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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Arctic, in Black and White

My recent experience on and around the arctic islands of Svalbard was a bit like watching The Wizard of Oz, one moment everything was black and white, and the next all was in vivid color. In this post I explore the former; in the next I will address the latter. Note that although this is about black and white, all of the images in this post are actually color photos. I simply was recording a world that, at least on some days and under certain conditions, was predominantly black and white.

Prinz Karls Forland (Prince Charles Foreland)

Coming from the unrelenting sun of a Texas summer, I found the natural coolness of blacks, whites, and grays refreshing. More importantly, the monochrome world made me see differently. Without hue, I had to look to shape and line, value and contrast for interest. Svalbard offered no shortage of interesting scenes. The largest island, Spitsbergen, meaning “pointed mountains” lives up to its name. We saw hundreds of peaks, their shapes highlighted in snow and ice. This pair of little peaks was noteworthy because of their crazy lava-lamp like reflections in water disturbed by our zodiacs.

After our windiest night (which, given that we were above the Arctic circle in late June, was "night" only by convention, not by amount of light) I awoke to to see this little schooner that had sought shelter in the same fjoird as we, and for a moment thought I had been transported into another century. The bit of blue glacier ice seen adjacent to the schooner's bowsprit makes me think of old black and white portraits with color-enhanced cheeks, lips and eyes.

Even some of the wildlife is naturally black and white. For example, these little auks, also known as dovekies, are entirely black and white (and endearingly plump).

Arctic terns, in contrast to the round little auks, are sleek and streamlined, thoroughly modern-looking birds. They are also fiercely protective of their nests, and make a huge fuss, including flying at your head, if you get too close. I am cheating a bit to include them here since they have red beaks, but my image of them is mostly a whir of white and grey, so they have earned their place.

On the other end of the size spectrum from little auks and terns are the whales. On our first night out, as we cruised north from Longyearbyen, we spotted over half a dozen humpback and blue whales, their spouts easily seen in flat water, lines of fins and flukes fluid as the inky water in which they smoothly appeared and disappeared.

Humpback whale fluke

And then, of course, there are polar bears, referred to by some as great white bears. What is it about polar bears that fascinates us so? Perhaps it their whiteness, a color we associate with purity and innocence, in contrast to the ruthless reality of the hunting on which their lives depend, but which is anything but innocent.

Note that polar bears are not actually white, but rather a yellowish color. When sleeping on-shore among the rocks they can easily be mistaken for just another boulder.

This final image of the front of a glacier is from a sunny day, but taken in the shadow of a tall peak, and so was very grey. The layers and fractures record year after year of snowfall and the constant compaction and flow that define a glacier.

In my next post I will return to full color, and share some recent needlework. See you soon.


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