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Sebastian Copeland - A Global Warning

is “autohagiography” a word?

in Book Reviews , Monday, March 29, 2021

I’m not quite sure how to approach this book review. Mainly because I’m not quite sure what drove its publication. Sebastian Copeland has been publishing eco-activist photography books about polar regions for a while now: “Antarctica, The Global Warning”, foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev, “Antarctica, a Call To Action”, foreword by Orlando Bloom, “Arctica, The Vanishing North”, foreword by Sir Richard Branson, and now “Antarctica, The Waking Giant”, foreword by Leonardo di Caprio. Do you see a pattern emerging there?

Copeland cover

Let’s be clear, we need as much clear, informed, balanced and accessible information on the impact of climate change as we can get. But when this drifts towards self-glorification, I’m not sure it helps. For example, the various inventive ways which “explorers” find to establish firsts in Antarctica is getting a bit wearisome. Fine, it’s quite an accomplishment to be the first non-gender specific person to hop single-footed without airborne support (but with all kinds of emergency beacon…) from the Pole of Inaccessibility to Mawson’s Crack, but wrapping this up as some kind of environmental action is just mistaken - at best.

Sebastian Copeland is at least partly in that community. Apparently a fairly wealthy chap, he gets up to all sorts of escapades In The Name Of The Earth, roping in his famous buddies, and every now and then persuading a publisher (never the same one) to publish his latest selection of snapshots.

He may be on message, but he doesn’t put a lot of effort into broadcasting it. I recently watched a webinar he gave on “how can polar photography help bring about change?” under the umbrella of the Antarctica Now series run by the Shackleton clothing company. His presentation was shambolic. Even accepting that maybe some technical issues were out of his control, it was blatantly clear that he done zero preparation and was just winging it. He certainly did not address the topic of the presentation. He appeared to think it was enough that he had turned up. He’s a famous photographer, you see. The contrast with the effort put in by all other presenters in the week’s other presentations was stark.

So, ok, let’s ignore all that and look at the photography.  For a start, if you already happen to own “Antarctica, A Call To Action, Foreword By Orlando Bloom” (pub. 2009), then you may want to skip “Leonardo Di Caprio, The Waking Giant, Foreword By Antarctica” (pub. 2020), as it includes pretty much all the photos of the first book (itself a retread of “Antarctica, The Global Warning”, foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev.”). Since Copeland is one of the few photographers to have ventured well into the East Antarctic plateau, it would have been interesting to see what a photographer could make of that unique landscape. Unfortunately we get very few photos of this area. Admittedly it is not obviously photogenic, but is certainly open to interpretation and imagination, and presents a challenge one might expect a truly talented photographer to rise to. Instead what we get are largely tourist-level snaps of the Antarctic Peninsula (and, to emphasise, a large number of these previously published), clumsily over processed to make things seem darker and gloomier than they really are, to fit in with a political message (and I’m saying this as somebody who is 200% onboard with the political message). I don’t want to sound arrogant, but frankly I’ve got better photos of Antarctica than most of these in my rejects pile.

This is then all interspersed with various diatribes on eco-disaster and confused popular science. Sebastian Copeland presents himself as a “climate analyst” but his Wikipedia entry states “Copeland began his career in New York City directing music videos before moving on to commercial directing as well as professional photography with credits including fashion and advertising, album covers, and celebrities”. Whatever, his explanation in “Antarctica, The Waking Giant” of why ice is blue is the most convoluted I’ve ever seen. Here’s a snippet: “unlike air, which contains all three colours, water holds only green and blue hues”.

Of course, I’m just an opinionated bad tempered old git with a vastly exaggerated idea of my own knowledge and skills, but you might want to consider what Michael Reichmann had to say about “Antarctica, The Global Warning”, foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev.  And by the way, Gorby was pretty good at destroying the Soviet Union and abandoning its people with no backup plan, but I’m not sure of his credentials either as a photographer or a climate specialist. Finally, the list of testimonials on Copeland’s own website rather speaks for itself.

Copeland sos

The SOS image to my mind is particularly contrived as well as rather pointless. It puts me in mind of Spinal Tap’s stonehenge stage prop. The people involved in creating this montage were clearly somewhat at risk, needlessly so, and the fact that the whole contrivance is dwarfed by even this limited view of the landscape kind of negates the message. Reading Copeland’s account of how it was created, it’s difficult to understand given the complete failures of planning and logistics why he even discusses it. Of course, the same photo is repeated in all his books.

Don’t buy this book. It is not about Antarctica. It is not about climate change, It is about Sebastian Copeland’s need for acclaim. Probably he doesn’t get enough likes on Instagram.

To answer the question “how can polar photography help bring about change?”, I would rather refer you to the brilliant, softly spoken but hard hitting work of Olaf Otto Becker.  His beautiful photography - for example, “Above Zero”, from the Greenland Ice Sheet, is largely allowed to speak for itself. There was also real risk and danger involved in getting these photos, but Becker isn’t into self-glorification. Another commendable alternative would be Melting Away by Camille Seaman, to which the same criticism of over-darkened imagery could be applied, but at least is free of the whiff of hypocrisy and the self-glorification.

Persuading the world of the perils of climate change is a necessary and commendable activity. Grandstanding, attention grabbing and name dropping in order to build up a personal mythology, less so. That the photography all this is constructed around is at best unexceptional is neither here nor there in the wider scheme of things, but it certainly doesn’t help.

 

 

 

Award-Winning Extreme Photographer

I should probably run workshops

in Antarctica , Thursday, March 11, 2021

I’m fairly astonished to be writing this, but apparently I’ve been awarded first place in the Landscape category of the “2021 Capture the Extreme Photography Competition” run by the Shackleton expedition clothing company and Leica.

The photo is currently displayed on the front page of the Shackleton website:

shackleton1

As well as presented in the competition results blog entry:

shackleton2

Obviously I would like to than the judges and sponsoring companies for their excellent taste :-).

Technically, the photo was shot on Olympus OM-D E-M1, at 1/400s, f/6.3 and ISO 1250. It was shot hand-held - the other hand being fully employed in keeping me attached to the ship - so despite the remarkable image stabilisation, it is not landscape photographer/OCD-grade sharp. I was able to rescue a little definition using the remarkable Deep Prime preprocessing in DxO Photolab 4.  The photo is one of a short series I managed to grab before the camera got drenched and I was forced to retreat inside. I should note the opportunity to grab this shot was thanks to my partner’s keen powers of observation.

The ship that provided the opportunity was the M/V Ortelius, operated by Oceanwide Expeditions. It was not one of our more rewarding trips to Antarctica - the whole voyage was rather chaotic - but eventually it clearly worth it. I can now call myself an “Award-Winning Extreme Photographer”.

 

 

 

Going wide in Antarctica

a weird, but wonderful camera

in Sigma , Friday, February 19, 2021

I have written more than one post about my enthusiasm for the Sigma dp0 Quattro. Having just completed editing the series of photos I took with it in Antarctica little over a year ago, I felt like writing a bit more.

For me the dp0 plays the role of high quality digital panoramic camera, hence my describing it as the digital XPan, with a similar multi-aspect ratio, except in this case the “single frame” is actually has the same long-edge resolution as the panorama.

So, the dp0 panorama mode is a crop, but for me the fact that I get the crop (a rather unique 21:9) on screen means that I can compose in panoramic mode, rather that crop afterwards in post production, and that makes a big difference. It means I can set my creative brain to panoramic mode and not get distracted by elements outside of the composition. But it also means I can move the panoramic frame in post, which essentially gives me positive and negative shift control. Of course this is all artificial, and yes, to some extent you can do it with any camera, but there is a psychological aspect to this which makes me feel like I’m using a true panoramic camera and therefore helps me find appropriate compositions. It would be even better if Sigma introduced a firmware upgrade which allowed me to shift the frame up or down in-camera.

But apart from all the pseudo-panorama babble, what brings me back to the dp0 time and time again is the delicate colour and superfine detail that comes from the combination of the fixed 14mm lens and the Foveon sensor. I don’t really mean detail in the pixel-peeping sense: sure you zoom in to 100% and see amazing resolution. In fact you can go beyond, almost to 300% before things start to break down, but to my eyes there is something about the detail at any zoom level. It looks quite different to other digital cameras, even medium format.

The other thing about the dp0 is how light it is, especially given what it delivers. The unique shape makes it a little cumbersome to pack, not to mention a reliable attention grabber on the street, but generally it is very easy to carry around, and once you get used to its different way of doing things, quite a pleasure to use.

All of this adds up to a camera which very easily justifies its space in the very limited luggage one can carry to Antarctica, especially when sailing on a small boat.

I find that the dp0 - and indeed, the DP2 Merrill I used previously - responds very well to Antarctic light and atmospheric conditions. It excels at conveying the unreal sense of detail that you see in the landscape, where the lack of humidity and pollutants in the air allow even very distant scenes to appear crystal clear. Of course it does have drawbacks too: dynamic range is not great, and highlight clipping is generally completely irrecoverable. Highlights also clip very abruptly, which also places limitations on some types of long exposure where brighter areas can burn out in a very ugly way. Having said all that, when it works, it works like nothing else I’ve ever used.

I recently published a photo diary of dp0 shots - a mix of full frame and panoramic.  Here are a few more shots which I didn’t include there.

Drm 20161202 DP0Q0544

To give some idea of the detail, the speck in the air to the left in the photo above is a helicopter. At 1:1 it looks like this:

Drm 20161202 DP0Q0544 helicopter
Drm 20161203 DP0Q0597
Drm 20161203 DP0Q0601
Drm 20200118 P0Q1001
Drm 20200120 P0Q1045 1
Drm 20200122 P0Q1083
Drm 20200123 P0Q1095
Drm 20200123 P0Q1104

 

 

 

6000 sow’s ears

...and not a silk purse in sight

in Post-processing , Monday, October 05, 2020

I enjoy taking photos. Seeing the world through a viewfinder, and cutting out pieces of it to copy and keep gives me a sense of accomplishment. Maybe it even makes me happy (my default state being “miserable old git”).

The rest of it… I don’t know. The long, long process of trawling through memory card contents, discovering that expected gems are out of focus junk, and the possibly good stuff I can’t even remember taking, the endless work of turning a Raw file into an actual finished photo, the doubts about my aesthetic choices, about my software choices, about comparing my flaccid shots with others’ effortless contest-winning masterpieces, this is not so much fun.

I actually prefer editing and working up film photography - with film, especially slide film, it is what it is, the choices were made when the shutter was pressed, and I find scanning film to be somehow more of a tangible activity than importing a memory card.

This pressures me to try to reduce the amount of photos I take in the field, but in some situations, not taking the shot isn’t really an easy option. A case in point, and the point of this post, is my most recent trip to Antarctica. Ok, it was actually 2 weeks in-situ, which is a long time, and the conditions were largely pretty good. The opportunities were endless, and to my horror I came back with about 6300 shots. Ouch.

If I have any wish to share anything of this harvest, even if it just to post a few galleries here, clearly I need to narrow things down. Quite a lot. This already presents a problem, because often the real quality of a photo cannot be told from a quick look at the default representation of the Raw file in Lightroom (in the old days, I could use Aperture’s much more elegant handling of Raw-JPEG pairs for a first pass - Lightroom doesn’t provide any help there).  But anyway, I managed select 1376 potential candidates without doing any kind of adjustment.  I then settled into the long process of examining and adjusting each and every one of these, finally, after months, ending up with 573 second round candidates.

From these I should now make a final selection, and start to do productive things like post subsets online. I might even make a book.  But for now I am so sick of ice and penguins…

Drm 20200128 P1286011

Me, after dredging through over 6000 self-indulgent snaps

There’s got to be a better way.

 

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.

Drm 20200807 EM570039


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

 

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