Northern Exposure — Four&Sons

Northern Exposure

Photographer Chris Gibbs’ poignant black-and-white series, Dog Musher, documents Allen Lau as he raises future sled dogs in the wilds of Alaska.


Northern Exposure

Alaska is an unforgiving place. In its bowels are the wilds of poisonous flora and predacious fauna. On its fringe, ice behemoths fracture and are engulfed by the Pacific. But it’s where British expat Chris Gibbs called home for nearly two decades.

“Alaska is a hard place to get along in,” Gibbs admits. “From a photographer’s perspective, there are a bunch of interesting folks living up here. The problem is they just want to be left alone, off the radar, so it’s tough to break the ice.” The subject of Gibbs’ poignant series Dog Musher, Allen Lau, indeed lives off the beaten path—in Butte, a whistle-stop at the bank of the Matanuska River. And it’s there, in a tumbledown shack, that Gibbs spent three years documenting the 58-year-old Lau’s dream to qualify for the Iditarod.

Every spring since 1973, intrepid mushers and their sled dogs embark on the iconic Last Great Race from Anchorage to Nome. Not Lau, who has been mobilising his team one puppy at a time—the progeny of his huskies Alaska and Quigley. “Those dogs are the most important things in his life,” says Gibbs. “I know it sounds strange, but maybe for him, the Iditarod is about showing people how proud he is of his achievements. He is genuinely chuffed to bits with his dogs, like a parent with a newborn child.”

The photographs in Dog Musher are at once heart-warming and heart-breaking. Gibbs captures a grizzled man cradling snow-white puppies in blackened hands. As seasons change, the growing litter clusters near a smoking furnace to melt frost from their fur while veteran sled dogs, tethered to ramshackle houses, laze in the shadowy daybreak after a night run. The rare photographs shot in color reveal the icy blue eyes of both man and dog. “I think black-and-white images get us a little closer to the core of our subjects—they’re stripped down to their basic essence,” Gibbs says nostalgically. “I view life in shades of grey. [In Dog Musher], I have many images that show the crueler side of nature. But whenever [Lau] or I were thinking, ‘I could do without all this right now,’ we would say, ‘It’s all about the dogs…’”

The photographer has a newfound regard for the Iditarod, an event that dog lovers outside Alaska have cast aspersions on. “My time in Alaska has taught me that dogs are pack animals. They thrive within their hierarchical structures…no differently than us humans, really.” Gibbs adds, “Writer Robert Byrne once said: ‘The purpose of life is a life of purpose.’ Watch a sled dog in harness—it’s poetry in motion.”

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