It’s been quite a journey for the Anchorage entrepreneur and father of three, one marked by mentors and timely nudges. It began when he, Bob Kaufman, a Boston consultant, in the spring of 1986 accepted a colleague’s invitation to climb Mt. McKinley, today again called Denali. 

Living five weeks in a tent, watching 2 a.m. alpenglow dab peaks, and hearing avalanches freight train down icy slopes, the novice alpinist, who turned 25 the day before summiting, was hooked. The venture, “arduous—but strangely liberating,” instilled a sense of freedom, which left him craving more. He redeemed frequent-flyer miles two years later and with a Nikon and 200 film rolls embarked on a jaunt meant to last a whole year. Three months in, homesickness overwhelmed the globetrotter perched on a Nepalese stone-fence. 

Still, Kaufman wanted this buzz, this rarefied air eagerly gulped, to be not the exception but the tenor of his existence. Four years after McKinley, he moved to Alaska where he started a media company and eventually a family. Hiking for weeks, he gathered stills advertisers quickly snatched up. From there, it was a small step to publishing guidebooks that showcase his photos, to designing a travel app, and to compiling the official state map and a painted Anchorage tourist map based upon aerial images. In 2019, Kaufman launched a fine-art photography site, and his portfolio—summits and ranges even hotshots seldom explore—truly ranks among the finest, not just in Alaska. The Midwest transplant, reviewing over three decades gone by, feels blessed “to fly in an hour to see natural wonders most people won’t see in a lifetime” and witness seasons advance in 10 minutes from lowland auburn to alpine white. 

The means to do so came through another stroke of luck. Seated at a Talkeetna picnic table in 1986, pre-climb, he was offered a free round-trip to the peak by a pilot checking the weather up high. Kaufman’s first eagle’s-eye view of McKinley triggered an urge to master solo-flightseeing. 

I do not see the world through my camera. Rather, it has led me to see the world.

So, he did.

Spires with sheer rock walls and lingering snow. A few fluffy clouds huddle at the base.
Tucked into the far southwest corner of Denali National Park lie the Kichatna Spires, a realm of vertical granite known only to a few ambitious climbers and wilderness adventurers. When I set off for the 90-minute helicopter flight one late summer day, I had no way of knowing what the weather or light conditions would be upon my arrival. What awaited me was some of the highest walls on earth draped in sublime clouds—what we call the “lingerie effect”—and it was exactly what I was hoping for. Composing images while flying a helicopter off sheer rock faces is both exhilarating and exacting. Everything came together in this image to show what I consider to be one of the most spectacular spots on the planet. Photo by Bob Kaufman.

Bob Kaufman in flight

He got his license at 50 and then a Cessna 182. “With the 182, I could stabilize the airplane and shoot while also piloting.” He installed a custom-built wing-camera mount for forward-facing exposures he centered by pressing foot pedals, adjusting the plane’s angles, and quickly became adept at reading high-elevation currents, notably lethal-elevator downdrafts. 

“The more I flew, the more I saw places I wanted to land,” says Kaufman, a gray-haired Chevy Chase of National Lampoon’s days. Two planes later, proud owner of a four-seat whirlybird, a fire engine-red “235-horsepower tripod,” he alights on islands, ridges, pinnacles, and crevassed glaciers. He thwaps in closely and slowly enough now to keep foregrounds focused. “The main drawback is you cannot take your hands off the controls when flying a helicopter.” Where four hands and eyes are needed, the go-getter enlists co-pilots. 

Winter landscape, partially frozen lake, glacier.
Colony Glacier above Lake George. A lot of pilots go to this lake, in both summer and winter. I took this in October. It’s an increasingly popular place for flightseeing and helicopter-based kayaking. Photo by Bob Kaufman.
Snow drapes a mountain top.
A peak off the Ruth Glacier in Denali National Park. Photo by Bob Kaufman.

Repeat photography

Chance sightings, pockets of fall colors or eccentric road signs lead this photographer to pet projects. Intrigued by 28-year-old Jasper Wyman who’d lugged hundreds of pounds of camera gear 15,000 miles from Illinois to Alaska’s interior and back, Kaufman in the summer of 1992 hiked a week by himself in the Brooks Range and paddled until his hands failed. He was trying to imitate a batch of Wyman’s 1898-99 Gold Rush glass-plate originals housed at the Anchorage Museum of which he had prints made. Wyman’s subjects and vision, foremost those stampeders’ faces, spoke to him. 

The tenderfoot re-created “exactly zero” Wyman compositions but gained something equally valuable. He realized what had lured both men north—opportunity and adventure. Writing home from the gold fields, Wyman had given advice still valid for the Alaska-bound, words his successor might endorse: “Tell inquiring friends who want to come to this country to bring their nerve with them and expect to take great chances.” 

A snow-covered mountain ridge
A snowy peak in the Ruth Glacier area. Photo by Bob Kaufman.

Kaufman, further seasoned, succeeded elsewhere, comparing repeat photography to “a detective mission,” which yielded reams of material for a book idea. Snow patterns on mountain flanks across Turnagain Arm unchanged in a century humbled the airborne gumshoe, as conversely did ghost towns having vanished and saplings grown up.

Photography is the art of the moment, and repeat-work evokes transience as much as it does constancy. “It’s hard for me to accept that these places won’t last forever. Untouched beauty is as ephemeral as life itself.” He thus grapples with his mortality.

Land ethic

Fittingly, Kaufman credits the climber and wilderness photographer Galen Rowell as an influence—the physics-student dropout sold his auto repair shop to fledge as a photographer and within a year snagged and completed a National Geographic assignment. He championed dynamic landscapes of fickle “sweet” light demanding the well-timed, often athletic pursuit of optimal camera positions, an aesthetic and method Rowell described in his book Mountain Light, which Kaufman embraced. In 2002, homeward-bound from a Bering Sea photo trip, Rowell, his wife, the pilot, and another woman died on their approach to the Eastern Sierra town Bishop. Rowell, Kaufman writes, “gave language to desires similar to those that were driving me. [Mountain Light] ignited my lifelong pursuit of the art… Galen helped me understand that my obsession with photography did not interfere with my experience of wilderness, but rather enhanced it.” Through reading and workshops, Kaufman learned “to take advantage of the properties of film to produce a more powerful image than what the eye saw.” He routinely revisits places for long-term perspectives and to improve skills.

Modeling his land ethics, too, on Rowell’s, Kaufman supports The Nature Conservancy and The Alaska Conservation Foundation. Many pristine destinations are “only one commodity price cycle away from being developed,” and he frets, not merely apropos of photography, about acceptable technology.  

Very acceptable is one of the most advanced camera systems, which captures immersive details in wide-angle shots—grass blades, rock textures, dew drops on moss—though, weighing eight pounds, “it’s a lot to hold while leaning out of a flying helicopter.”

Pools of water scattered on a green landscape
One of Alaska’s natural wonders, permafrost is ground that remains frozen year-round, sometimes thousands of feet deep. In summer, it provides a frozen floor above which water can pool, birds gather, wildflowers flourish, and the land comes alive. As its surface layer thaws and refreezes season after season, the permafrost rumples and morphs the surrounding earth. It etches patterns on the landscape that can often be seen only from the air. This undulating patch of bog, which lies in the wilderness 50 miles west of Anchorage, shows nature’s artful hand. Photo by Bob Kaufman.

Chasing the sublime

This de Saint-Exupéry of landscape photography loves engaging mystery face to face, rough-hewn tectonic shrines thousands of feet above valley floors. Big walls draw him, the Kichatna Spires, the Ruth Amphitheater’s Great Gorge with its mile-high granite cliffs, prime among Earth’s mind-bending sights.

On a typical Kaufman backcountry day, the chopper’s door is off. It’s five degrees outside; his fingers are freezing. When he glances down at the skids, he sees a mile of air between them and the glacier below. Wind is roaring through the cockpit.

“Bob,” a co-pilot once prodded, “you do realize, don’t you, that this is an insane way to make art?” Bob feels safe in one of the world’s most demanding aviation environments because, willing to pass up even stunners like Rowell’s Last Light on Horsetail Fall if doubt rises, he never gets in over his head. His kids on occasion have joined Kaufman, a different sort of helicopter parent, to romp in pajamas in bear neighborhoods or ski big lines after Dad dropped them off not at school but in the Tordrillos. He couldn’t share those pictures with their mother, of course. But that’s a small price for chasing and bagging facets of the sublime.

Aerial photo of coastal city. Tide is out and mountains in distance still have snow on the peaks. Still enough sunlight to see clearly.
Anchorage, at 11 p.m. in late May. Photo by Bob Kaufman.

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

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