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Sara Wheeler

a polar star

in Book Reviews , Friday, August 07, 2020

Admin Note: one decision to emerge the hand-wringing period I had over this website is that I would close off my non-photography blog, The Evenings Out Here, which was anyway moribund, and publish occasional off-topic posts here. Whatever "off-topic" may mean - since it is all personal anyway, everything is on-topic. So, here is the first "off-topic" post. And a heavily overdue one, at that.


Many, many years, I wandered into Waterstones in Guildford (probably), and noticed a book cover with a bulkily-clad figure kneeling on ice apparently attempting to interview a group of emperor penguins. I bought it immediately. After many moves and changes in my life, this copy of this book is still with me. I've read it more than a few times, and always get lost in its pages. "Terra Incognita", by Sara Wheeler, is a travel book that has spoken to me like no other, and her other books are not far behind. At that time I would certainly have ranked "Foreign Land" and "Coasting" by Jonathan Raban at the same level, but these have faded over time. Terra Incognita shines as bright as ever.

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Pretty much all first person narratives set in Antarctica are written by what Wheeler accurately and amusingly describes as "Frozen Beards". They are about conquest and discovery, and the superficiality of the continent. They are about geography and landscape, and going from here to there (and hopefully back again), generally having the worst possible time while doing so. I find Wheeler's book, instead, to be about a search for a sense of place and belonging. Such a book could very quickly becoming terminally cloying, but not Terra Incognita. It is written in such a captivating, engaging way, and with a very healthy dose of self-deprecation, that the deeper currents only become clear later. Of all the "travel books" (whatever that means), there is none that have stayed so close to me as this one.

The idea of being able to travel around a significant part Antarctica as a writer would problem seem bat-crazy today, never mind 30 years go. That Sara Wheeler managed to do this, fitting in diverse locations in the Ross Sea area, the Pole, the West and East Antarctic ice caps and both ends of the Peninsula is a gold-standard tribute to her ingenuity and persistence. Totalling up the cost to various supporting organisations, agencies and individuals would come to a pretty scary figure, but the result is priceless. Others have said this, as have I, and I'll repeat it again: Terra Incognita is simply the best book ever written about Antarctica. Or to be more precise, about the experience of Antarctica. The only vaguely similar book I am aware of is Jenny Diski's "Skating to Antarctica", but that is a completely, and darker, kettle of fish.

I can't help but empathise with much of Terra Incognita. Antarctic was a huge part of my early adult life. I spent 2 summers there a few years before Sara Wheeler, and while I was there as a salaried scientist, it felt far, far more than going to do a job. The first part of Wheeler's book describe her time largely under the wing of the United States Antarctic Programme, with sorties to Italian and New Zealand bases. Within the narrative are dark hints at what is coming next, her sojourn in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula abetted by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

If ever she was unhappy in the Antarctic, it seems it was during this time. She describes BAS sadly dragging a stifling male-dominated class culture with it, featuring public schoolboy behaviour, a complete ban on expressing any kind of emotion, essentially pretty much what you would find in any wealthy village pub in southeast England. I can corroborate this. Although I had some unforgettable experiences and shared time and tents with some fantastic people, my experience in particular at Rothera base was pretty miserable. And unnecessarily so. My later experience in Antarctica with a haphazard gang of Scandinavians was something of a redemption.

Interestingly, Wheeler's better times with BAS appear to have been spent at the mythical Fossil Bluff, which I never reached, as we had a bit of a prang with our jolly old kite over Palmer Land. However I suspect she would have enjoyed spending a few days out at our happily isolated camp on the Ronne Ice Shelf.

You can reach in and touch the ice, the clear air and the stillness - as well as the storms - in the pages of Terra Incognita. It is multi-levelled narrative, as much about the author as the places, but handled in superbly skilful way.

Much like Terra Incognita, Wheeler's earlier book, "Chile - Travels in a Thin Land" is the kind of book you never want to end. Written about a 6 month wander from one tip of the country to the other - and even beyond - it feels like it distorts time. After (re)reading it over a few days last week, I feel like I had myself spent 6 months in Chile. Personally Chile is a country I came late to, and have only scraped the surface of. We planned to return shortly, but obviously events have put that on hold.

Chile, the book, is another delight. Again, with a light touch, Wheeler pulls you into her explorations, both inner and outer. There is a stronger element of her Christian faith in this book, something that is touched upon in Terra Incognita, but to a lesser extent. Although I don't share her faith, the way she writes about it could make be come to regret this. Clearly it is a source of inner strength and inspiration to her, and I only wish I could feel the same way. And equally clearly it does get in the way of her having a good time!

The final pages of "Travels in a Thin Land" seem to be almost a different world. Wheeler returns from the paradisiacal world of the South to Santiago, and in a very unexpected move veers off to spend 10 days immersed in one of the more deprived parts of the city. Many a writer would have gone into full virtue-signalling here, but not Wheeler. In fact she downplays this part very much, not indulging in explicit social commentary, but the contrast with the (kind of) gringo trail atmosphere of the main body of the book is very striking. As is that with her final few days living in the world of the privileged upper middle classes of Santiago. It is an extremely effective jolt back to reality.

I'd like to spend more time writing about these books, but I'm not very good at writing, and I would only do them a disservice. All I can say is seek them out and read them. They will surely touch your soul. And I would not stop there: her later books, such as "The Magnetic North" (inspired title), set in the Arctic, and "Access All Areas", set pretty much ever, are equally admirable. Actually, thanks to "The Magnetic North", I renewed contact with a companion from my BAS days while travelling around Svalbard. And then there is her latest book, "Mud and Stars", which is sitting a few feet away from waiting to be read.

I feel there could be a sequel to this post in the not too far future!

Links to books:
Chile - Travels in a thin country
Terra Incognita
The Magnetic North
Access All Areas
Mud and stars

There also a couple of videos online of Sara Wheeler giving talks on her writing and travels:

Sara Wheeler @ 5x15
Access All Areas: In Conversation with Sara Wheeler

 

Not a wildlife photographer

but whatever, here’s some penguins

in Photography , Friday, March 27, 2020

Seems that for a lot of photographers the current lockdown has a silver lining, as it provides time to organise, curate, edit and generally sort out photography backlogs. It should be the same for me, but somehow I’m finding it even harder to focus on these activities right now. But I certainly have a backlog. In fact my backlog has backlogs. I’m sure if I just let things drift, I’ll regret it, if and when normality returns, so I’m trying to get stuff done by dividing tasks up into small slices.  In that way, I’m managing to work through the huge pile of photos acquired during the Antarctic leg of my last little jaunt.

First I managed to whittle down some 6000 photos to 1300. It’s a start, but 6000 is way too many for a 2 week period. Then again, I think that most people on the same trip have far, far more, as they pretty much all were shooting continuously, at rates of lots of frames per second, while I pretty much always stuck to single frames.

This is probably to my detriment. After all, I have a camera (Olympus E-M1 MkII if you want to know) which is capable of insane frame rates, so why don’t I use it? There are several reasons for this - one, I really don’t have the mindset of a wildlife photographer, where the downside of having to sift through mountains of near-identical photos has the upside of retrieving one or two real gems. Second, I’m too lazy (or old, or stupid, or all three) to learn how to do it properly. Whatever, I still ended up with 6000 photos.

Actually, I wasn’t really expecting the trip to be quite so heavily oriented towards wildlife photography, although with hindsight I really should have been, and should have prepared for it. So I was thrown into a situation where the priority was wildlife, and lots of it, and that is not within my comfort zone. I discovered that for most people an iceberg was not very interesting if it didn’t have a penguin or a seal on it. I’ve learned that dedicated wildlife photographers have the ability to pre-conceive a particular shot that they want, and are prepared to spend literally hours waiting for it. And for this they need to be fully prepared and to have complete mastery of their equipment. And they need patience.

I don’t have any of this.  If I’m given 3 hours to wander around a location, then my main object will be to see as much of that location as I can. I may pick up some photos along the way, in my usual opportunistic way, and I may even spend some time trying to get a particular shot that I’ve identified on the spot, but any notion of conceiving of what I want to photograph usually comes only with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.  So, I use inappropriate settings, my output is random and generally poor, and I get annoyed with myself. However, at the other extreme, I’ve seen people achieve the single shot they wanted less than 1 hour into a 3 hour shore trip, and at that point fold up and head back to the ship. In my way of thinking, they are missing opportunities, but I guess from a photographic point of view they’re showing discipline, and the net result is that they have pre-curated their shots, and actually have little follow up work to do other than discarding the 95% of frames which they don’t need.  It’s an approach which has some clear attractions.  And, if you look at the work of one of my trip companions, Richard Barrett, you can see it works very well.

And penguins… well, it’s easy to photograph penguins. Actually sometimes it’s hard NOT to photograph penguins. They get in everywhere. It is harder to isolate a single penguin, and even harder to make that into an interesting photograph. I’m not 100% sure why we even try - penguins are above all highly social animals, and seeing them in isolation somehow seems a bit sad. The holy grail, it seems, these days in penguin photography is to try to get that “fog” foreground look, where you get a band of out of focus snow in the lower part of the frame. Finding clean snow around penguins is also hard, as they can’t get toilet paper in Antarctica, and since they nest on exposed rock getting them to pose nicely in snow is hard too. I was actually more interested in getting shots featuring penguins in a wider environment, sometimes even to the point that you don’t first notice the bird. This is also not original. And in any case over time I sucombed to peer pressure and image reviews telling me this wasn’t what I should be doing. Perhaps, more accurately, I just wasn’t doing it very well.

Anyway, with my small batch at a time approach, I’ve made some headway into curation and processing. So here, from that work in progress, is a small sample of the penguin side of my latest attempts at wildlife photography.

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Antarctica, Round 5

if at first you don’t succeed…

in Antarctica , Tuesday, February 04, 2020

On Saturday I finally got home after leaving King George island, Antarctica on Wednesday afternoon. A long trip even if for the first time it involved flying over the Drake Passage rather than being thrown all over a ship for 3 miserable days.

Hans Hansson in Antarctica

So, this was my fifth visit to Antarctica, and third as a tourist, and this time it was pretty intense. Sharing the small ship Hans Hansson with 9 other passengers, 2 guides and 6 crew is a lot more intimate than a cruise ship or research vessel. And the flexibility of a small ship meant reaching little visited locations, and also visiting more popular spots outside of regular hours. With up to three three to four hour landings per day, over 12 days, what little downtime we had was very welcome. The ship is owned and operated by Quixote Expeditions, and was chartered by Visionary Wild. Both companies showed the highest level of professionalism and dedication to excellence, both before and during the trip, with all staff and crew being very friendly and approachable.

Without really wanting to single anybody out, I have to mention Justin Black, founder of Visionary Wild. Justin is a model of what every phototour leader should aspire to. Apart from, incidentally, being an excellent photographer, he was a fantastic leader, always available to help with anything, keeping everybody safe but unconstrained, and proactively ensuring that everybody was happy. His co-leader, Daisy Gilardini, a photographer with well over 20 Antarctic tours to her name, was equally supportive, and in particular able to lend her expertise to the enthusiastic, if not obsessive wildlife photographers that made up 8/10ths of the clientele.

And those 8/10ths were the only slight problem from my point of view, as I am absolutely not an obsessive wildlife photographer. So I did sometimes get frustrated when the odd iceberg was pronounced totally uninteresting because it didn’t have a bloody penguin nailed to it. Being more a kind of ambient landscape person myself, and also fascinated by the human footprint on Antarctica, I have to say at times I just put the cameras down. This was compounded by the fact that I’m continuing to go through a very dark patch photographically speaking, and I only really got into some sort of groove in the last two days, where we were being forced by strong winds to find some very out of the way locations. Generally if I were to consider only photography as a measure, then for me personally this trip was an abject failure and a massive wasted opportunity (and particularly a very rare close up encounter with a playful leopard seal which I completely failed to capture). Fortunately, I don’t live for photography, and on the upside, it was wonderful to see my very photographically modest partner Luchiana suddenly blossom into a very fine photographer, putting assorted Leica, Nikon and Sony mega-camera owners to shame with her simple travel zoom Canon.  It’s always been latent, but now she has received plaudits she cannot dismiss.

As for the what worked, what didn’t work part… well, my Atlas Athlete backpack was fantastic, being flexible enough for full day mountain treks in Patagonia as well as onshore and Zodiac work in Antarctica. A fully dedicated camera bag might have been slightly better in Antarctica, but it is very marginal, and would have been a nightmare for trekking. I continue to be impressed by Sealskin gloves, even though I suffer from chronically cold hands (but never feet). On the camera side, the Olympus E-M1 Mkii pair gave the usual Jekyll & Hyde performance - working fine all day then suddenly absolutely refusing to focus the moment something ultra interesting came along. This might have been down to the new 2x Teleconverter on the 40-150 lens, but generally this worked very well. As usual the Olympus manages sometimes to get into completely mystifying modes now and then, but possibly this has to do with too many buttons and clumsy gloves. At times I was ready to throw the whole damn lot in the ocean, but mindful of IATO rules in pollution and the fact that I can’t think of any other system which I’d hate a bit less, I didn’t.  Certainly I didn’t envy the laughably huge 400 and 600mm full frame lenses my companions were touting, even if I have to admit they are less heavy than they look. As is the Fuji GFX100 which Justin was using, but that camera lives in a different universe to me.

So here I am with 5800 more photos from Antarctica, mostly crap, and nearly 1000 from Patagonia, and I still haven’t completed my edit of 3000 from Greenland or indeed 1600-odd from Madeira. I think I’ve got enough photos for now.

So, will there be a sixth Antarctic trip? At present I doubt it. The piggy bank is gutted, and anywhere there are other places to see. Even Antarctica is now beginning to suffer from mass tourism, with vast cruise ships lining up through the Neumayer Channel and around Paradise Bay.

But never say never…

 

2019 Calendar

shameless commercial break

in Photography , Sunday, October 28, 2018

Somehow or the other this year I’ve managed to get my act sufficiently together to produce another calendar. With the help of my better half, who has painstakingly removed all the “arty” shots from my selection, and replaced them with photos that people might actually like, this year’s theme is Antarctica (just like the last one in 2014, but that went down pretty well, so why not).

I have neither the enthusiasm nor the optimism to try to do any kind of commercial deal these days, so sales are on a very limited level via local seasonal fairs and whatever. However I’m also setting aside a few for online sales, so if you are interested please let me know. They are professionally printed on a commercial digital press, not via some online service, and the print quality is pretty good (300gsm semigloss paper). The cost would be €20 + Swiss Post postage costs to be agreed.  Delivery will probably be around early December.

The photography is largely from December 2016, but one is from 2013, and two more from a lot longer ago. From a technical point of view most are Olympus E-M1 or Olympus E-5, with a couple of Sigma dp0 shots, and outliers are Kodachrome 64 via Canon FTb.

Well, it’s neither National Geographic nor Vincent Munier, but it was fun putting it together.

Calendar2019 1

Front cover and first two months

Calendar2019 2

Back cover and last two months

 

Antarktis, by Gerry Johansson

the great white beyond

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A few weeks ago I made a serious recurrent mistake: I read the regular newsletter sent out by the magnificent Beyond Words photobook retailer. Somehow or the other I ended up discovering “Antarktis”, by Swedish photographer Gerry Johansson, and immediately ordered it.

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I was not familiar with Gerry Johansson’s work. His website follows the standard Serious Artiste template, a minimalist white design devoid of any personality, with small type, a list of works and exhibits, no sense of engagement and of course the de-rigeur obtuse method for navigating image galleries - if indeed you can find the image galleries, they’re well hidden.  This of course opposed to Fine Art Photographer template which was copied from Squarespace and features a blog talking about Gear, along with photos of said Photog taken 20 years ago (I leave it to you to decide which category this website falls into).  Anyway, I’ve got sidetracked again, but this po-faced white websites are really starting to irritate me.

Having said all that, it is worth finding your way through Johansson’s website, because there is some seriously good work there. I have a feeling I’ve read about his “American Winter” book, it looks very tempting.

Back to “Antarktis”: in the foreword, Thorbjörn Andersson says “...his way of blending foreground and background makes the picture both a representative subject and a structure”. Also, the description at Beyond Words states “The series of photos eventuate in an unusual reality relevant perspective, and capture the astonishing non-distance relationship between physicality and nature”.  This isn’t hyperbole, it is absolutely accurate. These days the expectations of photography in Antarctica are of spectacular mountains, icebergs, treating skies, deep blue seas, and of course penguins. Johansson, thanks a grant from the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, was able to venture into inland Antarctica, which has none of these things.

I’ve had the good fortune also to have travelled in inland Antarctica, and the sense of disorientation from a landscape with no familiar frame of reference, very little colour, and very few mid-tones, is extremely well captured in this photography. Some frames triggered such a sense of recognition of that strange ambience that it actually made me shiver.

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The photography is black and white, taken with a large format 8x10 camera, which in itself cannot have made life easy. One might expect a certain nod in the direction of polar photography pioneers like Ponting, but instead the approach is thoroughly modern. The standout impression is how in using architectural photography practises Johansson has been able to capture the complete loss of perspective which one often suffers from in this territory.

It might all sound very cold, in all senses of the word, but in fact it is far from that. Antarktis tells it as it is, no HDR, no contrast or saturation boost, but rather letting the utter strangeness of Antarctica speak for itself.

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You can buy Antarktis from Beyond Words, with whom I have absolutely no affiliation other than that of a very satisfied (and over-frequent) customer.

 

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