Dennis Witmer collection of Alaska as the Measure now open for research
Special Collections is pleased to announce that the Dennis Witmer collection of Alaska as the Measure (MSS PHOTO 0660) is open for research. The collection consists of the 75-plate photograph portfolio “Alaska as the Measure,” a digital version of the same portfolio, and a series of 41 digital artist books made by Witmer.
Dennis Witmer was a photographer of the American landscape, best known for his photographs of the Alaskan wilderness. Born to Mennonite farmers in 1957 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Witmer was an undergraduate in physics when he began making photographs. After earning his Ph.D. in materials science and working at Bell Labs in New Jersey, Witmer moved to Kotzebue, Alaska, in 1987, with his wife Rachel Brubaker, who worked as a wildlife biologist at the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. He remained in Alaska for almost 30 years, working as an engineer and professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, alongside his photographic career. Witmer passed away this February of pancreatic cancer.
While in Alaska, Witmer made photographs inspired by the vastness of the landscape. In an interview with Ben Huff of LENSCRATCH, he described how the wide, empty space of the tundra influenced his approach to photography: “...it takes a long time to learn to read the space, and figure out how to get it into a photograph. What I think I did learn from Robert Adams was his use of space—I think the space is the real subject of his work—skies and distant horizons—and I started going after the space.” (Adams, a photographer of the American West, encouraged Witmer’s career and later wrote the afterword to “Alaska as the Measure.”)
In his attempt to capture this sense of space, Witmer moved to ever-larger cameras. He worked particularly with 8x10 and 12x20 cameras, which changed his approach to composition. As he described in a 2021 blog post: “...with the 8×10 I could fill the frame with a single texture—or make a composition of layers from the foreground to the horizon. With the 12×20, I found that I often chose compositions where the left and right sides were almost different pictures, and the center of the frame often less important.” These large-format cameras made images with intricate detail, which helped convey the enormity of the Alaskan landscape, but also created logistical difficulties specific to the same Alaskan landscape; the 12x20 camera in particular was vulnerable to the high winds in Kotzebue, and the “inflatable darkroom” that he used to change film holders left him helplessly exposed to mosquitoes.
The portfolio “Alaska as the Measure” collects 75 ink-jet prints of the photographs Witmer made in Alaska between 1988 and 2009 with these methods. The photographs—at 20 x 24", physically quite large—capture close detail in the landscape of an Alaska that already looks different, due to human intervention and climate change. Researchers can request to view the physical portfolio in the Special Collections Reading Room, or view digital scans of the same works online in SearchWorks, Stanford's online catalog.
While “Alaska as the Measure” is a particular highlight, Witmer created 40 other digital artist books collecting his life’s work. The photography in these books spans about four decades and the entire United States. Witmer documented Alaskan highways, towns, and wilderness areas in every season, as well as Pennsylvanian subjects ranging from Philadelphia’s Center City to suburban tract development to rural forests. (As a bike rider, I particularly loved “The Road I Was On,” which documents Witmer’s cross-country journey by bike.) Researchers can see metadata about these books in SearchWorks, but access to the book files themselves is only available at a workstation in the Special Collections Reading Room; to request access to these files, please contact email@example.com.
As of May 2, 2022, the Department of Special Collections has reopened to all outside researchers. For more information on how to access and use our collections, please see this page.