Keeping Up Appearances: The Afterlife of Fridtjof Nansen’s Studio Re-enactments

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Figure 1. Fridtjof Nansen Kryper over en unsikker “snebro” over de store sprekkene i isen (breen), (Ludwik Szacinski, F. Nansen Creeping over a crevasse on a snowbridge (model)), 1889/1890, salt print photograph, 18.5 x 13 cm, mat measurements: 23 x 17 cm, National Library of Norway, Oslo, Norway.

One day in 1889 or 1890, polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen lay down on his stomach and crawled across the floor of a studio, pretending to avoid a crevasse (fig. 1). This likely took place at Ludwik Szacinski’s photographic studio on the third floor of an impressive building on Karl Johans gate (fig. 2). Below him, the fashionable shoppers of Kristiania (Oslo) might have been perusing the offerings at M.H. Lorentz’s Coat Emporium, unaware that just metres away, Nansen and Szacinski were refining the visual identity of one of the most widely publicised feats of Arctic exploration; Nansen’s successful crossing of Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) in 1888-1889. It is the afterlife of these photographs which this essay is concerned with. I consider the visual archive of Nansen’s expedition as a kind of collage; a collage of “reality” and performance. I suggest that in the space between source material and finished product, in this moment of “post-production,” we can relate the true usefulness of the expedition to a new nationalism that was thriving in Norway at the end of the nineteenth century.

Figure 2. E. Dunker, Karl-Johansgt. 21, n.d., xylograph on paper, 15.4 x 13.8 cm, Oslo Museum, Oslo, Norway.

Harald Østgaard Lund and Siv Frøydis Berg bring to light the fact that the photographs taken at Szacinski’s studio were used to create illustrations for Nansen’s account of his expedition; Paa ski over Grønland, published in 1890 and in English as The First Crossing of Greenland the same year.1 Lund and Berg suggest that as many as half of the illustrations in the first edition are based on Szacinski’s photographs.2 While Lund and Berg trace the afterlives of other images taken to commemorate Nansen’s expedition, they do not address these studio photographs. It is the continuation of this project that I am embarking upon. 

To return to the image of Nansen crawling. His expression betrays no acknowledgement of the farcical nature of this re-enactment. His eyes are trained forward towards the safety at the other side of this imaginary snowbridge. Despite Nansen’s best efforts, he doesn’t look particularly cold with his clean-shaven face and exposed ears. A thin rope is tied around Nansen, a rope leading nowhere, safeguarding him from nothing. This image is at once straining for accuracy whilst revealing its manufactured nature, a tension the handwritten inscription encapsulates; “F. Nansen. Creeping over a crevasse on a snowbridge (model).”

Of course, this image was never intended as a finished product. The Norwegian artist Eivind Nielsen used it as a model for an illustration, (Fig. 3) adding a gaping crevasse as if following the instructions laid out in the inscription. Crucially, the caption accompanying Nielsen’s illustration asserts its source as “from a sketch by the Author.” This fabricated origin, allows the illustration to claim an indexical connection to Nansen’s presence at this perilous moment. While it is unclear whether this was deliberate or a side-effect of the translation process, it is certain that there was little attempt made to disclose the fact that many illustrations were based on re-enactments.3 The captions in the publication hint at the fact that the illustrations draw on various degrees of “reality.” Some illustrations are described as drawn from “instantaneous photography,” (photographs taken in Kalaallit Nunaat), whereas others are simply drawn “after” or “from” a photograph, (studio photographs).4 This euphemistic language conceals the fact of Nansen’s studio re-enactments altogether. An advertisement for Nansen’s account in serialised form boasts that the illustrations will be created “after the photographs and sketches that Nansen has brought with him from the expedition.”5 It is clear that the veracity promised by the photograph in particular was a selling point. The numerous reproductions of these images becomes like a game of telephone —with each iteration, the image changes slightly, the source material becoming more obscured. Thus, the fabrication does not end in the studio, but continues through a series of minute interventions from many different actors: illustrators, editors, translators.

Figure 3. Eivind Nielsen, “When the bridges were too weak we crawled over flat on our stomachs,” in Fridtjof Nansen, The First Crossing of Greenland; Volume 1, trans. Hubert Majendie Gepp (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1890), 443.

An illustration by Andreas Bloch depicting Nansen and fellow explorer Otto Sverdrup (fig. 4), has an even more complicated genealogy. While most of the illustration is faithful to a photograph taken by Nansen in Kalaallit Nunaat (fig. 5), the two figures at the front seem to be drawn from an image of Nansen and Sverdrup in the studio (fig. 6). Unlike “crawling” over a crevasse, Nansen makes a concerted effort to appear to be in Arctic temperatures. His hood is dragged over his face, his expression is once again severe. Sverdrup is similarly serious, but he steals a look at the camera, betraying what might be read as self-consciousness at this pretence. In collaging these two sources together, Bloch does not simply transplant the rather inert figures from the studio onto the “real” image from Kalaallit Nunaat, instead he animates Nansen and Sverdrup by drawing upon the strain that the hooded figure in the foreground of Nansen’s photo conveys. Convey is perhaps the wrong word; he feels this struggle, he cannot help but express it when photographed on this long march across the ice. Through this strange collage, Bloch’s illustration exemplifies the unstable truce between “fact” and “fiction” in the legacy of Nansen’s exploration, and indeed many of the polar expeditions of the so-called “Heroic Age of Exploration.” As Caroline Abbott mentions in her essay, illustrations in Nansen’s chronicle of the Fram expedition of 1893-96 were also based on re-enactments that took place during the expedition, such as the re-staging of Nansen’s encounter with English explorer Frederick George Jackson.

Figure 4. Andreas Bloch, “Vi slet oss frem i ukevis over en endeløs, flat sne-ørken. (Av A. Bloch efter et fotografi),” (We struggled forward for weeks over an endless, flat snow-desert). (By A. Bloch after a photograph), in Fridtjof Nansen, Paa ski over Grønland; en Skildring af Den norske Grønlands Ekspedition 1888-1889 (Kristiania: H. Aschehoug & Co., 1928), 109.
Figure 5.  Fridtjof Nansen, Marsjen over innlandsisen, (The March over the Inland Ice), August 1888 – September 1888, photograph, National Library of Norway, Oslo, Norway.
Figure 6. Ludwik Szacinski, Fridtjof Nansen (til venstre) og Otto Sverdrup på ski trekker en kjelke,(Fridtjof Nansen (to the left) and Otto Sverdrup on skis dragging a sled), 1889/1890, salt paper photograph, 17 x 20 cm, National Library of Norway, Oslo, Norway.

Having drawn out the ways these studio photographs made their way into Nansen’s official account, we can consider the implications of these changes. The most immediate effect is the intentional inclusion of Nansen within the image; he would have been the most recognisable figure. The necessity of this can be understood in the context of a kind of “Nansen-mania” which gripped Norway at this time. In a satirical essay published in Dagbladet in June of 1889, Knut Hamsun decries the public’s hysterical reaction to the 1888-89 expedition, or what was, in his mind, just a “skiing-trip.”6 He reports that amidst the jubilant crowd, “a retired old colonel […] simply shouted himself to death on the spot.”7 Hamsun goes on to describe a cottage industry of Nansen-related goods, including ‘Nansen trouser buttons’ that were advertised in the municipality of Lærdal.8

Figure 7. Ludwik Szacinski, Grønlandsekspedisjonens medlemmer om bord i Kong Carl (?) på vei hjem til Christiania, (The Greenland Expedition’s members on board King Carl (?) on the way home to Christiania), May 1889, photograph on collodion paper, 15.5 x 22 cm, mat measurements: 17.5 x 25 cm, National Library of Norway, Oslo, Norway.

Beyond this satire, Lund and Berg draw out a similar trend, showing a Nansen branded box of sardines from 1896 (fig, 8).9 Having left for the Arctic as an underfunded zoologist, Nansen, upon his return, had become a brand. Thus, it was important to ensure that Nansen’s face was present in as many of the illustrations in his publication as possible. As Max Jones outlines, Nansen used his newfound fame to support the burgeoning Norwegian Nationalist movement.10 He would later be involved with the Norwegian nation building project in the wake of independence from the union with Sweden in 1905. Here, however, Nansen functioned as a cipher for an idealised Norwegian national identity; masculine, strong, and resilient to the harsh northern climate. The performance of the studio photographs might therefore be seen as performative of Norwegian nationalism.

Figure 8. Nansen Brand, Sardine box label, 1896, Norwegian Canning Museum, Stavanger, Norway, (Image credits: MUST/Norsk hermetikkmuseum)

Having explored the complex matrix of “fact” and fiction that characterises the afterlife of Nansen’s studio re-enactments, I conclude that the extent to which an image is “real” or not is ultimately not that important. If an image is reproduced enough times, it becomes part of the visual identity of the event, and so is inseparable from the “fact” of it. The illustration of Nansen and Sverdrup has been reproduced countless times; from the cover of different editions of Nansen’s book (fig. 9) to the corner of a 2016 design for a “fantasy” Kalaaleq banknote (fig. 10). It appears that Nansen and Szacinski’s post-production project was a success.

Figure 9. Cover Illustration, Paa ski over Grønland; en Skildring af Den norske Grønlands Ekspedition 1888-1889 (Kristiania: H. Aschehoug & Co., 1890), 1890, Paper, leather and parchment, 23 x 17 cm, The Ski Museum at Holmenkollen, Oslo, Norway, (Image credits:  Silja Axelsen/Skimuseet i Holmenkollen)
Figure 10. Frank Medina, Design for 50 Kroner Fantasy Note, 2016, Paper, 162 x 87 mm © Numismatica Quetzalcoatl


All translations by the author.

[1] Harald Østgaard Lund and Siv Frøydis Berg, Norske polarheltbilder; 1888 – 1928, (Oslo: Nasjonalbiblioteket: Forlaget Press, 2011) 68.

[2] Lund and Berg, Norske polarheltbilder, 68.

[3] As Lund and Berg describe, only one image in initial publication makes explicit that the image was created ‘After photography by Ludwik Szacinski,’ Lund and Berg, Norske polarheltbilder, 68; This mention has disappeared in the 1890 English translation; Fridtjof Nansen, The First Crossing of Greenland; Volume 1, trans. Hubert Majendie Gepp(London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1890), 77; The same illustration is simply captioned ‘On Level Ground (From a photograph).’

[4] In the Norwegian 1890 edition, certain images are described as based on ‘øieblikks-fotografi’, which can be directly translated as a photograph taken in the ‘blink of an eye’, echoing some of the concerns with veracity and indexicality that I explore in this essay.

[5]  “Kristiania den 24de Maj,” Dagbladet, May 24, 1890,

[6] Knut Hamsun, “Nansen-betragtninger,” Dagbladet, June 20, 1889,; ‘Nansen and five other grown-up Sports-people have completed a skiing-trip straight across the ice on Greenland.’; ‘Nansen og fem andre voxne Sportsmennesker har gjort en skitur tevers over Isen paa Grønland.’

[7] Hamsun, “Nansen-betragtninger.”; ‘Kristiania has never before been as jubilant and exuberant as when the Greenland explorers returned. It seems bigger things have never happened in Norway than that Nansen and comrades really came home again. Sixty thousand people received them on the wharf, fifty thousand followed them to the hotel, ten thousand shouted nine thousand hurrahs, a retired old colonel from Kampen simply shouted himself to death on the spot.’; ‘Slig Jubel og Henrykkelse har Kristiania vel aldrig før været i, som da Grønlandsfarerne kom tilbage. Der synes aldrig at have hændt større Ting i Norge, end at Nansen og Kamerater virkelig kom hjem igjen. Sexti Tusind Mennesker modtog dem paa Bryggen, femti Tusind fulgte dem til Hotellet, ti Tusind raabte niti Tusind Turra, en gammel pensioneret Oberst fra Kampen skreg sig simpelthen ihjel paa Stedet.’; Significantly, Szacinski himself was tasked with documenting this moment of return. As Lund and Berg describe, these images were mass produced and distributed for display; Lund and Berg, Norske polarheltbilder, 196.

[8] Hamsun, “Nansen-betragtninger.”; ‘Saaledes har man nu I Messina begyndt med Nansen-Appelsiner, H. A. Olsen paa Lærdal averterer Nansen-Buxeknapper, og opover Hedemarken skal der være kommet en splinterny Sort Fluer – Nansenfluer.’; ‘So now in Messina they have started with Nansen-Oranges, H. A. Olsen at Lærdal advertises Nansen- Trouser Buttons, and up in Hedemarken a brand new kind of fly – Nansen flies are said to have arrived.’

[9] Lund and Berg, Norske polarheltbilder, 196.

[10] Max Jones, “Exploration, Celebrity and the Making of a Transnational Hero: Fridtjof Nansen and the Fram Expedition” The Journal of Modern History 93 (March 2021): 76.

Featured Image: Ludwik Szacinski, Fridtjof Nansen (til venstre) og Otto Sverdrup på ski trekker en kjelke,(Title in English: Fridtjof Nansen (to the left) and Otto Sverdrup on skis dragging a sled), 1889/1890, salt paper photograph, 17 x 20 cm, National Library of Norway, Oslo, Norway
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Nora Høegh

Nora Høegh is currently an MA student at the Williams College/Clark Art Institute Graduate Program in the History of Art in Massachusetts, the United States. Her research focuses on the Circumpolar North, particularly considering ecocritical approaches to representations of the Arctic landscape.

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