Review: The Last Days of Shishmaref by Dana Lixenberg


Book Reviews, Photobooks

Lixenberg_Shishmaref.jpg The other day, the current governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, criticizing President Obama’s cap-and-trade energy plan. The article contained the usual nonsense that Republican politicians have been peddling for quite a while now, and as John Kerry noted, the piece focused “on everything but the single grave challenge that forms the basis of all of our actions: the crisis of global climate change.” Of course, most Republicans either don’t believe that global climate change (aka global warming) exists at all or that it is the result of human industrial activity, and regardless they usually don’t bother dealing with actual facts. It would be rather straightforward for Governor Palin to see the effects of global warming in her home state of Alaska.

In 2003, the US General Accounting Office reported that 184 villages in Alaska are facing problems with flooding or erosion. One of those is called Shishmaref, situated about 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle. In the past, Shishmaref owed its existence to the permafrost, so that coastal erosion was firmly under control. Over the last 30 years, Alaska’s average temperatures have gone up by four degrees. Now Shishmaref is in trouble. These facts were taken from Dana Lixenberg’s The Last Days of Shishmaref, a portrait of the little village that is now slowly being eaten by the sea. The village is home to about 600 Inupiaq people, who are going to lose their homes.

In 2007, filmmaker Jan Louter invited the photographer to come along to Shishmaref. The result of the work can be seen in the form of a documentary film and as the book The Last Days of Shishmaref. For this work, Lixenberg used a 4x5 camera, to shoot landscapes, still lifes and portraits - each of them done equally well. In such a case, it is always a bit unfair to pick just one, but her portraits are amongst the finest I have seen in a while, with an intensity and beauty that is rare in such work. Of course, there are still lives and landscapes that match that quality. I only wish the book was a little bit bigger. Some of the landscapes - scenes from around the village, with what appear to be almost infinite amounts of clutter and debris - could have benefited from a larger size.

Unlike most other photography books, which come with some sort of introduction, a bunch of photographs, and then a short statement plus acknowledgements by the photographers (a somewhat tiring format, isn’t it?), The Last Days of Shishmaref alternates photography sections with sections of text that provide some context. So you can treat the book not “just” as a photography book, but you can also learn something about what is actually going on, what is causing the little village to disappear into the sea. I can’t think of a better way to approach the subject matter.

The Last Days of Shishmaref was published last year, and somehow I missed it. I am glad that I found it on a recent trip to New York City, because it is one of those books that I will be coming back to often. It is the kind of book that belongs onto the book shelves of any serious collector and anyone who appreciates contemporary photography for what it does and for how it does that. A stunning achievement.