What is Svalbard by Sea?

In the autumn of 2015 I was able to participate in the Arctic Circle Residency. This blog records my time in Svalbard and the work I’ve made/am making in response to that incredible experience.

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Exhibitions and a Booklet

So much is happening right now and it’s all wonderful! I got images from my trip to Svalbard in three separate exhibits this summer/autumn and am very happy to share some installation shots from the VisArts Rockville show with you all here.

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I’m also happy to have finished a project I first conceptualized over a year ago, beautiful Carte de Visite packets with ten images from my journey. You can see more about them on my website.

Moving and What’s on the Horizon

I’d like to thank all of you reading for your support and enthusiasm over the last year and I prepared for and then left for a month long trip to Svalbard. It was an incredible experience and I’m really enjoying working through the images and video I brought back with me. Although I won’t be updating this blog regularly anymore, I will be sure to announce any Svalbard-related news as it crops up.

Three bits of news then:

Work of mine from Svalbard has been selected to be exhibited this summer in two separate shows! One is the Under 30 group show at VisArts Rockville center in Maryland. You can learn more about that show here https://www.visartsatrockville.org/more/event/gen-y-3-0/

I’ll also have some pieces up in the International Center of Photography’s Annual Alumni show, which will run from August 27th to November 2nd in the school gallery at ICP in New York.

Thirdly, I’ve created a little set of cartes de visite using photos from my trip around Svalbard. They will be completed in the coming week or so, and I will be posting a few from the first edition on my website for purchase. I will post more details later.

I’ve also, as a side note, made a big change! I recently moved from NYC to DC where I am enjoying humidity, space and my very own studio. Thank you again for continued support and interest, I’m really optimistic about the beautiful things that will continue to come out of this amazing opportunity I had.

Ny Ålesund, Nordenskiöld and Near Misses

I went to Svalbard with lots of hope but low expectations; I tried not to plan any projects that required a specific landscape or a just-so kind of set up because I knew we had no set itinerary and the logistics of arctic weather, boat travel and some 20+ other individuals traveling with me may not work in favor of tightly planned projects. Instead, I opted to take a dragnet approach, opening my mind and cameras to whatever happened to present itself to me each day. For 99% of my trip, that work amazingly well. But then there was this one day, this one spot that I had grown increasingly excited to visit, and poof! The arctic weather took it away from me.

Ny Ålesund is a scientific outpost in Svalbard, a hub for bird research as well as geological and meteorological work. Though it has a population for a few hundred in the summer, when the birds come to nest, only a couple dozen scientists remain through the winter. The settlement got its start like all others in Svalbard as a mining town before transitioning into a research base in the 20th century. A miniature train sits by the harbor, rusting, as a reminder of the industrial coal roots of the area. We docked in Ny Ålesund at night and walked into the town center (there’s basically one road and it makes a loop). Excited to see it in the morning, we went to sleep happily moored at a dock for the first time in weeks. You may be asking, why was I so excited to see a scientific outpost? While Ny Ålesund was a mining outpost, it was also something else: the launching site for a number of dirigibles attempting to fly to the North Pole in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The airship mast that moored those vessels is still there today, and I was really, really jazzed about seeing it.

Morning came, and as we filed into the salon for breakfast we couldn’t help but notice that we were no longer near land. A gale had come in the night and blown us away from the town, and given the strength and direction of the wind we could not go back. The chance to visit Ny Ålesund had to be abandoned. Dejected, we settled in for a long day of watching Werner Herzog docs and napping in the salon; with bad weather there was little else for us to do. Luckily the storm cleared enough overnight that we were able to head off to our next stop, the abandoned Russian mining town Pyramiden. On our way we did a drive-by viewing of the magnificent Nordenskiöldbreen glacier, towering and toothpaste blue.

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Nordenskiöld Glacier

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Back to School

I had the distinct pleasure of writing a little article for the ICP Perspectives blog for the International  Center of Photography, my grad school alma mater. It’s a slightly more visceral musing on my trip to Svalbard, something that, although I’m just beginning to make work from the experience, feels so far away. Head over to the ICP website to read it! (Bonus: there’s a very zen video of mine in the article, too!)

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Additionally, I’m pleased to let you all know that I am teaching a course in the Continuing Education program at ICP this spring! It’s a darkroom photomanipulation class, so if you’ve ever wanted to learn how to print double exposures, execute a photomontage or apply solarization in a black and white traditional darkroom, this class is for you! See details here.

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Whattaroll Interview

I was recently interviewed by the folks over at Whattaroll! They’re a great online publication featuring analog photography work of all sorts, and you should check them out.

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I’ve started making headway on some small projects using the work I generated in Svalbard, and will be excited to share that here once things start to coalesce! Headed to the darkroom this weekend and couldn’t be more thrilled.

Greyscale landscapes and the Fourteenth of July

After a few days by the Smeerenburg glacier we began our journey back south. Our landing at the abandoned whaling village on Amsterdamøya was the farthest north we’d make it at 79°41 N, 011°01 E.

Our next stop was a foggy, eerie Magdalenafjord. Another old whaling site, the spit of land we explored had the remains of a graveyard on a little hill and the clouds hung heavy over the mountains. The landscape was uncanny and gorgeous. A seal swam up and down the shoreline, being chased by (or chasing?) our lovable guard pup Nemo.

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We then got to spend almost two days  at Fjortende Julibukta, or Fourteenth of July Bay by the Fourteenth of July Glacier. An odd name perhaps, but given to honor the French with a beautiful natural scene to commemorate the French national holiday. Dance parties at night on the Antigua began, and we enjoyed an immense amount of ice in the water due to the active nature of the glacier. We were lucky enough to land in several different locations around the bay, giving us a number of different views of the massive glacier. This glacier had particularly dark streaks it in, an almost purple colored blue reminiscent of a bruise. Seriously beautiful.

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Ice on the beach of Fjortende Julibukta

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The glacier, Fjortende Julibreen

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Me on the deck of the Antigua at Fjortende Julibreen

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The glacier at Fjortende Julibreen, you can see fellow art residents for scale along the shore

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Residency companion Harry Thring hard at work by the glacier. See his work here

A map of our route so far, you can see we had begun the trip south. After leaving the stunning Fourteenth of July Bay, we anchored at a dock in a small settlement called Ny Ålesund. It was the first time we’d seen any people other than our shipmates for a long time, and we were all very hyper to get off the boat and explore the little town! More about Ny Ålesund and it’s incredibly rich history as a scientific settlement and its role in early aviation in my next post.

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Smeerenburg, the Dutch Whaling Settlement

We spent a couple of days in the thrall of the astounding Smeerenburgbreen, the glacier named for the nearby 16th century Dutch whaling settlement of Smeerenburg. This was possibly the largest glacier we saw during our trip but it certainly had the greatest presence; muffled thunder and sudden cracks sounded out a few times an hour, and calving ice rocked our ship all through the nights.

 

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The Antigua at Smeerenburgbreen. For scale, the ship’s mainmast is 31.5 meters tall and the face of the glacier is ~60 meters

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Being such an active glacier meant stunning blue ice and water full of icebergs and littler bergs, hissing and crackling like effervescent soda pop in the ocean. The contrast between the quiet, still moments where you could hear the soft lapping of the water at the edges of the ice and the sudden cracks and crashes of the calves… it was really a magical place.

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Two of our guides and Nemo at one of our landings

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A sunset at Smeerenburgbreen

The area provided several great spots to land, lots of floebergs (beached icebergs) for the art residents to work with, and some quiet time where we got to stay in place for more than a day. After our stay at the glacier, we visited what was left of the settlement of Smeerenburg, which translates to “Blubber Town”. Located on the little island of Amsterdamøya, not much remains aside from scattered logs and bricks. A single whale vertebrae, a couple decrepit blubber ovens and the yellow, fat-saturated ground still oily with the remnants of the whales.

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Leaving Smeerenburgbreen in the fog and clouds

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Smeerenburg whaling settlement

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What’s left of the blubber ovens

Here’s an updated map of our trip so far! Coming up, some epic mountains and equally epic disappointment when the weather turns against us.

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Farmhamna, Respite After the Night of the Waves

Our first night out to sea was a truly epic experience. We sailed from the sheltered, mirror-still Isfjord and headed north, sailing from the later afternoon all through the night to arrive in Farmhamna the following day. As we passed the small mining town of Barentsburg, twinkling in the distance, the swells from the open sea finally hit the Antigua. Turns out what can be described as a “small swell” in the context of the ocean is, in the context of land-lubbers like myself, a massive upset. Three-meter swells hit our little boat, and while many of my comrades head below deck to their bunks I joined a small group on deck. The boat was rocking so violently you simply had to hold on to something unless you felt comfortable sliding around uncontrollably! Waves crashed over the front of the ship, once choice swell drenching a few residents who seemed to quite enjoy the authenticity of the experience. After a while, the waves got the better of me (and most others onboard, including the crew and wilderness guides and even the poor dog Nemo). I got sick overboard, and then felt worlds better.

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Our trip from Longyearbyen to Farmhamna, roughly

As a reward to those of us toughing it out in the misty, cold outdoors, an outstanding aurora came out! Green with a red band at its bottom, the aurora wrapped around the ship from east through north to the northwest, and at one point a separate band flashed into the south (quite rare!) A group of towering, electric-like white shards shot out right above the ship, dancing above the mast. It was staggering in its beauty. Unfortunately, it also kept me out on deck long enough to become quite ill a second, and then a third, time! Definitely worth it, though at a high cost. Late in the night we switched from the motor to the sails, which meant everything on board smoothed out substantially. The peace was overwhelming.

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The Antigua under sail

While I didn’t get to take any images of the aurora, there appears to be one taken of it from the International Space Station! The date is correct and the station was over northern Europe at that time, able to record a pretty staggering Kp7 aurora. Though I can’t 100% verify that this is the exact aurora I saw, it certainly looks familiar!

 

Landing at Farmhamna was  a super beautiful but deeply haunting respite from the ocean. The area was an abandoned (for a few years) trapper station, and as such was absolutely littered with animal bones, knives, sleds and other trapper necessities. There was also a tall wooden structure used for hanging animal carcasses from as they were processed by the trapper, under which the earth was saturated in a greasy brown mixture of fats and blood. The low golden light of the arctic autumn made for some difficult but breathtaking photo ops, accentuating the colorful tundra and the contrast between it and the dark, heavy clouds on the horizon.

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We then continued on to Smeerenburgbreen in the afternoon after landing in Famrhamna. Awaiting us up there was a massive glacier at the very tip top of the archipelago. All told it was quite a haul! The greatest blessing though was that from that night on, which we liked to call “the night of the waves,” the sailing was a lot of sailing rather than motoring and we managed to avoid any more “little swells”.

Coraholmen, in the Mirrored Ekmanfjorden

I thought I’d give you a little glimpse into our daily routine on the Antigua! It’s worth noting that although we were in the same time zone as the UK, we had our own timezone onboard the ship. Ship’s time was one hour ahead of local time, an attempt to eek out a little more sunlight from the rapidly dimming days.

On deck of the Antigua, featuring Hilary on the right!

On deck of the Antigua, featuring Hilary on the right!

8-9am, breakfast is served in the saloon followed by a briefing on our morning landing

930-10am, total chaos as we scramble to get our gear organized for a landing! Cameras, freshly charged batteries, film etc. and life preservers.

1030am (ish), landing time! Everyone who is going on the landing must sign out, everyone who is staying onboard must sign “on board”. The guides at this point have already landed at the landing site and set up a safe perimeter for us to work within. We slowly board the zodiacs, a handful of people at a time, and zip over to the landing site.

Symbols used to sign in and out and onboard the ship for each landing

Symbols used to sign in and out and onboard the ship for each landing


A zodiac landing at Smeerenburgbreen later in the trip. See the guide on shore with Nemo, the zodiac coming to shore, and the Antigua in the back right of the image.

A zodiac landing at Smeerenburgbreen later in the trip. See the guide on shore with Nemo, the zodiac coming to shore, and the Antigua in the back right of the image.

Landing-1230pm, we work at the landing site. Every landing site was different in size but the rules remained the same: you had to stay within the boundaries set by the guides and never use the word “bear” unless you actually see one

1-2pm, Back on the boat (don’t forget to sign back in) followed by lunch! Followed by a briefing of our afternoon landing spot, usually a new spot in the same area or possibly a new area altogether.

230-5pm, embarkation, new landing, sign out, sign back in onboard. At 5pm, there’s cake and tea in the saloon!

730pm, dinner followed by lectures given by each artist in residence.

Coraholmen early in the day

Coraholmen early in the day

Coraholmen, our second new area on the trip, was one of my favorite landings of the entire residency. The day started out deeply grey and dim with low clouds. As the sun rose (around mid-morning) the clouds broke and the glassy still surface of the fjord gave us the most amazing mirrored patterns reflecting the already repetitive geological formations on the mountains. A really spectacular place.

The sun begins to break through at Coraholmen

The sun begins to break through at Coraholmen


Our brightest, sunniest day all trip

Our brightest, sunniest day all trip

Antigua Antigua, Katherine

I’ve returned, with all my digits, to an exceedingly autumnal New York City. My time in Svalbard was everything I had hoped but nothing like what I had expected. I’m going to write a few posts over the next weeks telling you about the trip itself, where we went, what we saw and learned, and hopefully after some time has passed and the experience has sunk in a bit more I’ll start to process my photos and impressions into some more eloquent and interesting pieces.

Despite my laptop dying at the end of the trip and one pretty epic bout of seasickness, the trip was a total success. I’m really looking forward to getting film processed this week and to brainstorming with my friend and collaborator Emilie Lundstrøm as we bring a show together.

View from the Antigua

View from the Antigua

So, here’s a little intro to what my trip was like! I lived aboard a barkentine sailboat with about thirty other people, including a wonderfully funny crew and four passionate, kind wilderness guides. Oh, and don’t forget Nemo, our guard dog! He was so good at his job we didn’t see a single polar bear during our trip. The ship, the Antigua, was a beautiful place to call home for a few weeks. We even had the weather in our favor a few times and were able to help the crew hoist the sails so we could sail rather than run the motor!

The view from my bunk's porthole

The view from my bunk’s porthole

Our very first stop was at a glacier, which met all of my highest expectations immediately. The glacier, Sveabreen, was fairly active but also had an inactive end that we could land right near, allowing us to touch the glacier in safety. It was a spectacular way to start the trip.

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Nemo and the Antigua at Sveabreen

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Touching a glacier for the first time!

I’ll write more about our following landings and travels soon. Again, I simply must give thanks to all of the people who supported my trip, including those who helped get me to Svalbard as well as the guides and companions who helped make the experience so wonderful.

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Sveabreen glacier