Roving thoughts and provocations

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Olaf Otto Becker: Greenland Melting

In 1999, the German photographer Olaf Otto Becker took a picture of a glacier in Iceland for his first book, Under the Nordic Light. When he returned to photograph the same glacier three years later, it was gone.

More recently, Becker has been photographing Greenland, whose rapidly melting ice sheet is among the urgent issues under discussion at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

Between 2003 and 2006, Becker made a series of solo expeditions in an inflatable Zodiac boat along 2,500 miles of the west coast of Greenland. His photographs of this remote North Atlantic shoreline—its icebergs, rock cliffs, scattered settlements, and the ocean waters that crash against it—are collected in his second book, Broken Line. They were taken at night by midsummer light, with a large-format camera and exposures of up to several minutes. Unsentimental and astoundingly beautiful, they show a violently shifting ice-filled landscape at arresting points of stillness. In scale and subject matter, some resemble the sublime landscapes of nineteenth-century painters like Frederic Edwin Church.

In the summers of 2007 and 2008, Becker returned to the west coast of Greenland with the Arctic explorer Georg Sichelschmidt, this time to photograph a series of remote rivers whose traces he had originally spotted in a NASA satellite photograph. No road exists in this region; about a hundred miles northeast of Ilulissat, within the Arctic Circle, it can be reached only by trekking inland from the coast across miles of glacial crevasses and melting ice floes. Becker’s photographs from these expeditions appear in his latest book, Above Zero, and are now on view in exhibitions in New York City and Copenhagen.

In Above Zero, Becker documents even more directly an endangered landscape changing before our very eyes. Of the first river he photographed, in July 2007, he writes:

At the time we were there, this river was seven and a half kilometers long and supplied by innumerable meltwater streams and rills. Lining its banks were millions of cylindrical holes full of water. On closer scrutiny, they turned out to contain black dust and soot that, having absorbed the warmth of the sun much faster than the reflective ice had, sunk through the ice, creating cylindrical holes. Far away from the coast and surrounded by inland ice, the fast-flowing river suddenly disappeared into a moulin [a glacial hole that can be hundreds of feet deep]. When approaching the moulin, we heard the ice creaking loudly beneath our feet, the meltwater having presumably carved huge cavities underneath the ice sheet, which here is about 700 meters thick.

Such inland rivers are stunningly captured in Becker’s photographs: the bright color of the water contrasts with eerily pockmarked snow and ice that we might have expected to be a pristine white, but that appear instead in shades of white, gray, even black, darkened by dust that has traveled through the airstream from as far away as China. As the pockmarks in the ice merge together, trenches resembling tire tracks develop and gradually turn into rivers, lakes, and moulins, all the while weakening the ice sheet and hastening its disintegration during the warm months of each year.

When I am photographing,” Becker has said, “I am very conscious of what this same view might look like in fifty or one hundred years, even five hundred years’ time. How will it have changed? Will all the ice and snow be gone?” Because of rising temperatures and ice melt around the globe in recent years, many landscapes in Above Zero have already changed dramatically since Becker photographed them. As Freddy Langer writes in his introduction to the book,

Every one of Becker’s photographs, as beautiful as they are, is hard and fast evidence of a process of destruction that is rapidly gathering pace. His pictures are beguiling images of the long-drawn-out death of a unique world.

Olaf Otto Becker’s book of photographs of Greenland’s remote rivers, Above Zero, has just been published by Hatje Cantz. Images from the series are on view at the Amador Gallery in New York City through January 9, 2010, and at the National Museum of Photography in Copenhagen through March 6, 2010. For more of Becker’s photographs, see www.olafottobecker.de.

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