In Spite of Itself: The Stubborn Persistence of Whittier, Alaska
New York University Broome Street Building
New York, NY 10013
Only one road leads to Whittier. The Tunnel, single-lane, two and a half miles long, arched with the majesty of a cathedral. It reverses direction every half hour. Into Whittier on the bottom of the hour and out on the top. In town it is a ritual natural as inhale follows exhale.
“If you can deal with yourself, you can love Whittier,” says Jim. He’s a lifer, who started down this rabbit hole 20 years ago. Whittier was constructed as a WWII military base, only to be decommissioned in 1960. The largest building in Alaska, the Buckner Building, was constructed there in 1956, and abandoned within 10 years. Over eighty percent of Whittier’s residents live in another building of this era, the BTI, which at 15 stories looms over the landscape, a city in one building. The town was built to hold 30,000 people. Now, the population is just below 200.
Whittier persists. Despite the many changes it has faced—its rapid development and subsequent abandonment by the military, the construction of a pipeline and the toxic soil left by its removal, the 1964 Good Friday earthquake—Whittier has and will continue to exist, in spite of any of these structures, in spite of its inefficiencies and infamy, in spite, in the end, of itself. Whittier lives in the unlikely people who find something to love here, who live in the wreckage of a town that once was and the dreams of a town that wasn’t. Their legends are its foundation, as surely as brick or wood or stone.
In two trips in 2011 and 2012, Jen Kinney has photographed over 50 individuals in Whittier, the town’s architecture, economy, and cultural life. In this exhibition she weaves together portraits, environments, and stories to illuminate a corner of America infamous in Alaska and foreign in the Lower 48. Like many of Whittier’s long-entrenched inhabitants, she arrived without knowing what she would find, and felt an unexpected kinship with this place: not the most beautiful town in Alaska, nor the smallest, nor the most remote, nor even truly the strangest, but a town loved, loathed, hidden, and sought after, anything but easy to forget.