We were well into our fourth hour of shooting the aurora. It was 2 AM and the displays were only growing stronger. My hands were swollen and beginning to burn. My release cable had frozen into a coil. I'd lost a glove, a lens cap, a lens cover, and all the plastic bits on my best carbon fiber tripod had pretty much shattered and disappeared. And still, I kept taking pictures. An auroral substorm was boiling on the horizon and was seemingly about to lower itself over us. Who could go home at such a moment as this? At that point I was willing to lose my hands--or, well, I mean I am glad I didn't suffer more than minor frost nip, but suffice it to say I was hardly aware I had hands. What we were seeing, I learned later, was a magnetospheric substorm in which the solar winds cause a violent disruption our atmosphere's magnetic fields which results in a sudden push of radiation toward the surface of the earth. One theory has it that these storms contain a release of energy stored in the earth's "magnetotail" and the burst occurs when the tail "reconnects with itself." As luck would have it right before this mothership of light blew open on the horizon and began its descent upon us we had just decided to try something recommended to us by one of the village elders. According to multiple Inupiaq narratives the spirits of the dead reside in the aurora, and they are sentient to the point that if you whistle they will come to you. Standing there in the cemetery I was thinking about my father who died last October. He adored science and nature and would have loved nothing more than to witness an aurora like that. I thought of what I'd been told about the spirits of the dead living in the lights and despite any and all skepticism I couldn't resist trying to make contact. I whistled. I whistled and just a few moments later that cloud of light was upon us, the blades of red pulsing downward with the rhythm of well oiled pistons. My friend N. described it in nautical terms--saying later it was as if we were being absorbed by the body of a giant jellyfish. Science met legends--the living met the dead--there in that beautiful quiet cemetery on the hill. I did my best to keep taking pictures all the while saying hello to my father whom I am sure would love nothing more than such a dramatic afterlife--whether it is in fact his or not.
If you walk a mile or so off shore out across the Chukchi Sea you will see some amazing things. Close to the village the frozen chop looks like a 3D lesson in geometry, fat planks of ice jutting up at right angles--triangles, rectangles, parallelograms of frozen sea. Close to shore the ice formations bring to mind polar bears--for every odalisk of ice seems to have a great hulking body of white just behind it--but no, you tell yourself, you are just imagining things. Just because the largest polar bear ever killed was killed right there in Kotzebue, weighing in at over 2,000 pounds--that was a long time ago--and the polar bears of today are well off shore, out where the ice gives way to open water again.Read More
It's off to Kotzebue Alaska for me next Saturday February 15 where the high the day of my arrival is expected to be -6 F. After a winter of arctic temperatures here in Iowa the jet stream finally bucked the cold back up where it belongs and I'm chasing it as I apparently have not had enough of it. I can't wait to put on my Baffins, which are rated to -148 F, a number the company chose because there has never been a temperature recorded on earth that cold. Hmmmm. Marketing meets meteorology. I'll be happy as long as my feet stay warm as I pick my way across the Chukchi Sea. My goal is to photograph the sea ice, the aurora, ravens, and my favorite haunts along the Baldwin Peninsula. I'd considered researching who the Baldwin of the Baldwin pennisula might be, but the Baldwins are a mixed lot and and the story of the european incursion into this part of the world is fraught with a multitude of colonial horrors. I'm afraid of what I might find should there be any genealogical connection. Some things are better left alone. That feeling was confirmed last summer every time I went to pick up my mail in the post office in Kotzebue. Letters from my husband were often put in one of the "other Baldwin's" boxes and in the process of sorting all that out I learned they live up the Selawick somewhere, the other Baldwins. A meeting is inevitable, I suppose, given the smallness of the human community in that vast space but I don't want to hurry into that history. I don't expect to work in air above zero while I am there and to that end my favorite camera guru/salesman Roger has given me some creative advice about keeping both my hands and my batteries warm in that battery destroying temperature. I am most exited about the idea of vet-wrapping hand warmers to the tops of my hands to toast the blood supply running down into my fingers. Ingenious and so obvious.
Meanwhile, one of my dear little speedscapes is on its way to Minneapolis Center for Photography for inclusion in a wonderful show this spring: The Visual Narrative (see below).
The Visual Narrative, opening on March 14, will feature images selected by Susan Burnstine. My work in the exhibit is from a year-long series of landscapes I've been shooting while traveling at a high rate of speed--which is how most people these days experience landscape--as a fleeting presence glimpsed from the window of a train, plane, or car. I have been wondering how acceleration impacts our impression of a place and more importantly how it alters our feeling for the earth. Shooting while in motion is challenging in many new ways, and not unlike low-light photography in that it pushes me into a deeper appreciation of the physics of light.
It is always an honor to have your work chosen by someone whose work you admire--and I really love Susan Burnstine's work; her images defy conventional notions of time in photography. I often feel when looking at her images like I am looking through time or that time is a mosaic not a line and in the frame a multitude of potentialities are aligning themselves--not one. It is the opposite of commercial work and I am endlessly grateful to photographers like her for the inspiration of her work.
I'm so happy to have one of my photograms included in this year's Flower Power 2013 exhibit at the 1650 Gallery in Los Angeles. The image included in that show is from a series of photograms of medicinal and edible tundra flora I worked on during my downtime in Kotzebue this past summer. As photograms require ultraviolet light for development I thought perhaps I might put the nearly 24 hours of sun I had to work with to use, and so I had shipped the chemicals and papers I needed ahead of myself last July. Between our trips into the Noatak Preserve I took long wandering walks in the tundra with my colleague the wonderful poet Andrea Spofford and our new-found K-town friend Norma. We collected for tinctures, teas, and balms, gossiping about people we barely knew and eating more than our fair share of cloudberries and blueberries as we went. Now that winter is closing in I finally have time to work through the images I made this past summer. I find myself waxing nostalgic over those long bright sun-filled nights I spent in that red house on Grayling, listening to KOTZ, catching up on local events through Tundra Talk, marveling at musical selections so insanely eclectic and disparate the playlists opened up a whole new dimension of coolness. I'm still figuring out the intricacies of the process, and though I am acutely aware of how this project speaks to its originator Anna Atkins' magnificent work on the flora of the British seacoast in 1848, I am trying to find new ways of exploring the medium. Most of the images I made last summer were first drafts of what I hope will become a far more layered project, but for now I am happy enough with some of this preliminary work to start sharing it.
Some kind keen mind saw fit to make this comparison while my work was hanging at the GRAM. Given my passion for the history of landscape painting this poster was a pleasure for me to discover one day as I was visiting my work in the museum. It was hard to explain, however, to the casual visitor who reads too quickly that Thomas Cole was not my contemporary collaborator but rather an artist who lived now in my imagination and whose work can be found in many museums including the GRAM. There were also those who were certain my photograph of the Alaska Pipeline shot very close to the Beaufort seacoast was the same landscape as that portrayed in Thomas Cole's work on the Hudson Valley. These encounters made me want to return to the Hudson, however, and so I have and with camera in hand and I am in love all over again with yet another river. This will be a winter of rivers for me: The Hudson in late November, the Mississippi in early December and a beautiful little river in Ontario I don't yet know the name of this coming January.
Close to 200,000 people passed through the exhibit in just three weeks, which was as wonderful as it was overwhelming. On the final Sunday the carbon monoxide sensors at the museum sounded an alarm and the guards blocked the entrance and did not allow more people to enter until the oxygen returned to the air! An amazing experience given that art was at the center of the crush. I loved my experience of that show and the fantastic company I was allowed to keep. Thank you GRAM.
Six of my images are included in a show during this year's Art Prize at The Grand Rapids Art Museum: "Reimagining the Landscape and the Future of Nature." The work I have featured there is part of my on-going series "True North: Landscape in the Anthropocene." Almost every autumn for the last eight years I have traveled to either the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, or far northwestern arctic Alaska in pursuit of the most glorious and elusive light I've ever witnessed. For just a few months of the year the tundra is a feast, both in terms of the lushness of the plant life growing above the permafrost as well as the light itself which is supersaturated by the sharply angled sun. Arctic light, like the famous Dutch Light, truly has transcendent qualities that evoke at times an otherworldliness or in some cases a lost world--some deep part of our past. There is a scientific basis for this of course, firstly the fact that light strikes the earth's polar regions at a much sharper angle. It has to travel farther from the sun than equatorial light and though it therefore carries less energy the long angles intensify hues and elongates shadows. Climate change has added to the natural drama in that the permafrost is melting at an accelerating rate and as the ice melts in the summer the whole region is filled with low clouds that rise up out of the earth and hang low for hours on end, a process that only accelerates the warming of the region. Climate change is thought to now be occurring at twice the speed in the arctic as it is at the earth's middle latitudes.
The far north is the only place I have been where no one doubts that change is occurring and rapidly--there's no partisanship on this matter whatsoever, and that may well have to do with the fact that people living in the northern latitudes are dealing with the advent of dramatic changes right now. The images included in the GRAM show are almost all shot at night, any where from early evening to well past mid-night. They look like daylight images, in some cases, and yet they have for me the feeling of evening, an effect intensified by the clouds. Seasonal transitions like autumn in the arctic are brief, but very dramatic. The summer, for all its light, is terribly brief and seemingly no rival to the seven months of winter that will soon follow--but for those langourously long days in which every living thing seems to pack a year's worth of activity those seemingly elongated hours. Even as autumn begins in mid to late August the brief nights are streaked with color--the remains of the day mixing with the return of a visible aurora. The arctic is the only place on earth I've been able to photograph a sunset and a sunrise the same moment, both events captured in a single frame. If you can make it to Grand Rapids to see Art Prize this year you won't be disappointed: the city turns itself upside down for and with art. I will also be making posts from there as I venture to town for various events this year.
I have the great good fortune of spending a month this summer in arctic Alaska working as a photographer as part of the Aldo & Leonardo project,a wilderness science and art collaboration. The work produced this summer will be featured next year as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Wilderness Act. All the artists participating in Aldo & Leonardo are posting blogs from their respective wilderness biomes. My occasional posts from the field can be found through the Aldo & Leonardo blog: