A paper presented at 'Relate North' 2016 (UHI Shetland, UK) by Kristine Thoreson, PhD
In June of 2014 I travelled to Ilulissat Greenland for the first time and I had a chance to witness the grandiose icebergs (that I had been seeing in popular art photography exhibitions and books) in person. I was surprised to discover the difference between looking at photographs of icebergs, and actually being there to witness them. Icebergs are, of course, embedded within a landscape that has geologic and cultural history. And, they are accessible for most photographers in a just few prime locations globally, yet the resulting landscape photographs appear very similar. Images from Greenland, Norway, Russia, Iceland, Canada, Alaska and other regions are easily conflated and often the specific location hasn’t been clearly indicated. Travelling to Greenland allowed me to see the landscapes in person, to get a sense of place and community, and to understand what art photographers had been including and excluding from the photographic frame. Once on location, I discovered a different kind of Greenland; it was one that I did not see represented by the popular art photographers whose works I kept encountering in museum exhibitions, monograph book collections, and touring group exhibitions.
This photograph by Tiina Itkonen (fig. 1.) is a good example of the kind of art photography that, over the past 15 years, has become very well known and well circulated in North America and Europe. This photograph offers the viewer an encounter with the strange, and awe-inspiring polar North. The blue grey tones of ice appear like mountains stretching across a perfectly framed panoramic view. Yet the moody sky and dark water hint at the unforgiving nature of the landscape despite the beauty pictured. It is characteristic of photographs by other prominent artists who have photographed Greenland and other Arctic regions including Olaf Otto Becker (Germany), David Burdeny (Canada), Tiina Itkonen (Finland) and Camille Seaman (USA) to name just a few. But, as I discovered, there is much more to Greenland than just icy views. So where were these other kinds of representations? Why were there so many prominent artists and exhibitions featuring a sublime kind of North?
It is true that stunning photographs of ice-clad landscapes do impress. They are commercially viable, and a strong message about the need for environmental sustainability is easily communicated. These are not negative things, of course. However, the power to shape global perceptions of place through art should not be taken lightly, and in the case of art photography, this power can be attributed to at least two main factors. Photographs inherently carry a connotation of truthfulness due to the historic use of photography as a medium of authentication, as well as because of its representational veracity (Tagg 4). Thus, photographs have long been thought of as ‘truthful’ as often as they have been ‘artful’. Furthermore, because in the West we are in the habit of looking at pictures of land as ‘landscape’ (a term and an idea that emerged only in the early 1600s with regard to painting) we sometimes ignore important ideas contained within them—rich information about power relations, ownership, truth and representation and cultural identities. In the face of evocative and internationally published art photography of the north, we can lose sight of the fact that local perceptions of place exist, as do local representations of the north. And these images made by both amateurs and professionals may differ completely from the few popular and grand artist exhibitions, and monographs that are readily found in libraries and bookstores in major centers today.
With regard to the art photographs made in Greenland, there is an overwhelming tendency to present Greenland as “otherworldly” and the photographs are often tinged with a modern sense of Burkean sublime (Tøjner and Seeberg 5). Arctic researcher Robert McGhee writes that: “[t]o most southerners the Arctic remains what it was to their counterparts centuries and perhaps even millennia ago: the ultimate otherworld” (Ibid). Things haven’t changed much it seems. Indeed, the art photographs of Greenland that I have viewed by Becker, Itkonen and Seaman re-call the Victorian sublime feelings of awe, insignificance, exaltation and terror. Their unfamiliar, fantastic scenes evoke for me imagined ideas of an extreme place with bitter cold and very few modern resources. Robert McGhee explains: “[s]tories, the true and the false, have gradually accumulated to form the vision of a distant and fantastic Arctic as seen through the window of Western culture” (McGhee 10). He goes on to say that “[t]his Arctic is not so much a region as a dream; the dream of a unique, unattainable and compellingly attractive world. It is the last imaginary place” (Ibid). The photographs then, that I had been looking at did in fact do a very good job at upholding McGhee’s observation and made me long for this imaginary place. If not always sublime, then the photographs of Arctic places that caught my attention surely can emphasized the strangeness and ‘otherworldly-ness’ that could be found there. Some examples are found below:
Yet when I arrived in Greenland, I was sharply reminded of the extent to which photographers can frame a view and lead a viewer to certain conclusions. I understood first hand the difference between experiencing a place, and experiencing a photograph of a place. I went to Greenland in the capacity of a researcher and artist, and my experience was quite comfortable and even urban, actually. To make photographs of icebergs and Arctic landscapes I didn’t have to bravely rent and operate an inflatable Zodiac in icy waters and travel all alone up the ‘wild’ coasts of Greenland as I feared that I would have to—just as art photographer Olaf Otto Becker had done and has since written about. Nor did I need to live in tents and small villages with local families for months on end like Tiina Itkonen had. I simply took a plane from Calgary, made one connection in Reykjavik, Iceland and was picked up at the airport by my hotel shuttle. I had booked my hotel in advance online through www.booking.com. It was a newly built and modernly designed hotel in a town of around five thousand local Danish and Inuit people. Everyone whom I encountered spoke very good English and tour companies were plentiful and well organized for the most part. Many of the people that I encountered were of either Greenlandic-Inuit or Danish decent and could speak English, Danish and Greenlandic. Teenagers wore G Star jeans, many people carried iphones and I even found that I could get a decent price on a Canada Goose parka if I had wanted one.
During my week-long stay, I photographed the ice from the streets of the town and from the deck of mid sized tourist boats alongside dozens of other tourists who had come to see the ice as well. Mythic notions of the a wild, frozen and ‘great white North’ that I had witnessed in the above mentioned art photography evaporated in front of me as I sat in the eighteen degree Celsius, June sunshine drinking a latté on the deck of a shop on the main street in town. Following Yi-Fu Taun’s definition of myth, I mean a belief that is not easily verified or proven false (Tuan 85). Mythic space is defined as “a fuzzy area of defective knowledge surrounding the empirically known” that “is a conceptual extension of the familiar and workaday spaces given by direct experience” (Tuan 86). Thus as I sat drinking my coffee I was struck by the incongruity between the fuzzy kind of knowledge of an Arctic place that I had derived from art photographs, and the fact of the parents, children, tourists, water trucks and shuttles that streamed by within site of the dramatic looking icebergs on location in Ilulissat.
Once again, the same experience repeated itself when I compared the impressions that I had gained from photographs, with what I experienced when I went for a hike along the famous Ilulissat Icefjord. Since it has been a World Heritage Site since 2001, there is a well-maintained and marked trail spray-painted with large yellow dots. It led me along a path alongside other visitors, who just like me, held published maps to guide them. The icefjord was packed with icebergs, tourist boats dotted the water, and hikers travelled the walking trail with cameras and books in hand. All the while the magnificent ice heaved and cracked mysteriously beside me—the fuzzy realm of the imaginary became at once even more fantastic, yet also more grounded in the empirically known of my experience at the same time. Following the hike, I ate pizza and drank a Coca-Cola on the patio of the Icy Café and I wondered if Olaf Otto Becker had eaten there before me. These kinds of events characterized my stay.
Thus, I learned through practice what theory had already taught me. Photographs are, for one thing, slices of a subjective reality that when separated, as images, from the scene (and timeframe) from which they were taken, can tell incomplete or even misleading stories. Author and artist Deborah Bright, in writing about the genre of landscape in art, states that “[w]hether noble, picturesque, sublime or mundane, the landscape image… is a selected and constructed text” and that the social significance of the decision to include or exclude subject matter within a landscape is rarely considered (126). Having been now to Greenland, I understand that the Arctic art photographs that I have seen show only a select and deliberately framed view, and that view is chosen according to particular art historical, commercial or personal interest. This is of course not saying anything new. Yet with regard to photographs of the Arctic, and because Greenland is still one of those less traveled, ‘off the beaten track’ kind of places, it becomes an increasingly important point. It is important because viewers of art photographs who reside outside of Greenland (or Northern regions) may be unaware of any other kinds of northern landscape possibilities, and perhaps already aware of the imaginary ones that McGhee has described.
-An excerpt from: Reframing an Arctic Image, Out of the Sublime. ©Kristine Thoreson 2016
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Dr. Kristine Thoreson is an independent researcher, visual artist, curator and writer. With a love for geographically northern regions, especially in the North Atlantic, Kristine practices creative research about how photography creates and reflects the worlds we live within. Her favourite books on the north are Winter: Five Windows on the Season by Adam Gopnik and Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage by Kathleen Winter.