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Sealaska Heritage honors longtime Juneau photographer Brian Wallace

During Celebration this week, Sealaska Heritage Institute recognized longtime Juneau photographer Brian Wallace with an award.

Locals likely know him and his work. He photographed the community as a staff photographer for The Juneau Empire over three decades. Now independent, he also shot every single Celebration, the weeklong cultural event that happens every two years in Juneau that began in 1982.

Sealaska Heritage Institute gave Brian Wallace a heads up the other day to make sure he was watching the television coverage of Celebration.

“I tuned in, I took a break from my housework and watched it and it came as a total surprise,” Wallace said.

There was institute President Rosita Worl, talking to the world: “It is my pleasure to honor the Tlingit photojournalist Brian Wallace with our 2020 Person of Distinction Award.”

A list of Wallace’s accomplishments and contributions followed: His photos of Celebration have been featured at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, he’s personally donated collections of archival photos to the institute, as well as pieces of art by his late father, carver Amos Wallace.

“Literally within minutes, I started getting calls from people around the world,” Wallace said. 

“Even got a call from Hong Kong. About 50, 60 people sent me texts, and a bunch of people called, so it was a pretty good feeling.”

Wallace said he got started in photography when he was in fifth grade. His older brother was a photographer for the J-Bird, Juneau-Douglas High School’s student newspaper.

“He was developing pictures, and it looked like magic to me and I just wanted to, you know, to be able to do what he did,” he said. “You take a picture, put a piece of paper under an enlarger, put it in chemicals, and like magic, the images appear. So at the time, it was like, the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

He said that would’ve been about 1971 or 1972.

“I started walking around with a camera ever since. My mom and dad bought me a Kodak X-15 Instamatic camera, and I’ve had a camera with me ever since.”

Wallace said he shot his all-time favorite photo in 1994. It was the Saturday parade of the Celebration through downtown Juneau. He went up Telephone Hill, before the parking garage was built there.

“It’s just a sea of faces. And I see so many different people who I know in there, and every once in a while I spot somebody new,” he said. “You know, even after all these years, I still got a great appreciation for that photograph.”

He said he was happy the Empire ran it large that day.

And if you know Wallace, you know he’s almost always wearing Seattle Seahawks schwag. It’s easier for him to single out the handful of shirts he owns that don’t have Seahawks branding than to count up how many he has.

The Seahawks thing isn’t just about football. As a teenager, Wallace remembers getting excited about the new team. Then he saw the Seahawks logo in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

“And I looked at it, and I was like — it looked like something my dad might’ve drawn,” Wallace said. “I fell in love with the team before they even had their first player.”

That’s because the Seahawks logo looks distinctively formline. It was inspired by a particular mask of the Kwakwaka’wakw, an indigenous group from Vancouver Island.

Wallace’s award comes with a copper shield called a tináa mounted on a plaque. And a blanket of knowledge, which is a literal blanket based on Chilkat weaving designs.

Editor’s note: KTOO is under contract with Sealaska Heritage Institute to produce television and online video coverage of this year’s virtual Celebration.

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