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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ellert

An Antarctic Adventure

As some of you, dear readers of this blog, know, I was recently in Antarctica for a brief period on a National Geographic expedition ship. Upon my return, and as I began to post images to social media, some of my colleagues at the gallery began to ask for a blog post. Although I am working on a slide/lecture program to cover the experience itself, I thought it best for the purpose at hand to concentrate on what connection I see between Antarctica and art. As a photographer of nature, how do I process that intense experience and distill it for others?

Antarctica has been part of my vision since childhood (along with the Gobi Desert and Tierra del Fuego), places seen through the eyes of writers and photographers with whom I became familiar, and in some cases, friends, as a child. Part of the Antarctica dream undoubtedly came from the reports and discoveries of the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, coming as they did when I was beginning to explore nature on my own, venturing out into the countryside in western Michigan, my parents nurturing my growing interest in the physical world. That interest has become a lifelong passion, profoundly shaping the way I experience and interact with the world around me, even though science became an avocation to my career in the arts and education.

As a photographer I look for opportunities to explore the incredible variety of forms, lines, shapes, textures, and colors found in nature. I have sought those out on prairie, in forests, deserts, mountains, oceans. Certainly, I have not exhausted the possibilities in any one of these (indeed can anyone ever do so?) While I have explored to a very limited extent winter subjects, for those of us in the mid-latitudes ice and snow are fleeting and largely ephemeral occurrences. Increasingly, polar regions beckon me: my first trip to Iceland was in 2019, to the Canadian arctic the year before that. I first set serious sight on Antarctica in 2016 and made it as far as the jumping-off point in southern Argentina before an unfortunate setback stopped me cold in my tracks. Resetting my sights, I was to have gone to Antarctica in 2020 and we all know what happened then. Resetting a second time produced the desired outcome and in December 2021 I was at last southbound across the notoriously rough Drake Passage aboard the brand-new Polar Class 5 expedition icebreaker, National Geographic Resolution. I carried with me a head full of images that I wanted to capture and page after page of “shoot list”, a tool of many photographers going out on assignment, whether for someone else or going about a personal project.

To most, Antarctica conjures up visions of cold, snow, endless winter, icebergs, and penguins. Some have asked me why I would ever want to go to such a barren place. But those are characteristics that can stretch the imagination, providing one with an unusual palette with which to capture the essence of the unparalleled beauty of an alien landscape. Perhaps the biggest draw for me was the ice itself. Here at 37°43’ north ice exists as something to put in drinks in the summer, and occasionally to curse in the winter as a thin sheet making getting about a risky business. Encountering a 1500-foot-thick piece of ice, a quarter mile long, with only the top 150 feet exposed above the water is a mind-boggling experience. Ice in Antarctica is far different from the stuff in our ice-cube trays or even from those long protrusions that occasionally hang from our eaves. It comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. After centuries of compression at the bottom of a glacier, it is clear, and nearly blue after all the air has been compressed out of it by the overlying mass. It can be a dirty brown from being infiltrated by diatoms while on the underside of an iceberg before the latter flips over. It can be highly sculpted or nearly smooth. Sizes range from small chunks sheared off as an iceberg breaks apart or be in huge tabular icebergs more than a hundred miles long. In short, once across the Drake Passage, there was ice to be seen and photographed everywhere. Of the 3,500 images I made, only a tiny proportion do not show snow or ice.

Also honoring the paths of great explorers from Roy Chapman Andrews in the Gobi, through Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton in Antarctica, I pay homage through my own sense of adventure and active participation in seeking out and engaging new environments. Even though thousands before me have visited the continent, my own explorations take a unique path for I go not as a passive arm-chair voyager seeking vicarious titillation, but direct involvement and personal connection to all around me. The trip, I must say, not only fulfilled a dream, but far exceeded expectations. I hope my photographic record, of which I here present a tiny fraction, adequately captured what I experienced and felt during my six days south of 62° south latitude. The images I am sharing are a few of my favorites; I give them without captions but will be happy to talk about them or about my experiences in answer to comments below.

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