“The Arctic is melting faster than any other place in the world,” writes Diane Tuft, in an introduction to her photo book The Arctic Melt: Images of a Disappearing Landscape. What she means, of course, is that the Arctic is warming at an alarming rate; in fact, almost twice that of the rest of the globe. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, satellite images show that over the past thirty years, Arctic sea ice cover has declined by 30 percent in September, the month that marks the end of the summer melt season.
The principal subject of both Tuft’s book and Stefan Hunstein’s In the Ice, also published this spring, is Arctic sea ice, which is projected to disappear in the summer months within a generation. It is only in the summer that extraordinary photographs like those in these two books can be taken, given the severity of Arctic weather and the fact that the region is in perpetual twilight or complete darkness between the autumn and spring equinoxes. Pictures like these eventually may be all that remains to remind us of the frozen Arctic’s terrible beauty.
Tuft’s book, accompanying a show at the Marlborough Gallery, New York, from June 20 to July 15, is costumed as documentation of climate change. The text includes a foreword by eco-blogger and activist Joe Romm, and the book is peppered with anodyne pull-quotes of questionable relevance, for example, “We never know the worth of water till the well is dry,” attributed to Thomas Fuller’s Gnomologia (1732), a collection of maxims from which Ben Franklin cribbed more than a few of Poor Richard’s adages. Even in the text, the scientific window-dressing is at war with Tuft’s aesthetic impulse. She underlines the ecological message with elegiac “haikus” (actually prose poems in 5-7-5 syllable stanzas), which describe subjects of the book, often with awkward anthropomorphism:
frozen water’s edge
retreating and receding
glacier’s final breath
Using climate change to frame the photographs skews the viewer’s experience of them. One is constantly searching for evidence of melting to support the book’s theme. Tuft states that she returned to the region in 2015, which she photographed in 2007, to “document the impact climate change has had on the area.” But the book has no before-and-after photos, so how would one see change? On one page in the book, an image from that previous arctic visit is juxtaposed with a photo from the 2015 trip having a similar composition, but there is no indication that the two pictures depict the same location. A book of still photos presented in no meaningful sequence cannot illustrate a natural process.
When reproduced as full-page or full-spread bleeds, the photographs lose their formal coherence and threaten to become something like ecological wallpaper. The photographer wants to be a documentarian, but even a basic sense of what is being photographed is frequently lost. Her points of view range from aerial shots, taken from a helicopter, to close-ups of cracks in ice. Since she rarely shows the horizon in landscape views, and omits familiar objects or figures for scale, the viewer often has little sense of the distance or orientation between the camera and the subject.
Stefan Hunstein’s book is more conceptually sophisticated. The images, produced for a traveling exhibition as UV prints on etched glass, are reproduced in the book conventionally, but beautifully. The photographs, uniform in proportion, with vertically oriented images slightly larger than horizontal ones, are given generous white space; there are few bleeds. Equally notable is the limited chromatic range of most of the images, which feature a subtle palette of grays, with green and blue tints, sometimes strong, often understated. The images are typically composed of horizontal bands or striations; a horizon, obscured by fog or clouds, may divide the compositions. Some of the most impressive photos use reflections in still water in the lower half of the picture plane to mirror the upper half. A single reproduction — the book’s first plate —includes a tiny boat in the center, for scale.
The overall effect is one of meticulous observation and control put in service of capturing dreamlike, ineffable experiences. Hunstein is almost aggressively opposed to the idea that photography can represent “truth.” Earlier in his career, he resolutely rejected making photographs in favor of collecting found photos, press images, and postcards, which acted as evidence of collective memory; he used that imagery to explore myth-building, suppression of memory, and manipulation of photos in Germany’s dark past. Remarkably, he has turned to making pictures redolent of the mystical engagement with nature that characterizes German Romanticism. In this book, the reproductions are paired with well-chosen quotations by major literary and philosophical figures. Most are German-speaking but the selection of authors begins with Shakespeare, whose lines from The Rape of Lucrece seem marvelously appropriate to Hunstein’s photographs:
Against love’s fire fear’s frost hath dissolution.
The eye of heaven is out, and misty night
Covers the shame that follows sweet delight.
Curator Petra Gilroy-Hirtz, who contributes the book’s lead essay, observes that while “Stefan Hunstein is … well aware of the issues of global warming and the melting of the ice, … this does not really concern him when he makes these pictures.” The paradox of his stance is that by concentrating entirely on representing the strange beauty of the Arctic, he succeeds in making us care deeply about its survival.
Diane Tuft’s The Arctic Melt: Images of a Disappearing Landscape (2017) is published by Assouline and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
An exhibition of Tuft’s work will open at the Marlborough Gallery (40 West 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on June 21.