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

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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The Moon and Other Questions

One of the most dramatic and unique parts of the environment at the poles is the unusual cycle of the sun. We all know about the 24-hour darkness and the 24-hour sunlight experienced in those areas, but I recently was asked a very interesting question: what about the moon?

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At ~80° North, the archipelago of Svalbard experiences roughly 141 days of polar night and 128 days of midnight sun every year. During the month of October while I will be in Svalbard, the Sun will be above the horizon about ~15-30 minutes less every day. At the same time, it will be rising to lower and lower apexes at its highest during the day. The affect is sort of like slipping from a recognizable day/night cycle to a slowly drawn out sunrise/sunset cycle with no true “day”.

The moon is a bit more complex an issue. As it waxes and wanes, the moon at the poles has a much longer cycle of rise and set than anywhere else on the planet. At the poles, and in high latitudes like Svalbard, the moon will rise and stay up for days at a time, generally about a week but it can stay up for much longer. Then it goes into a rise/set cycle for about a week, and then stays set for a week. Mystery solved!

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Longyearbyen at night from Kairo Studios

Do you have any questions about Svalbard, prepping for cold weather travel, photography, my upcoming project plans, the history of polar exploration, or anything else? Let me know! I’d love to do a post answering your questions.

Svalbard: Breakdown

W_W_Svalbard_LandSat7_21.14475E_78.71545NSvalbard is an archipelago, a clumpy chain of islands in the far north of the arctic ocean. It’s made up of 11 sizeable islands and many additional small skerries. The area boasts many hundreds of rivers, fjords and glaciers, and has many eerie former settlements sprinkled across the islands, too. The islands also became the launching point for a number of Arctic explorers, including William Edward Parry, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, Otto Martin Torell, Alfred Gabriel Nathorst, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton.

Spitsbergen is the largest island in Svalbard and the only truly permanently populated settlement, Longyearbyen, is located there. Although some weather and research stations exist on the other islands, none of them have a population over 10 nor are they permanent communities.DeGeerdalen, SpitsbergenSettled in the 17th century as an ideal location for whaling and then coal mining, Spitsbergen is a cold, mountainous place. Besides Longyearbyen, with a population of around 3,000, Ny-Ålesund isa former mining town, permanently settled around scientific research. Ny-Ålesund has a winter population of 35 and a summer population of 180. 

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Longyearbyen

Barentsburg is the only remaining Russian settlement since Pyramiden was abandoned in 1998. All facilities are owned by Arktikugol, who operate a coal mine (operations have, however, been stopped since 2006). Pyramiden is a tourist favorite for taking creepy, ruin-porn photos of the abandoned town.

A scene from Pyramiden

A scene from Pyramiden

Nordaustlandet is more northely in the chain and is mostly covered in ice caps. Another island in Svalbard, it had previously been the site of walrus hunting, and to this day is still populated by reindeer and walrus. Edgeøya, an island further south in the chain, has within it the massive glacier Edgeøyjøkulen. Barentsøya, located in between Edgøya and Spitsbergen, has some truly incredible scenes of the beauty of the arctic desert.

A Nordaustlandet walrus

A Nordaustlandet walrus

Kvitøya is the island I am most excited to visit. Known as White Island, Kvitøya is the site of S.A. Andree’s death, where his and his comrades’ bodies were recovered forty years after he first set sail in a balloon from Danskøya, Svalbard in 1897. I’ve written about S.A. Andree and his failed ballooning attempt to reach the North Pole; his story, and that of his two companions, is amongst the greatest and saddest in the whole saga of Polar Exploration.

Andree sets off from Danskøya

Andree sets off from Danskøya

The ørnen, crash landed not three days after take-off

The ørnen, crash landed not three days after take-off

Memorial for Andree and his companions, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel, on Kvitøya

Memorial for Andree and his companions, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel, on Kvitøya

Companions!

We’re within 6 months until I head to the high arctic above Scandinavia for a month long journey upon the ice seas. I have been preparing for the potentially challenging climate, learning some fun facts about ice, and gathering inspiration from other artists.

But I am not alone in my preparations! A veritable smörgåsbord of talented individuals will be joining me on my residency, which is indeed one of the best parts of being a participant! Not only do I get to travel to an amazing part of the world, being granted access to an experience that I would otherwise struggle to find opportunity for myself, but I get to share this experience with a collection of talented, experienced and passionate individuals. So, without further ado, here they are!

Joshua Abarbanel
Katherine Akey (yours truly!)
Andreas Behn-Eschenburg
John Henry Blatter
Hardy Brix
Annie Carpenter
Katy Connor
Dagmar Dahle
Julie Delfour
Hannah Edward
Arturo Erbsman
Judith Goudsmit
Linda Jasmin Mayer
Tyler Robert Jones
Tzu-Ling Lee
Maia Marinelli
Piper Mavis
Jaakko Niemela
Richard Painter
Francesca Piñol
Kirsten Ringstrom
Anne Helen Robberstad
Leela Schauble
Scott Simpson
Harry Thring
Hilary Wang
Shoshannah White
Kit-Yi Wong

This crew includes screenwriters, glassblowers, painters, environmentalists, video artists, sculptors, Scandinavians, Australians… truly a broad sweep of amazing individuals. I encourage you to take a look at their work, and I’ll be excited to share our common adventures with you all.

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!)

The Magnetic North

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Earlier this week I went to the opening of Magnetic North, a group show containing works generated by artists in direct response to their time in the Arctic Circle Residency. The work encompasses a wide range of creative practices and media, reflecting the diversity of residents that have participated in the past expeditions.

I am lucky enough to be one of this multi-talented group. I will be heading off as they all did before to Svalbard in seventeen months from now. It sounds like a very distant event, but the time is sure to pass quickly and there is much to do in preparation for the trip. Supplies must be researched and purchased, grants chased after and project outlines sketched.  I hope that some of you will check in with me here during the next year and a half as I learn about cold weather clothing and do test runs of various projects for the residency.

Also, you should check out Magnetic North if you get the chance. It’s up at 1285 Avenue of the Americas from now through August 29th and is well worth seeing.