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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Life On The Ice


James Martin travels to the ends of the earth to photograph a vanishing resource

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A minke whale feeds in an ice-choked bay along the Antarctic Peninsula.
Martin calls the near-total loss of ice in Glacier National Park an “ironic and emblematic tragedy” because when it was declared a park, the Grinnell Glacier cascaded down a cliff for hundreds of feet and filled the basin. Now, it covers a small corner, and what used to be ice is a lake today. Visually, images showing what any given glacier looked like a century ago compared to now are striking. But more telling is how quickly these landscapes are changing, sometimes over the course of just a few months.

Martin’s love affair with ice started long before he learned how to climb. In the book, he recalls how in high school he pored over USGS aerial photographs of Alaskan glaciers and devoured glaciology books from which he learned to read glacial fingerprints. Inspired by the black-and-white photographs taken by USGS photographer Austin Post for the 1971 book, Glacier Ice, Martin imagined a color version of that influential work taken from a more abstract perspective.

“I wanted to illustrate both the beauty and the degradation of the wild icy places in the world, but I also strove to do so with a single artistic vision,” he explains. “Whenever possible, I captured natural abstracts, looked for a sense of motion or a complex balance, an effective combination of hues. I hoped the images would stir people whether they encountered them in the book, on my site, the iPhone app, or in magazines and other media.”

In many of Martin’s favorite places, like Antarctica, South Georgia, Alaska and the Andes, ice is a major influence or the central feature. “It exists in manifold forms—surging glacier surfaces, water-sculpted icebergs, as towers and slits in living ice, as featureless plains on the great ice sheets, as an adornment for mountains and spires,” he describes. “The variety of forms and gradations of color seems infinite. I try to use these elements to construct my compositions.”

Wind, subzero temperatures, dangerously high elevations and just getting to some of the places are a few of the challenges Martin faced while doing his fieldwork. After arriving in Ecuador to shoot Mount Cayambe, an 18,996-foot-tall volcano that’s the highest and coldest place on the Equator, Martin never saw the summit because the clouds were so thick. Getting to Mount Everest and the Mountains of the Moon, which are on the border of the Congo and Uganda, involved driving, hiring porters and walking for days just to stand at the base camp of Everest and the summit of the Mountains of the Moon.

“It’s always a grunt to just get there,” he says, “and a matter of luck whether you come back with the images or not.”

James Martin’s Favorite Places To Shoot

1 Ilulissat is the iceberg capital of the Northern Hemisphere. Plan to travel to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, from Copenhagen or Reykjavík, and continue on an Air Greenland prop plane to Ilulissat, a relatively large village on the west coast of the world’s largest island. It’s a short walk from the campground to a view of the Ice Fjord where immense icebergs catch on an underwater moraine, piling into one another. The view extends into the ocean, a magic landscape dotted with bergs.

2 Martin says the Banff/Jasper Highway from Lake Louise to Jasper townsite in the Canadian Rockies is the most scenic stretch of paved road in the world. The view changes constantly as you wind up one valley and down the next. Glaciers and icefalls grace the mountains to the west. Although diminished in size over the last decades, the glaciers still are impressive, and at the Columbia Icefields, very accessible. Take care at the foot of the Athabasca Glacier. Thin ice on the surface can hide a very big hole, and the slopes are slippery.

3 The Jökulsárlón, or ice lagoon, in southeastern Iceland represents a unique opportunity to shoot icebergs and glaciers from land in good light. Glaciers from the island’s largest ice cap calve bergs into the lake, which then drains into the sea. Wind sometimes blows blocks of ice to shore where they sit like stranded vessels. The Jökulsárlón suffers from an overabundance of tourists sometimes, but ever-changing light and compositions more than compensate.

4 The Ruth Gorge near Denali in Alaska is one of the deepest in the world, stacked Yosemites still under construction. The ice is up to 3,800 feet thick and would overflow Yosemite. If all the ice melted, some of the walls would be 9,000 feet high. Take a flight from Talkeetna to see the gorge and some of the grandest mountains in North America: Denali, Mount Foraker and Mount Huntington. They’re dripping with ice and represent serious climbing challenges.

5 Most of the world’s ice is found in Antarctica so it’s no surprise that a voyage to the peninsula, a rugged extension of the Andes, tops the list of the best places to shoot ice, Martin says. The scale stuns the mind. If you cruise to the tip from the east, the ship passes tabular icebergs, flat-topped remnants of the disintegrating ice shelves, and every peak and plain glisten with ice. Add the amazing wildlife—whales, penguins, blue-eyed shags, and leopard and crab-eater seals—and you have the greatest remaining wilderness on display, as well as evidence of climate change occurring on a human time scale.

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