Editor’s Note: This is the third post in the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham .
To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.1
The Arctic has captured the human imagination for centuries. In the nineteenth century, polar exploration and the inhospitable environment became an obsession in the West, with the Arctic framing narrative inspiring literary fiction, photography, and painting. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, begins and ends trapped in the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean. While Victor Frankenstein dies on a ship, his creation Frankenstein floats away on an iceberg towards certain death. Shelley uses the Arctic as a space for the critique of heroic masculine endeavour and as metaphor for the monster’s internal trauma. More recently the advancement of technology, and the ice melt caused by global warming have enabled expeditions to the Arctic Circle for artists and writers to safely follow routes taken previously by polar explorers, albeit mainly under the banner of framing the climate crisis.
It was at 18:50 on the 14th April 2022 that we caught our first sighting of the southern tip of Spitsbergen on the Svalbard archipelago in the high Arctic. After three days of an empty horizon crossing the Barents Sea aboard the sailing ship Antigua as part of the Arctic Circle Art and Science Expedition Residency,2 these snow-covered jagged mountains that lend their name to Spitsbergen, glowed orange in the far distance. The Svalbard archipelago only 500 miles south of the North Pole is warming four times faster than anywhere else on the planet. We had arrived at ground zero of climate change.
As I write this, it is Arctic Sea Ice Day. I am sweltering amid a heatwave taking place in the UK, with the temperature rising towards what is predicted to be, in three days’ time, the highest ever recorded in the UK. These two events are related. As the seasonal rate and extent of Arctic sea ice melt increases with global warming this leads to further changes in our global climate. In the words of Canadian Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the Arctic, acting as our planet’s air conditioner, is the ‘health barometer for the planet’.3 After decades of rapid changes to Arctic ice and thereby its human habitation and ecosystem, we are now experiencing in the West the type of extreme weather events triggered by climate change that other parts of our planet, in particular the Global South, have been witnessing for years.
We had waited six days for a favourable weather window to cross the Barents Sea from Torsvåg on the Norwegian mainland. We sailed across what sailors call the Devil’s Dance Floor at a speed of up to 9.1 knots an hour. These 527 miles saw us sail into the far North which in ancient mariner’s maps marked the end of reference. The North in these maps was populated with illustrations of dragons and other mythical beasts including imaginings of polar bears. Sea ice made navigation impossible. According to the ship’s crew in Lewis Carroll’s 1876 poem The Hunting of the Snark, the best map that they could all understand was that presented to them by their captain: a perfect and absolute blank space that represented the sea without any land.
We dropped anchor at Fjortende Julibukta bay in Haakon VII Land in Northwest Spitsbergen at 23:00 on the 18th of April on the last sunset before the start of the midnight sun. The Fjortende Julibreen glacier forms the imposing backdrop to the bay. The bay and the glacier go by the names of 14th July named after the French national day by Prince Albert I of Monaco during one of his four polar expeditions in the late nineteenth century. Julibreen glacier currently stands at over 100 feet above sea level, approximately 10 miles long, covering a total area of nearly 80 square miles.
The following morning 19th of April, carrying a vintage 102-year-old Box Brownie camera loaded with a 120mm analogue colour film,4 we made our way to shore aboard zodiacs, landing opposite the glacier. At – 1 ˚C, several degrees warmer than the average minimum temperature for April at this latitude of 79°07.23’ N – 011°51.5’ E, the sun shone intermittently on this first day of the midnight sun. The constant daylight, which at this location continues until late August, removes the reference points of day and night and imbues a sense of the continuous present: time is frozen.
As far as the eye could see, the bay was strewn with thousands of beached and floating melting blue coloured icebergs, bergy bits, and growlers that had calved from Julibreen. The shore was an iceberg graveyard; this is where ice goes to die. While melt is part of the natural cycle of glaciers, what is not, is the rate and extent at which they are now receding and ice melting. Visually and physically blue glacial ice is a repository of the past. The air bubbles formed in the ice during the recrystallisation of fallen snow over hundreds and thousands of years contain ancient knowledge inside of them. As glaciers calve and ice melts, so the ancient air trapped in these bubbles is released; past and present atmospheres coalesce. Blue glacial ice contains a past that no longer is, frozen in its core.
Similarly, a photograph visually captures a moment that was. These moments, like the ancient air bubbles in blue glacial ice and the continuous presence of the midnight sun, are also frozen. The instant a camera shutter is released, everything and everyone captured in the freeze frame of this precise moment will no longer be. In her 1963 debut novel The Benefactor, the American writer Susan Sontag pinpointed this succinctly, writing: ‘Life is a movie; death is a photograph’.5
So, to walk amongst the fragments of calved glacial ice capturing – freeze framing – with the ocular apparatus of a vintage camera of the past, was to convert the shore into an iceberg graveyard. To look at these photographs now, is to see the death of glacial ice; the end of reference; an indicator of climate change; the death of our planet and all of us in it.
[i] Sontag, S. (1963) The Benefactor. New York: Farrar Strauss and Company.
[i] The April 2022 Arctic Circle Art and Science Expedition Residency consisted of 26 artists, scientists, theatre artists, and writers, 4 guides, and 7 crew.
[i] Watt-Cloutier, S. (2015) The Right to be Cold. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.
[i] The Box Brownie camera was invented by George Eastman and first manufactured by Eastman Kodak in the year 1900. A basic camera made from cardboard, it was sold cheaply and popularised snapshot photography.
[i] Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux.