Piling into an SUV with his family and cat for the two-week move to Homer from Washington, D.C., in November of 2020, filmmaker and photographer Rafael de la Uz saw an opportunity to reset. After devoting much of his career to cinematography, in his new home, de la Uz turned the isolation of the pandemic into an opportunity to pursue his photography.
His photo collection, “Homer’s Nutcracker,” is now on display at the Pratt Museum, along with an exhibition titled “Native Ways in Changing Times,” by photographer Lisa Williams, drawn from five years of visits to the communities of Port Graham and Nanwalek.
The museum’s executive director Jennifer Gibbins explained that the new exhibits explore “change and how we adapt, and the ability to come together as communities and persevere.”
Homer’s strong community was something that de la Uz noticed right away as devoted volunteers and young performers started rehearsing for Homer’s Nutcracker last October. With his own young daughter participating in the show for the first time, de la Uz was struck by how gracefully the older performers stepped in to help with cues and instructions.
“I knew that this was a community effort,” he said. “I was really impressed by the level of professionalism and dedication.”
Yet de la Uz didn’t want to focus on the final polished performance. “My story was about a bunch of kids pulling a town together,” he said, documenting the two-month journey to produce the show. In spite of the complications that COVID-19 presented, de la Uz said he was amazed with the consistently upbeat attitudes of the performers, parents and volunteers.
It was that sense of passion — and what de la Uz called “the dignity of the job” — that he set out to capture. Though he got his start with photography growing up in Cuba, de la Uz has spent much of the past two decades working in film in Europe and New York, so approaching this project came with the novel challenge of working without sound.
De la Uz said he really enjoyed figuring out “how to tell the story with just images.” Paring down his more than 15,000 images to roughly 40 black-and-white prints, this exhibition offers a stirring experience of the “deep, deep, work behind the Nutcracker,” he said — and its inherent joy.
De la Uz wanted to make sure that the exhibition was inclusive, so there is also a slideshow of dozens of color images from behind the scenes and the December performances. Some of the prints are deliberately hung lower, while others are matted rather than framed behind glass, he said, to make the whole exhibition feel less formal and more accessible to kids.
He said he hopes that when kids from the Homer Nutcracker see the photos they will look and “remember, just for a moment, they were right there.”
“Native Ways in Changing Times”
Photographer Lisa Williams presents another collection of images that preserve vivid moments from her time in the communities of Port Graham and Nanwalek. These images celebrate the resilience of these communities, and as Williams writes in her artist statement, challenge viewers to “explore other ways of knowing.”
With an education background in visual anthropology, social documentation and social justice issues, the California resident said that she has “always been drawn to a visual interpretation of things.” In Alaska, she was interested in learning about the continuing impacts of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and sharing the story of how, in spite of the challenges the spill caused, these two communities were “thriving and still maintaining their culture and way of life,” she said.
Williams said she was “keenly aware and sensitive of being an outsider and coming in,” and focused on “really being open to listening and seeing things from another perspective.” Over the course of numerous visits between 2005 and 2010, Williams recorded extensive oral histories, and ultimately took 1,500 pictures with a film camera.
An important component of this project was “about contributing back to the community,” Williams said, so part of her process was printing photos in her darkroom in California, and then bringing them back to the community to ask how people felt about them.
“I felt very strongly that I wanted them to have a say in the photographs,” she said, and wanted there to be a “common ground and equality in forming the project.”
As a result of having those conversations, Williams said she learned to see new stories and significance in her photographs. She recalls sharing a close-up picture of salmon roe with a woman in Port Graham, who said that in addition to being a beautiful image, it was a reminder that spring was coming, and the salmon would return. For Williams, these kinds of interactions show how “culture can tell stories in a photograph.”
A good photograph is about more than being dynamic, Williams said — she looks “for the subtleties in an image.” For example, Williams captured an intimate moment of a grandmother listening to her grandson tell a fish story with his hands held wide.
You can see how “keenly interested the grandmother is in the story,” Williams said. “And that talks about the relationship they have.”
That connection to the environment and the strong sense of community is a central focus of Williams’ photo exhibition. As a way to express her gratitude, she framed a collection of the prints for each community’s cultural center.
As part of the exhibition of Williams’ black-and-white prints, Marilyn Sigman, the author of the book “Entangled: People and Ecological Change in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay,” assembled naturalist displays considering changes in the region’s ecosystems.
A third photo exhibition by filmmaker and photographer Sky Bergman is titled “Lives Well Lived: Celebrating the Secrets, Wit and Wisdom of Age.” These portraits offer an optimistic glimpse of “3,000 years of collective experience,” Bergman writes, and “lessons about perseverance, [and] the human spirit.”
Together, these are bodies of work that explore challenges and change, said Gibbins, “an opportunity for reflection and celebration of community and resilience.”