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”.

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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

Gearing Up, Heading Out

We’re finally here, go-time for my participation in the Arctic Circle Residency! I fly out in just a few short days, and can’t thank you all enough for the love and support I’ve received over the last year. I will be posting a little update from Stockholm and possibly Longyearbyen, but once I am on board the beautiful Antigua. I will have no internet connection until we’ve come back to Longyearbyen at the end of our journey. You will hear from me again upon my arrival to Oslo after the sailing trip.

Until then, here’s a little summary of all the necessary stuff I am taking with me. Although I’ve managed to keep it pared down, you still need a lot of good winter clothing and shooting with both film and digital equipment can really add up.

Wondering how to put all those clothes to good use in cold weather? Check out the video below on how to dress for arctic temperatures!

Email subscribers, go here to watch the above videos!

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Special shout out to my good friend Claire, who has given me the most amazing wool scarf for this trip! I tested it out last winter, when temperatures in NYC reached 15°F. You can check out more of her scarves, all crocheted by hand, at her Esty. Thanks Claire!!

The Intrepid Photographer

I am unbelievably excited to be the caretaker of a beautiful new Intrepid 4×5 camera. The Intrepid Camera Company got its start with an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign, and now they are in the throes of production, pumping out lightweight, folding 4×5 cameras for photography enthusiasts all over the world.

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I’ve been asked many times, Why shoot 4×5? Isn’t it expensive? And slow? And frustrating? And the answer is yes! It is very expensive, clocking in at about $2-$3 a pop for a single shot of film (not including processing, which brings that up to $5-$6 per shot!) It is also super time consuming, sure! Loading the sheets of film into film carriers, setting up the camera and taking measurements to align a shot, loading the film, firing… the whole process can take an hour or better. On top of the expense, both financial and time wise, there’s an incredibly high chance that your photograph will not come out, compared to shooting roll films. Even the most seasoned Large Format photographers will nod along to this fact; so much more can wrong, but the risk of that is totally, totally worth it!

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Walker Evans with a large format camera by Peter Seker

The slowness and size of shooting a 4×5 is exactly why some photographers love it so much. Not only is the final product more high-resolution, sharp and crisp than any digital camera out there, but the slowness is a great boon to some of us who have a tendency to rush. Just as oil paints allow a painter to work over the canvas for an elongated period, the large format process draws out the act of photographing from a snapshot moment to a thoughtful 20 minutes or more. The medium simply dictates a different mode of working, and that choice can have a massive affect on the final product (just as the choice between oil and water color would).

The Intrepid Camera is going to be the perfect 4×5 for this residency in Svalbard, and probably for a lot of work thereafter. I’ll be sure to report back on its performance upon my return, and I look forward to sharing some of the great images I take with you all, too!

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Collaborations and Valkyries

I’m incredibly pleased to talk a bit about the work of one of my MFA classmates and dearest friends, Emilie Lundstrøm. A native of Denmark, Emilie grew up on a tiny island, sailing to school every day and living deeply in tune with the natural world around her. Working with a repetition of shapes and organic materials, her work reflects her nordic heritage as well as her profound curiosity for and love of nature.

A sculptural installation by Emilie Lundstrøm

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Little fox made by Emilie Lundstrøm

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My Valkyries

Emilie and I had many opportunities to work together during our time in the MFA program at ICP-Bard, from books to symposiums to installing our thesis shows back-to-back. I’m super pleased to be working with her again on a big project, bringing her heritage and norse mythology into conversation with my experience in Svalbard and the history of exploration in the arctic. We’re hoping for this collaboration to produce at least a show, if not books in addition.

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Sculpture by Emilie Lundstrøm

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Sculptural installation by Emilie Lundstrøm

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Sculpture of handmade ceramic flutes with tubing and artist, Emilie Lundstrøm

I can’t wait to fill you all in on more details, but that will have to wait for a while yet! Until then, peruse some of Emilie’s amazing work and maybe get yourself a Valkyrie for a little extra luck and protection. Worn into battle by the Vikings and found in ancient burial contexts, the Valkyrie is a symbol or protection, fortitude and luck. Emilie has given me some of her handmade ceramic and porcelain Valkyries for my journey north!

What to Wear

I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the weather and conditions in Svalbard during my trip there next fall. How much sunlight will there be? How cold will it be, will there be a lot of snow?

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These are all great questions, so I thought I’d answer them here!

-Svalbard is located between about 78° and 80° North, making it just 10-12 degrees shy of the North Pole.

-Svalbard experiences about 125 days of Midnight Sun and about 112 days of Polar Night. Every day that I am in Svalbard will be shorter by about half an hour, which definitely will make me, as a photographer, work under pressure!

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-The arctic is a desert, so despite the presence of snow and ice the humidity is very low and dry skin and chapped lips are a serious concern! The chance of precipitation doubles over the course of October, so I will expect some snow while I’m there but not an inconvenient amount.

So what about the temperature, you ask? Well, given the weather we’ve been having here in New York and New England this winter, it really won’t be all too cold! I will experience a high of about 30°F and a low of 14°F, averaging around 20°F without windchill. That being said, it’s very rarely sunny in Svalbard! So although there is not much windchill to take into account, there also isn’t much sunshine to warm you up.

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NOPE. not anymore.

Given all of the above, how does one dress for this climate? You might be imagining mountainous fur coats and gargantuan parkas, but that’s not the best tactic for dressing in this kind of climate.

I made a little video to summarize what I learned about dressing for the arctic, which you can watch below. (Email subscribers click here to watch!)

Unpacking the Antarctic with Elise Engler

Although my journey this fall will be to the Arctic, at the northern end of our planet, and not to the Antarctic, I have a keen interest in heading to the southern continent in the future.

I had the pleasure of attending one of the Explorers Club’s great Monday night lectures a few weeks ago, given by the artist Elise Engler. Engler is a New York based painter/illustrator/drawer with an immense patience. She talked us through her influences and her early work, which included some excellent Renaissance and early American influences and a 15 panel piece (each panel being 5 foot by 1 foot in size) in which she drew every object she owned. Yep, every object she owned. She then started drawing smaller collections of contained things, like the contents of handbags, every object in a firetruck and every object in a virology lab.

After a few other residencies and adventures, Engler was awarded an opportunity to journey to Antarctica through the National Science Foundation as part of the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. Below is a selection of her work, some of which she made whilst in Antarctica and some made upon her return.

Some of my favorite pieces that Engler made from this journey are her Window View series. The final objects are accordion books, each panel a meticulous and spirited depiction of the view out each and every window in, for example, McMurdo station, or the Lake Hoare station.

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Engler also made an enormous number of small paintings both on site (in watercolor) and from images (in oil). They are all quite small, less than 6″ on a side I believe, but the smallness seems wonderfully appropriate to me. One attendee asked Engler why she chose to paint on so small a scale, finding it “ironic” that she choose to depict her experience and observations in Antarctica, this massive and looming continent, in such a small manner. I loved her answer, chiefly that the size actually brings an intimacy and delicacy to the pieces that she likes very much. But I also think she brought up another point in her lecture, that of SCALE and its inherent absence on the continent. Antarctica is so frequently remarked on as being totally lacking in a sense of scale; a mountain may appear no more than a hill until you start walking, a glacier could be the width of a road or the width of a canyon, and owing to the lack of any recognizably sized object around (there’s not even trees or grasses) there’s no real way to tell just by looking.

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With that in mind, I adore Engler’s small paintings! I think of them as being out of scale; these delicate little things that draw you in nose to nose with them that, in your minds eye, are actually a peep hole into a land of brobdingnagian beauty.

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One Week Left!

With one week left, I could still use some help with my fundraising! Any money donated from here on out will go to my plane ticket to Svalbard, and will earn you a super special gift! Watch the video to find out more!

Last Push!

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Consider supporting the arts instead of corporations this holiday season with a tax deductible art purchase that will go towards my Arctic Circle Residency!

I am 90% of the way to funding my minimum goal, help me with this final push!