• Local photojournalist spans 30 years of shooting Alaska in new book
By Naomi Klouda
The public is invited to attend a talk and book signing by Photojournalist Jim Lavrakas from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Kachemak Bay Campus.
Lavrakas was an Anchorage Daily News staff photographer for 30 years. His memoir is the photographic journey that took him from his early days in the late 1970s Anchorage to an award-winning news photographer who shared in a Pulitzer Prize. He started out as an ambulance chaser, responding to crashes, fires and crime scenes and ended up in the front row of all the major events unfolding in the 1980s through his retirement in 2008. Over his three decades at the newspaper, his assignments encompassed an astonishing diversity of news, northern people, remote places, and wilderness lifestyles.
Images in “Snap Decisions: My 30 Years as an Alaska News Photographer” evokes strands of emotions one would be hard-pressed to express in a single summary. One photograph depicts an uncovered homeless in the snow. Another is Capt. Joe Hazelwood, the culprit behind Alaska’s worst oil spill disaster from the 1989 Exxon crash. Though accompanying narratives are kept brief, the pages speak volumes, making true the saying a photo speaks 1,000 words.
Yet, a second striking realization is that for Lavrakas, the journey to becoming a great photographer went with a parallel quest enlarging his human compassion. He takes time not only to photograph, but to care about his subjects. The man lying in the open park uncovered in the snow was cared for by paramedics Lavrakas called first – then he shot the photo.
His editor, Richard Murphy, tells us in the foreword about an intuitive photographer whose hunches when he heard a scanner call were generally spot on. More than his ability to chase breaking news, however, Murphy writes, “He relates to the people across the social spectrum from governors to street people, but he has a particular sensitivity for the common man. Jim cares, and people sense that.”
Like Alaska’s larger-than-life outdoor world, Lavrakas’ pages also burst rich with nature and wildlife, the Iditarod, weird fish, iconic sports like snowshoeing and Alaska Natives in traditional dress.
In the photo selection process, Lavrakas and editor Murphy chose from 250 photos out of thousands of images taken across the decades. The Daily News owns the images, but allowed Lavrakas free access to use which ever ones he needed. Much of it was the old-fashioned black and whites developed from film in the newspaper’s darkroom. Later, they would all be digital images. Either way, it was an arduous selection process that took months and then a final paring down to the 160 that won places on the pages.
Snap Decisions might be mistaken for a coffee table companion, something to browse through while awaiting a phone call. But its journey through 30 years is more powerful than mere pictures on pages. One would quickly forget the awaited phone call, getting lost in the pages.
The 151-page book was funded in part through a Kickstarter Campaign. This is a new Internet-based fundraising tool that allows donations to be made online. In return for investing in the artist, donors are given a copy of the book or album, owning a piece of the product created by the person they are supporting.
In Lavrakas’ case, 289 contributors helped raise funding for the expensive printing of the book. Each person gave $75 or $150. He set out with a goal of $6,000 and ended with $14,726. It cost about $18,000 to produce the book and a first run of 2,000 copies.
Putting Snap Decisions together helped Lavrakas review and synthesize the work of his many years in the newspaper business. Near the end of his career, newspapers were in dire financial struggles. He had already witnessed the end of the Anchorage Times, an adversary Lavrakas said he enjoyed competing with and afterwards missed.
Yet, he leaves on an unsentimental note: “Gone were the budgets for trips across the state. Now, even a road trip to Girdwood cruising for feature photos needed advance approval,” he writes. “In October 2008, I left the newspaper business after over 30 years. It was time to go – the glory days were over.”
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