The Timeless Moment Of Ice Light

How can subjects that change from moment to moment speak of eternity?

Grey Glacier and Lago Grey, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile.

Here, half a world away, I’m working away at one of my favorite notions: the timeless moment, and how to preserve it photographically. The question that often stirs my imagination is this: How does the ephemeral event, the short-lived phenomenon, speak to the notion of timelessness? How do we create a truly special moment for the viewer, that split-second, finger-pressing-shutter instant that leads to a picture that will evoke—somewhere in the psyche, the heart and the soul—a sense of the infinite? At Lago Grey in Patagonia, a richness of opportunities to capture the timeless moment awaits.

Patagonia is a magical place at the bottom of South America that photographers and nature trekkers love for the sheer visual power of its primal landscape. Breathtaking sharp peaks, arid steppes and vast glacier fields descending from the southern Andes offer infinite possibilities for the adventurous. Lago Grey lies within Torres del Paine National Park, at the bottom of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field—the world’s third-largest continental ice sheet after Antarctica and Greenland. Grey Glacier flows into the north end of the lake in three immense tongues that lap at the water’s edge. Crude, rough-hewn, sculpted chunks of tilted ice regularly calve off to become otherworldly-blue icebergs.

At the other, southwestern end of the lake lies a small island. Thanks to a spit of gravel threading out across the water from the shore, you can walk out to and then around the island. That spit is where the timeless marvel of the translucent-blue ice ships plays out. They begin life as jagged spikes several miles north at the top of the lake. Like phalanxes of soldiers marching into the water, the spikes calve off from Grey Glacier. The unreal, vibrant blues of the floating ice are indescribable. Driven by frequent and notoriously ferocious winds, often 30 mph or more, the icebergs sail inexorably down the narrow lake, straight toward the little island. Many stack up along the gravel spit, making a Sargasso Sea of frozen ships.

The real story here is the constantly changing mood. It’s exciting and dynamic. This day, I’m working with one particular iceberg. The constant melting and freezing cycles have formed a U-shaped arch perhaps 20 feet high out of the shimmering blue ice. It’s low enough in the water that I can do my favorite thing with arches. I’ve photographed arches for decades across the country, but especially in Red Rock Country. They were the subjects of my books Windstone and Plateau Light.

I’m shooting with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 digital camera. Its built-in telephoto lens gives me a 35-420mm range. Since my eye is drawn to natural arches as a framing motif, I zoom in on Grey Glacier, several miles north, using the U-shaped blue ice window to enfold the glacier top to bottom. The semitransparent, backlit blue iceberg is about 300 yards from me. Using between 300mm and 400mm of focal length, the glacial tongue mostly fills the ice “frame.” The two elements seem right on top of each other, although the glacier is six miles away!

The winds whip the lake waters into whitecaps. Suddenly, one whole piece of the iceberg splits off, falls over with a huge splash, and drops into the water like a sinking ship. Then the whole thing collapses right before my eyes!

Later, my thoughts come back to the U-shaped iceberg and the timelessness of such moments. The iceberg wasn’t even at the spit the night before. Many of them parked overnight, so big they didn’t melt for awhile. Once the sun came up, the whole flotilla began melting, shifting, disintegrating right before my eyes. They look so strong, solid, massive. But the winds push at them all the time. They’re moving, tipping, doing all kinds of dynamic things. The moods change with the angle and light. Sometimes fog hangs over the mountains or glaciers in the distance, making wings of clouds that roll with the wind down the lee side. Pure magic, constantly changing.

Photographing in such a shifting landscape would have been a monstrous technical job with my 4×5 camera. But even with the spontaneous freedom of handheld equipment, I always urge photographers to bring tripods. Lake Grey’s beauty is the ever-shifting, ever-changing ice. As long as there has been water, there has been this cycle of water to clouds to snow to ice to water. It evolves moment to moment, and therein lies its timelessness.

It’s like the universe; it’s like us.

Over the course of some five decades, David Muench’s work has been celebrated in more than 50 exhibit-format books such as Plateau Light and Eternal Desert, as well as innumerable exhibits and permanent installations. See more of his images at