January 2015 - Proenneke's Camera

January 30, 2015 Posted by: Kathryn Myers

Richard Proenneke's Exacta camera

To kick off 2015, we're featuring a camera that Richard Proenneke had during his time at Twin Lakes. It's an Exakta VX IIb, a camera that was manufactured in Germany and produced between 1963-1967. Proenneke loved taking moving images and still photos of scenery and the wildlife around him;this camera was always with him—it traveled all over the same country he did—he had it the entire time he was at Twin Lakes. With this camera Proenneke was able to capture many beautiful images, including this red squirrel which he photographed in 1975.

Beautiful close up photo of a red squirrel standing on a tree stump with an artistically blurred background.

The camera appears often in Dick's journal. In this passage from 1967, as a relative newcomer to the area, Dick wrote:

July 21, 1967

Today will be known as the day of the golden sunrise. The rising sun was painting the fast moving fleecy clouds with gold when I looked out this morning. Hardly waiting to dress I dragged out my cameras and went to work. A time lapse with the movie and later stills with the Exakta. Both up country and down –it was a beautiful sight to see. I went down to my cabin for the view down country. It was after six befor[e] I had my hotcakes, bacon & eggs. 

Proenneke became well known for documenting the building of his cabin and the beauty of his surroundings, and so, in 1974, when the National Park Service was looking into areas that could potentially become new National Park units, they contracted with Proenneke to take moving images and still photos of the Twin Lakes area. Proenneke was happy—he could continue to do what he was doing anyway and get paid for it. The NPS was happy—they could learn about this corner of Alaska. Although this passage from 1974 speaks of moving images he shot, not of photos he shot with his Exakta, his sentiment of what he considers important is wonderful:

June 5, 1974

I beached the canoe and packed my gear to the cabin in a light rain. There was chores I could do but I just had to sit and watch the breakup that comes only once each year and this was more spectacular than some. I finished out that roll of 16 mm. That made a little over a hundred feet of the ice alone. Moving ice could hardly be classified as wildlife specified by the Park Service in their contract. To me everything is wildlife inthe wilderness. Showers came and went, clouds and fog patches changed positions on the mts. My bear was up in the clouds. 

The NPS took notice and were exceedingly pleased with the photos Dick took. Bob Waldrop, an NPS employee told Proenneke in a letter: "Everyone is extremely happy with the footage you shot –the best any of us has seen." In 1975, plans were made to use Proenneke's film footage, still photos, and journal writings to produce a NPS-produced short film. Proenneke loved the idea. Bringing the wilderness to people was a wonderful idea to him. The resulting film was 1977's "One Man's Alaska." To quote Proenneke:

Jan. 26, 1978

Put a small crew in here to film it in color year around. Edit the film and show it on TV spring, summer, fall and winter. Many times more people would see it and under the best of conditions. They would see much wildlife that they will never see if they come here. Weather can even prevent them from hiking for a week at a time. Millions of people could enjoy the beauty of the wilderness and it and its wildlife would be left untouched. Very few families could afford to visit the Park anyway if they must fly and weather for flying is very uncertain. To come any other way would take days. Let them enjoy the wilderness while enjoying a glass of beer in their own living room. 

Of course, he kept shooting photos and movies for himself as well as for the NPS. Living alone in the wilderness, he ran into difficulties with his Exakta. But he was exceedingly handy, so they didn't slow him down for long.

Sept. 17, 1968

My Exakta 35 has been jingling in the penta prism view finder. It sounded as if something had broken and was floating around. Four small screws removed and the cover. A short chunk of metal angle had come unstuck from the top of the prism. A drop of epoxy fixed that. All my lenses cleaned and ready for fair weather.

Or this one from a few years later:

March 29, 1975

Overcast, Breeze up &16°. This morning five inches of light fluffy snow covered everything. Today would be the day to film the essence of mid winter. I started early before the sun began to tell what month it was. A mishap first thing. I had mounted the Exakta on my old Linhof tripod. I went out on the lake for a shot of my cabin and Crag mt. When I set the tripod down the pan head and camera tumbled to the deep loose snow. The pan head had come unscrewed from the tripod. The camera still warm was a ball of snow. I brought it to the cabin and brushed and wiped and blew and wiped some more and then put it in my mitten drying rack over the stove to dry. I was soon in business again.

Dick's photos, as well as his book, moving images, and correspondence, have contributed to environmental awareness for thousands of people and have allowed many thousand more to gain appreciation and understanding of what this part of Alaska is all about. This camera, a constant companion of Proenneke's, was generously donated to Lake Clark's museum collection in 2009 by Richard's brother Raymond. It is among the most iconic items in our collection. 

Proenneke stood on frozen Upper Twin Lake and took this photo looking back at the mountains towering over his small cabin in the snow on a sunny day in 1975.

3 Comments Comments icon

  1. Daneiel
    April 15, 2018 at 01:05

    Hey, This guy is my hero. I would just like to know what skills I need to acquire. Not just the basic, 'carpentry', and such, but maybe some depth? And I have also got some help from here best hunting binocular? Thanks very much for sharing the content.

  2. Daneiel
    April 09, 2018 at 12:51

    I was waching alone in the wilderness 2 and i saw that dick proenneke used a 35mm to take photos of the seneiory around twin lakes i was wondering what camera he used. I appreciate you. And do you have any idea to write about best hunting binocular?Thanks very much for sharing the content.

  3. February 06, 2015 at 06:46

    My husband and I watched Richard Proenneke "Alone In The Wilderness" on DVD from the Library. We were curious to know more about him and what part of the country the film was taken in. Was a very interesting story.

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Last updated: April 14, 2015

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