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Epic Alaskan Photography by the Iconic Carl Johnson

Epic Alaskan Photography by the Iconic Carl Johnson

James Sullivan

Navy vet, lawyer and Alaskan photography purveyor Carl Johnson is living his Arctic Dream

Carl Johnson loves Alaskan photography. He’s a jovial character. He talks fast and covers a lot of ground. After speaking with him for 30 minutes it’s clear why he’s able to take so many photos from across Alaska and around the world. He’s alive with energy and a passion for life.

A Navy veteran, a wildlife enthusiast, a lawyer, business owner and photographer, Carl Johnson is not your typical renaissance man. He’s the Alaska version. Based in Anchorage where the city meets the sea at the foot of the Alaska Range. Johnson has carved out an interesting mid-life career as a gallery owner, an Alaskan tour guide, and capturer of some of Alaska’s most stunning natural scenes.

A quick scroll through his website, ArcticLight-AK.com makes obvious his talent and love of the Alaskan outdoors. We connected with Carl as part of our coverage of Alaskan artists to learn his story of how he became a photographer and how Alaskan photography become his life.

Q&A – Carl Johnson – Alaskan Photography

Carl Johnson selfie
Carl Johnson selfie. Photo courtesy Carl Johnson / Arctic Light

AF | Tell us a bit of your backstory.

My early artistic pursuit was actually in drawing. That was what I did principally through junior high and high school. In high school, I started to get more into photography. About a year after high school I joined the Navy. On the first ship I served on, I took the opportunity to volunteer as the ship’s photographer. And then again on the second ship I served on. And that’s when I got my first formal training in photography.

Mushing, North Fork
Mushing, North Fork – I spent a few days with a National Park Service ranger and his dog team setting up a base camp in Gates of the Arctic National Park, to help prepare for their winter artist-in-residence. One evening as we mushed back to our base camp, I decided to capture an image from within the sled showing the motion of moving on the ice down river. This image received an Honorable Mention in the Wilderness Forever competition sponsored by Nature’s Best Photography magazine in 2014. Photo courtesy Carl Johnson / Arctic Light

AF | Wow, so the U.S. Government taught you how to shoot photos?

Hah, well, my actual job with the Navy was a radar and tactical data systems operator, but because of my photography background from high school, when I heard that they were looking for somebody to volunteer to serve as a ship’s photographer, as a collateral duty in addition to their regular job, I jumped on it. And actually, though my ship was home-ported in Guam, they flew me to Japan, to a Navy base up there, to go to a specific photography course.

AF | What kind of photos were you taking with the Navy?

Primarily it was photo-journalistic style, documenting shipboard events: life on the ship, ports of call, visiting officers, things like that.

Moon Over City
Moon Over City – A full moon rises over the Chugach Mountains and the Anchorage downtown skyline shortly after sunset in February. Photo courtesy Carl Johnson / Arctic Light

AF | What happened after the Navy?

After the Navy I didn’t consider photography as a career option, but it remained a growing passion. So I went to college and I took a couple of photography classes, but majored in political science, because from my time in the Navy, I had an interest in foreign policy and politics.

After graduating, I took a couple of years to work as a wilderness guide in Northern Minnesota. That’s when I really started getting more into photography as an art, since I had this amazing opportunity to interact with and document wildlife and landscapes.

Lone Wolf.
Lone Wolf. Photo courtesy Carl Johnson / Arctic Light

Is that what inspired you to pursue Alaskan photography?

Well, actually, I then decided to return to the Twin Cities to go to law school. But even in law school, especially during the summers, I began doing paid photography work such as sports action photography. Indirectly, though, law school did lead me to Alaska.

I was looking for places where I could practice after law school. I had a friend who lived in Seattle that I had visited. He showed me around Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula, Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, etc. I just fell in love with the idea of living in a city on the coast, near mountains and wilderness. So after some research I found Anchorage because it had a smaller population but it was on the coast, near mountains and wilderness. So I interviewed for jobs over the phone that were law-related, got hired over the phone, bought a one way ticket. That was my first time being in Alaska, when I moved up there for work.

Train over Knik
Train over Knik – Aerial view of Alaska Railroad passenger train crossing one of the channels of the Knik River near Palmer, Alaska. Photo courtesy Carl Johnson / Arctic Light

AF | Wow that’s a wild story. So how did you go from being a lawyer to pursing Alaskan photography?

So I practiced law for about 10 years, but during that time I established my first photography business. And again, I was doing the kind of work that would generate revenue. I did portraits, weddings, sports, commercial work, etc. Eventually, I decided to focus on what I love the most, which was nature photography and figured out what I could do to generate revenue from that.

So I then opened a small gallery in downtown Anchorage, which I maintained while also practicing full time as an attorney. I also did a National Parks artists residency in 2007 while I was still practicing law. I did two more artist residencies in 2009 while I was still practicing law. Finally, I left the practice of law in 2010, but I still kept a day job doing policy work for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Drift Boats, Dillingham Harbor
Drift Boats, Dillingham Harbor – During my first visit to Dillingham for work on my Bristol Bay book, Where Water is Gold, I happened to visit the small boat harbor during one of the periods where commercial fishing was not open. A lot of boats were in as skippers and crew waited for the next opener, and I took the chance to capture this midnight image of the calm quiet before the next fishing storm. Photo courtesy Carl Johnson / Arctic Light

AF | Is that when you really began to focus on Alaskan photography landscapes and such?

Well, I spent five years after 2010 doing field work to do my first book, a photography book about the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. Then I started to expand into doing workshops and tours around, I’d say probably about 2014. I’d always loved teaching and helping others so fast forward to 2019 and my wife and I purchased an existing tourism business called ALASKA PHOTO TREKS. It was established in 2013 and the emphasis is photo instruction in the field through day tours. So we do four-hour tours, six-hour tours, and a full-day photo workshops. It was a great opportunity to leave behind the full time day job also while trying to be a photographer.

Moonrise Over Dock
Moonrise Over Dock – I awoke to the sound of someone knocking at my window. It was 2:00 a.m., and I was staying at a dry guest cabin at a homestead on the shores of Lake Clark. One of my hosts was at the window, pointing to the sky behind her. The full moon was rising over the Chigmit Mountains, and I rushed to dress, grab my camera gear, and head out. The dock was destroyed in a wind storm a couple years later. Photo courtesy Carl Johnson / Arctic Light

AF | So how is it being an Artist in Alaska, generally?

Alaska has a tremendous wealth of artists and unending sources of inspiration for art in Alaska. I think it’s kind of a combination of two things; with the kind of people who live here and then also the natural backdrop at your doorstep. There are also a lot of places where you can go and meet to be with artists; lots of co-op galleries all over the place, etc.

In addition, Alaska is a great place to grow and develop as an artist, but particularly as a photographer, because unlike most places, like if you’re going to some famous places in the lower 48, like Arches or Yosemite or Yellowstone, there are these kinds of high photographed, canned shots that everybody is going to locations to do. Whereas in Alaska there is a lot of opportunity to be fresh and creative and new and come up with a personal style and to come up with images that nobody else has.

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Winter Camp
Winter Camp – Nighttime view of a base camp on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River in Gates of the Arctic National Park, with dog sled and ski plane, and headlamps lighting the interior of the Arctic Oven tent. Photo courtesy Carl Johnson / Arctic Light

AF | Do you have any tips for others interested in making photography a career?

I get asked to come and speak at career days for schools about photography. I emphasize that in order to have a career in photography you don’t necessarily need to go to a photography school or major in photography. And if you look at some of the top name, internationally recognized nature, photographers, not a single one of them has a degree in photography.

For example, if you want to be a wildlife photographer the best path to that is to get a degree in wildlife biology and to work as a field biologist because in order to be a really effective wildlife photographer, you have to be a naturalist. You have to understand wildlife, their habits, their behaviors, their habitats, etc. Not to mention you have a perfect opportunity to go out into the field and take pictures of these animals.

Dipneting by Aurora
Dipneting by Aurora – A group of hooligan dipnetters at the mouth of the Twenty Mile River, Chugach National Forest, enjoy working hard under a treat of a late-season Aurora Borealis. Photo courtesy Carl Johnson / Arctic Light

AF | What are some of your upcoming projects?

I have this kind of broader concept of documenting the landscapes and the way of life in the circumpolar Arctic. So that means going to all of the Arctic countries: Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Canada, Greenland (part of Denmark), and of course, parts of Alaska.

The quality of light and the landscapes of the far Northern part of the planet are so interesting and fascinating and unique that they are worth spending time documenting (in summer and winter). But the other part is the way of life, the people who live in the Arctic and how they’ve adapted to living in those conditions and that there are these multi-national ways of life that cross boundaries like dog mushing and reindeer herding, and subsistence hunting and fishing that are all parts of the way of life in the far North.

I also will want to put together a book just highlighting Aurora Borealis photography and all of the Arctic countries. And then do a separate book about the landscapes and the light itself, and then whatever else comes out of it. Who knows? There’s so much to do I’m going to be busy for a long time!

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