I took a trip to the Arctic in September 2006, traveling from Spitsbergen (the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago) to the Eastern coast of Greenland. Even though it was over a year ago, I decided it might be interesting to give some more detail on the expedition and provide background on a few of my favorite images that came out of it. Click the map of the Arctic (above, left) to see the route taken.
Our group traveled aboard the Grigoriy Mikheev (above, right), a former research vessel of the Hydrographical Department of Russia in St. Petersburg and designed as an ice strengthened hydrographical vessel. At 210 feet long and 42 feet wide, the Grigorih is ideal for cruising the polar regions, both North and South. We traveled for a little under 3 weeks on the Grigorih, and spent many of our ÒseaÓ days out on the observation decks (many of the images of the Greenland Sea in my portfolio were taken from them). For landings and more up-close-and- personal excursions through fjord systems and to get closer to polar bear, we traveled in smaller, 10-12 person zodiacs.
Beginning the journey in Longyearbyen, one of the world’s nothern-most towns, the long days above 78 degrees latitude took some getting used to. September is right in between Longyearbyen’s polar night (end of October to mid-February) and polar day (mid-April to mid-August) and it didn’t get dark until the early hours of the morning, and it didn’t stay dark for very long. Interestingly (and pretty off topic, I admit), the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (a.k.a., the Doomsday Vault) is stored just outside Longyearbyen and will be capable of storing millions of crop seeds when it officially opens on February 26, 2008. It was set up to protect against natural and human disaster, including global warming, fires, floods and nuclear holocaust.
Taking off from Longyearbyen, we started to get a sense of the Spitsbergen landscape (above left). Meaning jagged mountains, Spitsbergen is a group of large and small islands stretching from 74 degrees to 81 degrees latitude and about 620 miles below the North Pole. 60% of Spitsbergen is covered with ice.
As we made our way West through Spitsbergen, we passed an old Russian coal mining town called Barentsburg, took the zodiacs to a 17th century whaling station and whalers cemetary at Yttre Norsk Oya, and stopped near Moffen Island after crossing 80 degrees North latitude to see a large walrus population. During that time of year, marine law dictated that ships of our size stay at least 300 meters away. This was still close enough to get a decent glimpse of two groups in a colony of over 80 individuals. A curious team of 6 swam up to the Grigorih for a closer look.
We continued on into the Woodfjord/Liefdefjord system and took the zodiacs to get a closer look at some polar bear spotted from the Grigorih near the Duck Islands. Spitsbergen supports one of the densest (but still dwindling) polar bear populations in the world. While we weren’t allowed on shore when bear were present (and needed to be near an armed guide even when they weren’t around), the zodiacs provided a great opportunity to get close to these animals.
Well, we weren’t exactly sailing, but we spent several days crossing the Greenland Sea in between Svalbard and the eastern coast of Greenland. We had some very calm days on the way there (but not on the way back to Iceland, unfortunately), and the Mikheev’s many observation decks provided great perspectives of the Greenland Sea. Images of nature with an abstract quality are what really grab me, and no two images of the ocean ever looked the same. Spending early mornings and late evenings shooting the water, I experimented with different focal lengths, perspectives and shutter speeds. The water was calm enough on some days that I had the added stability of a tripod, which definitely helped after several hours of shooting. In the end, I was able to capture some images that I feel really bring home the power of the Arctic. Mind-boggling sunrises that seem to surround you and last for hours; ocean patterns that shift and change and flow more like oil than water; sunsets that make you want to just sit down and stare. The Arctic is a truly amazing place and somewhere I have to get back to.
Two of my favorite images that came out of the trip to the Arctic weren’t exactly what I expected. The images to the left were both taken in Scoresbysund, East Greenland, towards the end of the expedition. While they don’t depict the usual Arctic subjects in the usual fashion, the “Willow” and the “Gull Feather & Sand” images struck me in the way that everyday subjects can be become extraordinary ones with a little bit of work. These images reinforced a valuable lesson I constantly remind myself of - when you think there’s nothing to photograph, because the light isn’t right or the weather isn’t what you want it to be, look to the ground. Getting close to a subject and isolating it from its surrounding elements can bring it new life. Both of these images took me quite a bit of time, and I shot several frames of each before coming to the final image (not really an issue when shooting digitally, though).
While seemingly barren, Greenland’s landscape is actually teeming with life, from red arctic birch, to microscopic lichen colonies, to this lone willow that seemed just a little more ambitious than the rest. Wanting to accentuate its fragile resilience, I spent an hour photographing it from various angles and at various shutter speeds, apertures and flash positions, finally concluding with this image. I chose a low perspective, lying flat on the (cold, muddy!) ground in order to match its perspective. Shooting down on it made it feel small, which wasn’t how I wanted to portray it. Being the only thing springing up out of this stagnant pond in Arctic temperatures, I felt that should be represented in a manner that gave it strength. I set up my tripod low to the ground and used a 100mm macro lens, which provided a more compressed perspective than if I had used a shorter focal length. I think lens choice is a critical to getting an image right, and this subtle compression served to make the willow a stronger subject in this instance. With the sun striking the corner of the pond, I used a slow shutter speed of 1/15 of a second to exaggerate the slight movement in the breeze. I held a flash just above the willow to bring it out from the dark scene behind it.
On one of the last days of the expedition, we landed at a beach in Scoresbysund called Kap Stewart, a large, wide beach that lies just west of the Inuit village of Ittoqqortoormitt on the eastern edge of Greenland. I cruised the beach in search of a subject and eventually found this gull feather, unscathed by the elements. This image of grains of sand on the feather was taken on a tripod with a 100mm macro lens. I used an extension tube to move my minimum focusing distance closer to the subject, and used a cable release and my “mirror lock-up” feature to keep the camera vibration free. Closing down my aperture for increased depth of field, I popped a flash that I dug into the sand beneath the feather to add depth and contrast to the scene.
© 2006-2009 Josh Andrews Photography, all rights reserved.