When photographer Brian Adams came to Bristol Bay in July 2019 to see the fishing season in full swing for a story in Nature Conservancy magazine, he watched a brown bear stroll past his campsite and tuned in to daily reports of fish counts on the local radio station. To document it all for a story about the the renowned but threatened salmon runs in the Bay, the Anchorage-based photographer brought along a beloved—some might say outdated—companion: His boxy medium-format film camera. The camera’s reliable mechanisms—there’s nothing digital about it—endure the bumps of remote travel, says Adams.
Plus, the format of the film is a spacious 6 cm by 6 cm square, considerably larger than the typical 35mm frame. All that space helps Adams, who grew up in an Inupiaq fishing family, better capture the people he photographs, he says. “I want to have as much Alaska around them as possible.”
It’s also a camera built for an Alaskan winter. “It doesn’t take any batteries, so you don’t need to worry about any batteries dying in the cold. You know it’s going to work,” Adams says.
Yet he’s found no camera that can perform in the face of one occupational hazard of photographing in remote Alaska: A friendly invitation to step inside the warm interior of a hospitable home on a cold winter’s day.
“Your stuff fogs up right away,” he says. “You can’t even photograph when you go into the house.”
Adams’ work for magazines such as National Geographic, The Atlantic and The New Yorker has led him into the heart of Alaska in all seasons. His ongoing body of work, “Ilatka: The Inuit Word for My Relatives,” is a series of environmental portraits from throughout the circumpolar North, a project to promote understanding and dismantle stereotypes. “I Am Inuit,” a book of portraits from Alaska, marks the project’s first stage.
While Adams hasn’t worked commercial fishing, it’s a tradition in his own family. “My grandpa was a commercial fishermen,” he says, and most in his family have had a stint as crew.
But Adams can recall a day from his boyhood that lives on in family memory. His squirms and shrieks at the sight of a flopping fish he reeled in showed he might be better suited to a different life path.
“That’s when they decided not to let me into the family business,” he says
Nonetheless, Adams’ film photography was a natural fit for a story about the fishing culture in Bristol Bay, where people live and work amid lush open tundra, a seemingly limitless sea and Alaska’s fabled midnight sun.
“Alaskan summer light is exhausting because you can just keep going and it keeps getting better throughout the day,” Adams says. “You just get to a point where you’re just, like, I have to stop. I have to go to bed.”
Scroll for outtake photos that Adams took in Bristol Bay in July 2019. And read the magazine story, "Last Run," to learn more about the lives of the people in Naknek and the larger Bristol Bay region.