Depicting monumental ruins and nature at its most sublime, the work of Lynn Davis echoes the stark imagery of early American landscape photography. After years spent traveling in Africa and Asia, Davis brings her vision closer to home with a series devoted to totem poles. Here she talks about her journey in southern Alaska
Lynn Davis

For years I'd been planning to take pictures in North America again. I'd heard about the totem pole villages in Sitka and Ketchikan, in Alaska, but then I went to the Seattle Art Museum and saw its totem pole collection. That's what really got me going.

For me, these photographs of totem poles are a continuation of the kinds of pictures I've been taking around the world—the temples in Burma and Cambodia, the minarets in Yemen, the tombs in Syria and the Sudan, the icebergs in Greenland. They have an imposing, minimal quality that I'm drawn to. They just seemed like a natural subject for me.

I went to two totem parks (Totem Bight State Park and Saxman), and also to Metlakatla on Annette Island, a very small island where the poles are still in their natural environment. Some of them are in people's back yards, and there's even one in a senior citizens' center—just sitting there. I really liked that. But most of Alaska's totem poles are in totem parks. In 1938, the U.S. government duplicated a lot of totems that were in abandoned villages and created parks for them. (Local artists continue to make new totems for the parks, and the old ones are periodically repainted.) The government was able to preserve some of the totem poles, even though doing so is very artificial. They're supposed to decay, like Bhutanese prayer flags, which are hung outside and allowed to fray. I guess the life span of a totem pole is about 70 years—about the life span of a human being.

It's true that some parks have become rather touristy. When I was there, Saxman was overflowing with tour-bus traffic. It was a little annoying to be there with all those people. Totem Bight State Park was completely deserted, and that was great. On the whole, the parks were better than I thought they'd be, even if they can't actually re-create the village setting.

Village houses once looked much like the Tlingit house shown on 's, when native peoples still lived on the islands in large numbers, their houses faced the sea, and the totem poles were lined up out front. Enormous artistic effort was put into them; they functioned as commemorative monuments or sometimes simply represented a particular clan. They created an atmosphere that's been gone for a long time.

Even on Annette Island, which is touted as "authentic," the villages look completely different from the way they do in old photographs. I made the totem poles on the island look a little grander than they actually are. Some of them are only my height.

One of the odd things about Alaska is that, even though it's part of America, everything is a little off—the modern architecture, the food, the hotels. It's harder to get into than other places, not as immediately seductive, unless you're a fisherman or a nature lover. And I have to admit that I found the native culture rather opaque. You can distinguish what each part of a pole represents—a raven, a wolf, a bear, someone's ancestors—but it's hard to put it all together. Still, you can appreciate the poles without fully understanding the stories.

I loved looking at pictures of the old villages, at how totem poles were photographed at the end of the 19th century. The American photographer Edward S. Curtis, who did that famous series on North American Indians, also took some pictures in Alaska, but most of the images that remain of that period are documentary. The photographers were often working on commission—they would fund their work by getting, say, 100 people to agree to buy pictures of their journey. In a sense, I feel as if I've done the same thing for years, by getting private collectors to take risks.

And like those early photographers, I love to immerse myself in other cultures, other places. For the last five years, I was working in Yemen and Burma and in Africa, so I was used to sunny days; I geared a lot of my photography to that light. In Alaska it rained most of the time. After I adjusted to the weather, I decided to use that steamy gray-green look. In the end, I found it very beautiful.

The Facts
The totem parks and the poles in Metlakatla, Annette Island, can be visited year-round and can be reached easily by plane.
Saxman Native Village and Totem Park S. Tongass Hwy., Saxman; 907/225-4846.
Totem Bight State Park Milepost 10 N, Tongass Hwy., Ketchikan; 907/247-8574.