James H. Barker

Fairbanks

About the artist

Photographer James H. Barker has created deeply personal images for more than 50 years, capturing beauty and emotion as he documented life and work. His extensive portfolio from Southwest Alaska is the core 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.

In 2022, Barker became the first photographer to receive the Foundation’s Distinguished Artist award. Watch a mini-documentary about how Barker became an award-winning photographer and learn about all of the Distinguished Artists.

Photograph by Pat Race

2022 Distinguished Artist

By Phyllis Morrow

The late Yup’ik educator Mary Ciuniq Pete once commented: “In his work, he has captured Yup’iks unabashedly being Yup’iks.” It’s true, too, for civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama; migrant farm workers in his home state of Washington; a family living on welfare in Marin County, California; guests and performers at fiddle festivals; Antarctic scientists maneuvering equipment on the sea ice; family and friends in Fairbanks laughing over the dinner table. More than anything else, people catch Barker’s eye — though through his lens even a penguin, rocketing to the ocean surface, seems to express its essential exuberance. Jim Barker, always unabashedly himself, captures us all being who we are.

As photographer and friend Nancy Rabener puts it, “Jim photographs with his heart, and one can feel the tenderness, the love in his images. It’s what makes his images vital and emotionally moving, accessible and revealing to the viewer. It is a rare gift.” He takes his time to, as he says, “begin to think like a participant” and he waits for those moments when facial expression, gesture, and setting come together to show someone’s “strength of personality.” And he never forgets that people “living their life is a lot more important than my disturbing them to document it.”

Reflecting on his photographs of Yup’ik subsistence activities, he wrote “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 studied photography at the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles, laying the technical foundation for what Rabener describes as his “mastery of light, timing, composition and print craftsmanship.”

Having grown up in Pullman, Washington, he returned to work as a research photographer at Washington State University. But 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. His intention, though, was never simply documentary; it was to say, “here are the people who are involved in this.”

Jimmy Barker, a young boy growing up in Eastern Washington.

Barker’s overriding interest in people led him to study anthropology. Enrolling at San Francisco State College, he learned 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. Photographs from this effort won him $3,000 in a Time-Life photography contest and appeared in “The Family of Children,” a collection of children’s photographs from around the world.

Barker came to Alaska for the first time in the winter of 1970, taking a trip to visit his brother in Bethel. He immediately felt drawn to the Yupiit and inspired by their ways of living. 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 became well-known in the YK Delta. He read the news and did quirky comedy routines on KYUK. He traveled by boat, snow machine and Bush plane to immerse himself in events and activities throughout the seasons. Rarely without a camera, he photographed almost everything, salmon processing, steam bathing, gathering wild plants. Prints vivid with life emerged from his home darkroom.

One testament to his long relationship with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is that, to this day, YKHC — the agency that first hired him as a photographer in Bethel — purchases Barker’s photographs as gifts to retiring doctors, for whom they are cherished reminders of connection with the region’s people.

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. Over the years, he’s shared his passion and experience, teaching photography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and in workshops for local residents.

Barker has also taught photography in rural school districts, often assisting communities in saving local photographs. He recalls one poignant situation in Shageluk, where he helped students preserve and display photographs in their school. Sadly, that school burned down. When a new school was built, the principal contacted Jim, hoping against hope that the photographs could be replaced. Deeply touched — and, as always, meticulous with his archives — Barker was able to reprint the entire series for the new building.

Across Alaska, Barker has made such lasting impacts. Among his notable contributions are portraits of the elders of Anaktuvuk Pass, made for permanent display in their museum. He also participated in the 50th anniversary memorial and reunion of the bombing of Dutch Harbor in 1992. There, he made portraits of the returning soldiers and documented their stories.

James Barker is seen in the Bethel area in the mid-1970s.

Barker’s photographs of Yup’ik dance, which he made over almost three decades, are incorporated into an award-winning book, “Yupiit Yuraryarait: Yup’ik Ways of Dancing.” Another book, “Always Getting Ready/Upterllainarluta,” 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. His photographs from two seasons living in Antarctica documenting research scientists at work have long been exhibited at McMurdo Station.

The early Selma photographs found their way to 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.

This breadth of appreciation suits Barker’s work, which escapes narrow categories. Neither highly cerebral art photography nor viewer-distanced documentary, it models both artistic skill and emotional sensitivity in ways that resonate with a broad range of viewers. As a photography friend Charles Mason describes it, Barker’s art “quietly and honestly describes a culture in time, and also has the grace and beauty to captivate a museum visitor.”


Phyllis Morrow is a retired professor of anthropology and dean of Liberal Arts from University of Alaska Fairbanks. She has known James Barker and his family since their shared years in Bethel, where she worked with Yup’ik language and cultural projects.