Those Lower 48 reality TV shows are working too hard to invent their Alaskan Grizzly Adams when all they’d have to do is keep up with local photographer Calvin Hall and let his restless curiosity unfold under clear water with spawning red salmon, atop bare mountains with Dall rams, beneath a theater of stars with streaking comets.
Few other Alaskans seize the day and night as Hall does. For the masterful photograph, he wrings out all he can of Alaska— its shafts of light, its flight of swans, its depths of blue ice, its zigzag of dragonfly wings.
There he is leaping across collapsing ice in a cave of the Spencer Glacier only to come nose to wall with a 50-foot-high dead end. Here photography tools turn into Indiana Jones equipment as he must turn around and leap over water and the open ice hole again. He tries to pole vault across with his tripod, flinging his camera bag ahead as ballast for momentum, but ends up bobbing in glacial gray water, 100 feet deep, soaking his clothes, filling his boots.
Clambering back up on ice he runs, jumps across the hole, clutching an icy shelf just enough to wedge a foot into a crack. Then he walks out of the glacier’s maw, drives 12 miles on his snow machine to his truck as though nothing happened. “When I am in potentially dangerous situations I look for what is actually dangerous, and try to separate it from what is merely scary. Then I decide if the danger is worth the risk? Is it within my capabilities and experience?” Hall said.
His Playfulness is Creativity at Work
Out on the mudflats of Cook Inlet near Bird Point, there he is slopping across mud that suctions legs into cement casts. A ripping bore tide is approaching, its mouth wide open for swallowing. Several have died in this mud. “Reading the mud so you know what you are getting into is very important. Getting out of problem areas immediately is critical! Most people don't know they are in trouble until it’s too late,” Hall said. Where others might find risk, he finds intrigue. “There’s so many different surfaces,” Hall said. “Mud that liquefies, rubberizes, and the soft stuff like chocolate mousse.
Then there’s clay, the hard stuff.” Hall said the key is not wearing boots so you can feel your way out. “As your foot punches through, you stutter step out. If you don’t panic, you can get out.” Hall finds all kinds of “phenomenal textures” and “fascinating” stuff in the mud. He sees a mini Grand Canyon, with a thousand layers put down in a single year by the day’s four slack tides. As the water tumbles down the channels, floating in the last little trickle are flecks of fool’s gold—pyrite—a view to behold as he does permanently through the click of a shutter.
There’s been so much time spent in the woods, he’s immune to mosquito bites. A fluttery scab of them can roost near his eye as he jokes on camera that one day he’ll need bug dope. Though he’s ultra cautious and studious of what he calls transition zones, he’s somewhat immune to fear too. “I pick my places where I take risk,” he said.
His playfulness is creativity at work. In selected spots, he hatchets holes in lake ice, leans to the side and ignites a gush of released methane into a 10-foot torch, and of course captures it in video. His next adventure will be videoing himself as he breaks through a platform of one-inch ice and makes it out, splayed out skillfully like an Alaska water strider.
"I’m constantly composing a shot, cataloguing locations..." Calvin Hall
Curiosity is his fuel. “I can wear out company. I’m constantly composing a shot, cataloguing locations of where flowers bloom, clouds battle, and when color changes in a currant leaf,” Hall said. Moonrises, tides, sunlight angles are steady companions. “When I'm with someone and we run across a patch of flowers, most people see "pretty flowers," I see the color, quality, location, texture, the flower patch as a whole, as individuals, groupings in patterns, the plants around it, mountains or trees behind it, I'm looking at the whole scene three dimensionally composing shots or potential shots, from close-up details to the patch as foreground or an accent to a forest or mountain scene. Then there's the whole world of the lighting to be evaluated!”
He is adaptable. Up on a mountain, in the Eklutna Valley, dressed in white cotton, his face draped in gauze, he bobs his head like a non-threatening ewe, plucks at alpine grass on a steep ridge and entrusts eight rams with his wooly membership card as they hoof, single file, right toward him and his bow and arrow.
Aurora and tent, blood moon, tornado effect cloud over Pioneer Peak. Music by Stefan Hinman. Text by Patty Sullivan.
He lives his craft. In a tank of a coat and black military bunny boots, he lays in wait hunting through his lens the collision of earthly atoms and electrons caused by the invading blast of solar wind. If there’s an aurora tonight, you can bet Hall will be in the right spot at 2 am in the crunchy, snow sparkle of deep cold, his tripod and camera pre-focused on a mountain back with the aurora streaking upwards, cutting open the night with soaring spirits of neon green, its coronas cracking apart in a dissolving firecracker crown of red, purple, white, green. Next day, he thrills his 600+ facebook friends with his digital catch.
They’re lucky for the private viewing. His images have dazzled paying audiences in the National Geographic production “Electropolis” and in IMAX theaters including the Smithsonian Air & Space IMAX 3D theater as well as in a single night at Google’s Zeitgeist show in the world’s largest projection dome in Mountain View, CA.
“The depth of field is insane from inches to infinity" Calvin Hall
Grabbing a vast width, he shoots with an 8mm lens. “The depth of field is insane from inches to infinity. The problem is the bugs walking around, showing up on film.” Hall said. He shoots timelapse in nearly 6K, 6,000 horizontal lines of resolution. TVs are coming out now in 4K, where there’s four times as much data and fine detail in the picture than in high definition, what we thought was crystal clear yesterday. He also shoots in 3D. His work is in the NASA supported production “Space Junk 3D,” for which he spent the night playing inside a meteor crater in Arizona, and in New Mexico aiming upward at the glinting Milky Way. The work won Grand Prize at the Paris 3D Film Festival.
In “3D Sun,” Hall’s auroras have folded and unfolded their curtains of light on giant screens across the U.S. The work earned Best Nature Documentary at the very first 3D Film Festival in Hollywood. His images of Northern Lights and the frozen Knik River Valley at the feet of Pioneer Peak appear in “Titans of the Ice Age,” shown in science museum IMAX theaters.
Hall has all kinds of projects in the works. Until then he saturates himself in the North, filling up his terabyte hard drives with pure Alaska.
See his timelapse: the tide at Port MacKenzie with working ship.
See more glimpses of his work at
Calvin Hall is one of several professional photographers in the Mat-Su Borough.