Photographer Werner Forman travelled the world to create images of ancient art, architecture and vanishing cultures. While visiting Arctic regions to research his 1988 book The Eskimos, he went to Alaska, where he met an Inupiat woman who was a respected shoemaker, using grass and leather to create efficient snow footwear. In Arctic conditions boots need to be absolutely waterproof – if water from melted snow gets into the boot your feet will freeze. However the body also sweats, and if the shoe has no ventilation, you could also end up with severe frostbite. This is a serious problem, which the shoemaker solved by using grass as insulation.
The shoemaker was well-respected by the people of her city, Kotzebue, which is on a spit of land 33 miles into the Arctic circle on Alaska’s Western coast. Known as the “Gateway to the Arctic” it has been a major trading nexus since at least the 15th century. She had been chosen as a local historian, to talk to people about the history of the Inupiat, and the past of the Inuit world. She had a ‘story knife’ – a special knife made from bone. She would use it mainly to cut pictures in ice and at the same time tell stories to children and other listeners.
One day this lady took Werner Forman away from the modern houses and into the landscape. It was the short period of the year when red berries grew – the only edible item that grows there which could be compared to a fruit. She asked Werner if he would like some of her red berry ice cream. “Of course, it sounds fantastic!” he replied.
She took the photographer home for dinner, and a most unusual food experience it turned out to be. The whole house, like pretty much everything else there, smelt of fish. It was something you just couldn’t escape. As he tried to get warm, the hostess provided him with strong hot tea. Werner found this very good, although the increasing smell of oily fish was starting to bother him.
He ate milk and very chewy meat, but it was the dessert that was the most surprising course. He says, “At last the Inuipiat woman served me some beautifully presented ice-cream. It was ice-cold, as was to be expected, but the stench of the thing!” The ice-cream was made of fish…
Werner found it dreadful. As they were eating the woman told him that he was very lucky to be able to try this delicacy as there is a very short period when the red berries can be picked. “Do you like it?” she asked suddenly. Not wanting to offend his hostess, Werner said, “Yes, it was lovely!”
She smiled, “Here, have some more, “she said, passing him another portion, which he had to eat. Such are the perils of travelling in unusual places.
Werner Forman’s pictures of Arctic regions are available from Werner Forman Archive which holds his pictures from all around the globe, many of which have been published in the over 80 books Werner co-authored during his lifetime and the thousands of other images which he took in both black and white and colour during his extensive travels.
Article by Julian Jackson