The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is one of the northernmost settlements on Earth, with life in its Arctic climate constantly up against frigid temperatures, limited resources, and isolation. Between 2013 and 2016, Julia de Cooker photographed its people, architecture, and mundane daily routines, all loomed over by the surrounding icy mountains. Svalbard — An Arcticficial Life, the book’s title a play on its Arctic setting and the artificial normalcy, is out now from Kehrer Verlag.
In a book essay, the Paris-based photographer considers the surreal juxtaposition between the harsh landscape and its human inhabitants, a rotating population of scientists, miners, religious leaders, and other intrepid citizens. She writes:
Strangeness appears through different sorts of details. The combination of elements that have nothing to do with each other, or with the natural environment, is gripping. Is the presence of a limousine not surprising in a place where schools hold safety drills in case of a visit by a polar bear, where the priest moves about by helicopter, where houses so close to the North Pole have balconies? Svalbard — An Arcticficial Life is the reflection of this “strange normality.”
Svalbard may be best known for the Svalbard Seed Bank, which makes an appearance in the monograph. Nicknamed the “Doomsday Vault” it holds thousands of plant species seeds from gene banks around the world. This year it got global attention when, due to high temperatures and unusual rainfall, the Seed Bank experienced water leakage. The flooding supported international concerns about climate change, and the impact on the Arctic. Although not a focus of de Cooker’s book, the human intervention in the natural world, and the delicate relationship between the two, is in each image. It’s also something the photographer has explored in previous series, such as Kaa’boc on communities along the Tapajo river in the Amazon Rainforest, and Oh my Gold! featuring weathered structures from the 1992 Albertville, France, Winter Olympics.
The images in Svalbard include wide views of the frozen terrain, sometimes illuminated by the Northern Lights, where a wooden church or bus station seems ephemeral against this incredible topography. Intimate portraits capture the people who have made this landscape a home, whether a woman pushing a baby carriage over the snow, or a priest posed next to the improbable orchids blooming in his window. Some come to study Arctic science at the University of Svalbard, others are drawn to the remote area’s unique status, which de Cooker notes “allows them to live there without visas or working permits.” Punctuating the series are more ominous shots of dead reindeers and a World War II aircraft wreck, underlining the precariousness of life on this polar terrain.