Fairbanks photographer James H. Barker, who is well known for his extensive work among Alaska Native peoples, is being honored as the Rasmuson Foundation’s 2022 Distinguished Artist.
The award, announced Friday, May 20, includes $40,000, and honors a lifetime of creative excellence and outstanding contribution to the state’s arts and culture. Barker is the 19th Alaskan named by the foundation as a distinguished artist and the first photographer to receive the award.
“His photographs are visual vignettes, capturing intimate moments that we normally never get to share. But whether he takes us to a seal hunt on the Bering Sea or a research trip to Antarctica, he finds beauty and reveals something universal in us all,” said Diane Kaplan, Rasmuson Foundation president and chief executive officer.
Barker grew up in Pullman, Washington, studied photography at the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles, then returned to work as a research photographer at Washington State University. Outside of his day job he chose to photograph people.
At San Francisco State College, he studied anthropology, learning 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.
Barker came to Alaska for the first time in the winter of 1970, visiting his brother in Bethel. Three years later he returned to do a photography project for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., and stayed. Barker’s extensive portfolio from Southwest Alaska forms the heart of his body of work.
He has photographed almost everything he participated in, from steam bathing to Russian Orthodox Slaviq to salmon processing and public meetings.
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.
Barker has twice been accepted into the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program and his photos have long been exhibited at McMurdo Station. His 1965 photos of the historic civil rights march to Montgomery, Alabama, landed in the Rosa Parks Museum and the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York City.