Art and Science are two entities that some would normally consider incompatible with each other. In broad terms, the former tends to view the world through emotion, the psyche and aesthetics, while the latter filters it through the rational and the quantitative. Very rarely does one see the two come together so beautifully as in the work of noted environmental photographer James Balog.
In the documentary Chasing Ice, director Jeff Orlowski embarks on a quest to keep up with Balog as he braves the elements on his own race to capture glacial melting in the Arctic. Dubbed the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), Balog’s efforts to portray the gravity of global warming are funneled through the medium of time-lapse photography. A total of twenty five solar-powered cameras were drilled into cliff sides adjacent to a collection of glaciers in Alaska, the Rockies, Greenland, and Iceland. Each was set to take one photograph every hour so long as there was sufficient daylight. The hundreds of thousands of individual frames that Balog collected during that three year time frame were then compiled into a series of videos, each of which are barely a minute in length. Seasons pass in a matter of seconds as a monstrous amount of measurable data quite literally comes to life before our very eyes.
Orlowski opens with a series of news segment video clips displaying the horrors of various natural disasters around the world. He first presents us with images of burning homes as a wildfire rips through parts of Texas. We are soon taken farther south as Hurricane Irene sweeps through Florida. We then depart from the US and are met with images of a drought in Nepal and even more wildfires in Russia. There is no date stamped on any of the clips; it is as if the chaos is occurring at that very moment in time. The problem has been delocalized. The hysteria is further exacerbated as video clips of celebrities and various political/ scientific leaders arguing over the viability of global warming play in quick succession.
Just when we think we can’t breathe anymore, the film shifts from scenes of pure mayhem to a scenic beach with bright blue chunks of ice playfully crashing about the waves – a kind of atypical natural sight quite different from the disasters presented beforehand. There’s something menacingly surreal to the way these sculptural blue forms (brightly lit by the sun setting just beyond them) float about the surf. Again, this is a sight unfamiliar to us. Where did these chunks come from and why are they being sucked out to sea? The chaos of past decades compressed into mere seconds now becomes real time. The catalyst for the havoc is revealed to be a floating hunk of cerulean ice. In this sequence alone, Orlowski demonstrates the problem of perception for society today – the fact that the issue can’t be fully digested in actual time. Some sort of intervention is needed to reveal the true gravity of what is at hand.
Such an intervention is exactly what Balog sets out to achieve, proving that he will go to any means to do so along the way. At times in his bare feet, the photographer braves the unforgiving bite of the Arctic coastline, quite literally diving into its waters headfirst in the search for the “story in the ice.”
Balog’s affinity for nature can be traced back well into the early years of his career. While pursuing his master’s degree in geomorphology, he is said to have come away with an aversion to the seemingly indigestible nature of numbers, data and statistics. The actual scale of each quantitative measurement was quite difficult for him to get a grip on. What is of particular interest is his own perception of the ease with which the general public could decipher his own findings even then: “The public doesn’t want to hear about more statistical studies, more computer models, more projections. What they need is a believable, understandable piece of visual evidence, something that grabs them in the gut.”
Having decided wholeheartedly that photography was the appropriate medium to chart the interactions of human and nature, Balog soon began to dwell on hunting – capturing gory images of animal carcasses hung out to dry after having been shot or cut down by humans. However, he soon realized that, though these images surely grabbed the public in the gut, they only focused on a small slice of life. He still yearned for the big view – the image that would convey how humanity as a whole was interacting with its world.
Shortly thereafter, he arrived at the concept of climate change. “I was trying to find exactly what I could photograph to capture its essence. To me, that was the ice.” Fast forward several years later and Balog is sent on an assignment for the National Geographic, “The Big Thaw.” The captivating image (albeit conventional, single frame shot) of the winding bright blue melt presented an alarming beauty to the danger at hand. According to Editor Dennis Dimick, it was the most widely read assignment the publication had in years. Clearly, the public was yearning for a more “understandable piece of visual evidence.” However, it could be argued that this work, though clearly a precursor to what would soon come, did not accurately convey the true gravity of what was at hand. It did not give immediate visual clarity to the overwhelming quantitative data accompanying the issue of climate change.
However, while studying the Solheimajokull Glacier in Iceland, Balog got the idea to set up one frame in October and another in April as a means of charting any change the glacier might be undergoing. Shocked with just how much loss had occurred in those six months, he found the immediacy and clarity of his photographic experiment to be quite revealing. Two images would quickly turn into a series of thousands as his idea matured.
As mentioned previously, Balog’s time lapses collapse a three year span of time into a matter of seconds. Filmic in nature, each piece captures the advance and retreat of each glacier. The audience is told that, under normal conditions, these colossal hunks of ice grow and shrink over great distances as the seasons change. However, what Balog’s work reveals is that, upon returning to its starting position one full cycle later, the glacier appears to be receding much further than normal. At times, up to several kilometers of melted ice lost to the sea. As with the opening shot of the photographer battling the Arctic’s waves while trying to capture the bright blue chunks of floating ice, the time lapses have a surreal beauty to them. There is a consistent rhythm to the glacial movement, almost as if we are seeing the Earth breathe. Only when you look past the hypnotic inhale and exhale do you realize the horror before you.
A strange moment in the documentary comes when we see Balog and a climatologist at a table pouring over a collection of dotted maps. Deciding which glaciers will be “appropriate” targets for the EIS, the climatologist is seen pointing to a corner of the map and explaining, “These ones will be much more picturesque.” Here, Orlowski presents a notion of a kind of aesthetic beauty in death. Studying a map of dying entities, the pair before us argues for the “most beautiful” melting glaciers of them all.
Assembling a team of climatologists, photographers, and engineers, Balog sets out to place the most delicate electronic equipment in some of the harshest conditions on the planet, only visiting each site a few times over the course of the three year study to ensure that any technical problems have not compromised the work. “All of that obsession means absolutely nothing if an electronic piece doesn’t work.” In one scene, we are witness to a malfunction. Balog is literally brought to tears at the realization of how many shots he has lost when one of his twenty five cameras suffered a glitch.
Balog himself describes the beginning stages of the EIS as the most difficult time in his career. Having already undergone multiple knee replacement surgeries before embarking on his journey through the Arctic, he put his body at great risk on many occassions to get the shot. one could almost find some sort of bodily or anatomical connection between Balog and the shrinking glaciers. We see the photographer wince in pain as he climbs each cliff and we are witness to the worried looks of his family as he is carted away to yet another knee surgery. In the same light, we wince, perhaps not in pain, but fear, as he shares footage of ice calving – a natural phenomenon in which hunks of ice football fields long break off of glaciers and fall into the ocean before them. It’s as if they have undergone the loss of a limb.
Even Balog views these masses of ice as being human at times. “It’s sort of like doing a portrait of people.” He equates his work to that of Richard Avadon and Irving Pent. However, while these photographers were captivated by the endless variety in faces, Balog is captivated by the endless variety of glacial forms.
The relationship between the human scale and the seemingly inconceivable scale of each glacier is clearly something very important to Balog. Both he and Orlowski try to ground the massiveness of this phenomenon in a more easily digestible scale throughout the documentary. Though the photographer’s time lapses achieve great feats in conquering the scale of time, it is still extremely difficult for a viewer to grasp the actual magnitude of the dimensions of the ice. This issue comes to light during a scene in which Balog describes the difficulty of capturing the full retreat of a glacier in Alaska. Even the limits of sophisticated, technology are challenged by the gravity of climate change. While shooting the “glacial breathing,” Balog had to pivot the camera three separate times because the ice had deflated and retreated out of frame such a far distance.
From here, the director seems to step in and manipulate Balog’s shots in order to more accurately convey how an individual can (quite literally) place him/herself within the glacier. In the documentary, each time lapse is accompanied by a series of lines or cropped images of recognizable icons. Applying these effects, Orlowski pauses at specific moments during Balog’s time lapses, allowing the audience to rest and digest the magnitude of what’s at hand. It’s almost as if Balog’s shift from three years to 45 seconds is too much for the audience to handle – that to process that scale of time in such a short span of time would inevitably require clicking the pause button anyway. Orlowski’s rest on the individual frame is a moment for the manipulation of time to register, a happy medium between the laborious three year sitting and one minute long cycle of the same event.
Just fifteen years ago, Balog would’ve called himself a climate skeptic. Until recently, he was never an outspoken advocate for the existence of global warming. “I didn’t think humans were capable of changing the physics and mechanics of this huge planet. It didn’t seem probable.” As mentioned above, he found computer models deceptive. Even though he was well aware that hard data sat before him, he felt it to be awash with hyperbole. Press fast forward and you find him presenting his work to the Obama administration and giving TED talks about his research with the EIS. His persistence in correcting the problem of perception parallels the ceaselessness of glacial melting.
Balog’s work gives new weight to the notion of a “glacial pace” and is proof of the tremendous power that photography (and art) holds for shaping our understanding of the world around us, specifically the degree to which it is changing right before our eyes.