City Under One Roof
“The City of Whittier is a world entire. The great myth of Alaska—harsh but rewarding, distant, lawless, primal, pristine—is alive here, unglorified and unique. From the entrance of the tunnel to the end of an unfinished road, Whittier is only three miles long—just barely longer than the tunnel itself. It can be mapped in fewer than fifteen streets. Hours here have a small town’s drawling density. It is not timeless but time-heavy. Minutes stretch out like mountain ranges, beautiful and frightening and impossible to escape. Everyone’s got a tall tale to make them pass. I’ve been told that Whittier was named town with the best-tasting water in the country, two years running. I hear there’s a goldmine across the bay. It’s all true or it’s all false, and all of it matters: how anyone came to live in this unlikely land, how this city of no city came to be.”
—Jen Kinney, from City Under One Roof
This solo exhibition at the Center for Documentary Studies is part of the twenty-first Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize, awarded by CDS in 2013 to American photographer and writer Jen Kinney for “City Under One Roof,” her project on Whittier, Alaska. The prestigious award is given to encourage documentary work in the tradition of acclaimed photographer Dorothea Lange and writer and social scientist Paul Taylor. Relaunched in 2011, the $10,000 annual prize supports documentary artists—working alone or in teams—involved in ongoing fieldwork projects that rely on both words and images in their creation and presentation. Winning projects are included in the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Library.
Kinney, a 2012 graduate in photography and imaging from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, uses her own photographs—both environmental and human portraits—oral histories of year-round or part-time Whittier residents, historical essays, and archival photographs to explore shared spaces in a town she describes as an “unlikely crossroads of community and solitude, isolation and claustrophobia.” The only land access to the tiny outpost on Prince William Sound, sixty miles north of Anchorage, is via the longest rail and highway tunnel in North America. Ninety percent of Whittier’s population of just over two hundred people live in one fourteen-story building called Begich Towers. Kinney’s ongoing project looks at “how the structures that people inhabit shape and order their lives; how, in turn, people construct, alter, and destroy spaces; and how these constant renovations to our physical world mirror changes in the stories that we tell ourselves, and how we structure our lives to these stories.”