An elusive landscape – photographing the Arctic

Much of the Arctic north of the treeline, away from the classic destinations and the hyperbole of adventure, can be flat and featureless and more than a little desolate.

Still, it has its charms and on a grey day as the clouds thicken it creates its own kind of subtle and nuanced excitement, a perceptual challenge, a disorientating experience where the landscape loses definition and has little measurable depth beyond the immediate foreground.

Snowy white and light conspire to create a world that is not only challenging to see in but also to photograph. It is an interesting question, what can and can’t be photographed? My archive of Arctic photos has a heavy bias and to look at it you would think the sun was always blazing, the skies blue, the mountains steep and dramatic and of course we try to look heroic too as we pose or pass by the camera in parkas and snowshoes. In a sense everything appears picture perfect, but the actual reality of the Arctic, the one that keeps drawing me back year after year, is a very different one, it is more opaque and not so visible to the camera and to my eye it is no less stimulating for it.

Sometimes the only reference point in a world that can appear to have lost it’s third dimension is yourself, all around space appears to close in. Travelling forward you strain your eyes and try to determine where you might be heading, occasionally you might glimpse something shadowy, a large object in the distance, at last you have something to aim for, only to see it pass by you thirty seconds later, a small log embedded in the sea ice. Or more seriously there was the time we saw a grizzly bear up ahead, prematurely woken from his winter slumber—scary—and it initiated a full state of alarm on our part, only to see him mutate into a small seal nearby that then promptly vanished down a hole through the ice!

A grey day in the Arctic is never boring and is often mind bending.


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