5,000 Miles from Familiarity, Adventurer Discovers His Art
Like any skilled pathfinder, Anchorage-based photographer Nathaniel Wilder is adept at making forward progress — even while being interviewed. “I just got back from shooting a Merrell (footwear) campaign in Mongolia, so you’ll have to forgive me for being a little jetlagged today,” he said with a smile as he dashed across downtown Anchorage, his giggling 8-month-old daughter, Bingitt, strapped to his chest.
Born with a wanderer’s soul, Wilder has defined his own path. As a teen, he found himself kicked out of two schools in Anchorage for truancy before he was sent to a Colorado private school. Upon graduation, Wilder continued his unconventional path and worked odd jobs to afford travel to exotic locations.
“I lived out of my backpack on the first trip I took. I hitchhiked all over southern Mexico and sold jewelry on the side of the street for money. I slept on rooftops, in gardens, and even trees,” Wilder, now 40, said. The experience only fueled his desire to see more of the world. Returning to Anchorage only until he could afford to leave again, Wilder took himself on a journey around the world. His parents worried he had become complacent. When he was 24, they urged him to consider college. After what Wilder explained as a “come-to-Jesus revelation on a night-train in Belgium,” he offered his parents a compromise: Travel to Barcelona to study Spanish. There, 5,000 miles from familiarity, he discovered his passion.
“Before I went to Barcelona my parents had given me an old SLR camera. I did some shooting on film while I was there and when I had them developed, I thought ‘Well, hey, some of these aren’t that bad.’ But I knew I needed to know more about the technical aspects of picture making,” Wilder said.
Lacking proficiency in Spanish, Wilder combed the city for the only English bookstore and poured over photobooks. Focused on the technical aspects of the camera and the relationship between aperture and shutter speed, Wilder walked the streets of Barrio Gotico snapping shots of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. Empowered by his new love of photography, Wilder pushed his way to the front of lines at events to get closer to the action. One day his persistence paid off as he captured a stunning image at a local carnival.
“I remember my favorite shot was taken with a wide-angle — I think it was with a 24mm lens or at least that’s what it feels like in my head. This girl was super dressed up and there was beautiful kind of soft glowing light around her as she threw a bunch of confetti right at the camera,” Wilder said. That moment represents what drew him into photography. “What I was really realizing and excited about was the idea that access is everything and I wanted to be up close where things were happening.”
When his four months in Barcelona ended, Wilder returned home with a renewed sense of determination. He enrolled in a beginning photography class at the University of Alaska Anchorage with long-time professor, Deb Tharp. He transferred to a small liberal arts college in Illinois, then studied at the now-defunct Brooks Institute of Photography in Southern California. Wilder stayed at the Brooks Institute for a few semesters before deciding the tuition was too high to continue.
“None of my credits transferred and I really just wanted to finish college so I could try to make it as a photographer, so I headed back to Illinois, finished my degree, and returned back to Anchorage.” He worked as a wedding photographer for the next few years. Although Wilder enjoyed photographing weddings, he found that brides were increasingly requesting more portrait work, and while he could stage portraits reasonably well, he wasn’t happy doing it. The work was becoming a paycheck rather than a calling.
Longing for authenticity and new challenges, Wilder started taking trips around Alaska and photographed what he saw. Eventually, he developed a sort of editorial portfolio of Alaska. International brands took notice, and within a few years he was shooting for Outside magazine, Al Jazeera America, Sports Illustrated and Merrell footwear. Yet something was missing. Wanting to return to long-term passion projects, he applied for a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award in 2017 to help fund a project about the effects of climate change on traditional whaling in Point Hope.
He started with a photographic workshop in Colorado “specifically aimed at developing large, long-term photographic projects.” He wanted his work in Point Hope to extend over years.
Wilder’s project has a natural arc dotted by a short frenzy of whaling activity each spring, followed by months of downtime. He can slowly develop his artistic approach to the subject.
“I want to be able to photograph authentically and not as an outsider, so I need to take some time to peel back the layers of the project. Right now, I am taking a brief pause and looking over the images I have made. I am waiting to see where the project is going to take me next.”