Sometime A Clear Light is Aylette Jenness’s memoir of living among indigenous Arctic and Nigerian people during the 1960’s and 70’s—a story made all the more poignant by the 87-year-old photographer’s imminent loss of sight due to macular degeneration. “As the future darkens, does the past grow brighter?” Jenness asks in the book’s preface.
In 1962 Jenness followed her anthropologist husband, Jonathan, to a tiny Yup’ik village near the Bering Sea. An aspiring photographer, Jenness immersed herself into Yup’ik culture, learning how to skin seals, ice fish, weave grass baskets, and more. Her acceptance by the Yup’ik provided a rare opportunity to intimately document daily village life.
Jenness continued her photography four years later when Jonathan’s work relocated the family to a village in the Nigerian rainforest. There, Jenness witnessed destruction wrought by a violent civil war, as well as the dissolution of her marriage, calling it “three of the most terrible years of Nigeria’s history, and three of the most tumultuous of mine.”
The book includes 158 of Jenness’s black-and-white photographs. Some, like her depiction of tribal dancers, are extraordinary; living with her subjects for years at a time gave Jenness intimate access to scenes outsiders could never experience. But many photographs, especially those in the Arctic when Jenness was less experienced, are repetitious. A tighter edit and better display of her best work would enhance the book’s presentation.
This a memorable read: an adventure and love story, stirring visual and written record of lost cultures, and tale of personal awakening and empowerment. Jenness’s writing is beautifully descriptive of village life and emotionally honest about her personal transformation, “from a skinny, scared, brave, shy, dependent wife into a not-so-skinny woman who had lovers, and a career, and learned to stand up on her own.”
Her memoir will appeal to photojournalists, adventure enthusiasts, and students of African and Arctic cultures, as well as readers seeking life inspiration from a bold, talented, and courageous woman.