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James Barker named Distinguished Artist

James Barker with camera
Pat Race
/
Rasmuson Foundation

Fairbanksan Jim Barker is recognized for his body of work. He is best known as an ethnographic photographer, embedding himself in a community or family to reveal their humanity.

https://www.rasmuson.org/arts/individual-artist-awards/distinguished-artists/#2022

The annual statewide honor is a tradition of the Rasmuson Foundation and is reserved for mature artists with an extensive body of creative work. That certainly describes Jim Barker, whose photographs have been shown around Alaska for decades.

“He almost never uses telephoto lenses because he said when he photographed people, he wanted to be what he called present in their world,” Woodward said.

Painter Kesler Woodward of Fairbanks is also a Rasmuson Distinguished Artist. He spoke of Barker’s influential work in Bethel – pictures of everyday life in the village.

“What I remember best is his telling me that what he hoped to capture was his respect, his wonder at the strength and ingenuity of the people he had come to know in that community” said Woodward.

Jim Barker and his wife Robin, were interviewed for the presentation and he explained why they produced a book from those Bethel photographs called “Always Getting Ready, Yup’ik Subsistence in Southwest Alaska.”

“I was interviewing a friend and she said, ‘you know, we are always getting ready. We're always getting ready to go fishing, getting ready to go hunting.’ You know, it was just a constant preparation for whatever was going to come. Always getting ready.”

“The late Mary Pete wrote this about me: ‘When he worked among us, he did seem to immerse himself -- to be everywhere without getting in the way. His unobtrusive style showed in the photographs in his work. He captured Yup’iks, unabashedly, being Yup’iks’.”

Now, Barker is non-Native, and his body of work was kind of a watershed event in the depiction of Native Alaskans by non-Native artists. Barker is the first photographer to be a Rasmuson Distinguished Artist.

“This has been a considerable surprise to me, to us. Generally, I've been kind of a quiet worker, carefully studying the accuracy and effects, the photographs that I take and the books that I made. I'm not used to having the Klieg lights on me. I'm used to turning the lights on others,” Barker said.

In the award presentation, the Foundation also featured his pictures of civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama; migrant farm workers in his home state of Washington; a family living on welfare in Marin County, California; Antarctic scientists maneuvering equipment on sea ice; and family and friends in Fairbanks laughing over the dinner table.

The award comes with a $40,000 prize. Rasmuson Foundation CEO, Diane Kaplan, said “having an arts and culture, spirit, vision, and life in Alaska is critical to being a great state.”

“Not everyone's an athlete, not every kid is a mathematician. A lot of people find their voice and their future through the arts. The distinguished artists support is a moment of intentionality to focus on the arts and Alaska and the individuals who have spent their life contributing to,” Kaplan said.

Nominations for the 2023 Distinguished Artist open on Oct. 1.