two years before Johnson did go back. Last December, he found himself on the Arctic shore all over again, only this time, everything was blanketed in a thick coat of sea ice. The sky was stained a muted white–that is, when the sun was actually up. The light emerged for a few brief hours around noon, giving Johnson a small window of time to line up his shots.
The second round of images are drastically different from the first, though they both share the same perspectives and subjects. Johnson arranged them into diptychs to highlight their differences. The summer photographs have details that are, naturally, easy to pick out. But the winter images are nearly devoid of any character, aside from their non-specificity. And maybe the odd polar bear. “I had to keep an eye out,” he says.