Tuft shooting in Antarctica
Photo courtesy of Assouline Publishing
Gondwana: Images of an Ancient Land by Diane Tuft, with a foreword by Elisabeth Sussman
Assouline Publishing, 2014
[E]veryone who spends a good amount of time in Antarctica is changed, deeply and permanently, by that experience. The place is profound: biologically, historically, and aesthetically. The first time I went, on a National Science Foundation Artist & Writer’s Fellowship, I gave myself the ridiculously difficult task of showing how that massive dose of wild beauty changes the characters in my novel. The continent demands that artists and writers ask gigantic questions. But finding meaningful answers is nearly impossible. And communicating those meaningful answers is even yet more difficult.
The problem is that Antarctica is a hyperbolic continent. Everything about the place is extreme: its climate, size, and especially its beauty. No artist or writer can successfully narrate or represent the southernmost continent without addressing the extremity, and yet most good writing and art is not hyperbolic.
In reading the literature and looking at the art of Antarctica, I’ve noticed two distinct strategies in grappling with this paradox of creativity. Some writers and photographers go for broke, trying to address the extremity of color, size, and emotion. After all, what’s most interesting about Antarctica is its raw, intense, over-the-top wildness. The danger is producing purple prose or lurid photographs, what Stuart Klipper, a fine photographer who has traveled to Antarctica several times on the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers Fellowship, once described to me as “nature porn.”
The other strategy, understatement and minimalism, can be equally unsatisfying to the reader or viewer, and too often misses the mark altogether. The idea is that a few well-chosen references will point to the immensity, the grandiosity, lurking just off the page or just beyond the edge of the photograph. The hope is that the wildness, Ernest Shackleton’s “great white south,” is captured indirectly. The implied assumption is that successfully representing Antarctica is beyond the abilities of language or photography. This approach, though, misses the whole point of the continent, not to mention of literature or art.
What’s the sweet spot? Is it truly elusive? Is it possible to capture the extremity of Antarctica’s history, contemporary relevance, and beauty without overreaching? Can that intense and bright and raw dreamland place be depicted at all?
Yes. Rarely well. But yes. By doing what Diane Tuft has done, capturing the grand and the details, all in one breath.
Ultraviolet Reflections, Scott Base Pressure Ridges, by Diane Tuft
Greenwood Valley, by Diane Tuft
Glacial Composition, Cape Evans, by Diane Tuft
Tuft traveled to Antarctica on the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers Fellowship program in 2012. Her resulting book of photographs, Gondwana: Images of an Ancient Land, impressively succeeds on three levels: aesthetic, historical, and scientific.
The photographs are drop-dead gorgeous. The compositions and colors reveal Antarctica perfectly, but they are also stunning abstract images all on their own.
Nearly all of Tuft’s photographs have no context—no humans or other animals, no horizon—so the specificity and the grandiosity can coexist. This is what being in Antarctica is like; you are so aware of your own tiny presence, that you are a point of near-nothingness in the landscape. Tuft distills the experience to ice or rock or sand, and yet she presents this raw material of Antarctica in beautiful and sensuous formations. The grains of sand and the crystals of ice are as compelling as the swirling shapes made by wind and glaciers and water.
Tuft writes in her introduction that she realized early on in her Antarctic travels that the continent tells an amazing story about the history of our planet, and that she wanted her photographs to tell parts of that story. She’s named her book Gondwana, one of two supercontinents that resulted from the breakup of Earth’s single continent of Pangea more than 170 million years ago. Antarctica was part of Gondwana and fossils on the continent have shown that at one time the landmass was situated much more to the south than it is now. This story, embedded in the layers of ice and sand and rock, is implicit in each of Tuft’s photographs.
In her excellent Foreword, Elisabeth Sussman, Curator and Sondra Gilman Curator of Photograph at the Whitney Museum of American Art, describes photography as a medium that has the “ability to reproduce a reality that may not exist tomorrow.” Tuft’s Antarctic images not only refer to the continent’s history, they point forward to its unstable future.
By showing the evidence of the planet’s dramatic changes over millions of years, her photographs raise the question of immanent future dramatic changes. One particularly interesting aspect of these pictures is their surprising sense of warmth. This adds to their inviting appeal, on the aesthetic level, but it also points back to the historical time when Antarctica was a much warmer place and forward to the fact of our warming planet. As Sussman says, Tuft’s choice of title is simultaneously poetic, activist, and historically specific.
Tuft’s interest in the history of Antarctica leads directly into an interest in the science being done on the continent today. The biggest historical story is also the biggest scientific one: climate change, and the resulting melting of Antarctica’s ice.
The National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers program is one of the most exciting arts programs I know because of its forward-thinking mission to put artists and scientists in active dialogue. Too often our culture thinks of artists and scientists at opposite poles of a knowledge continuum, one working from facts and the other from the imagination. This is far from the reality. In fact, one reason I have loved being in Antarctica a few times over the past decade is because at least in my country, the United States, at this time in history, the scientific community is embracing imaginative thought with more gusto and excitement than the arts communities.
The scientists in Antarctica are on the frontlines of trying to understand our planet. The continent is relatively untouched by humans and is therefore the best place to learn what the planet is like without human contamination. They’re studying climate change, whale brains, and the Big Bang. In this vast icy place that has been called a “wasteland,” we are beginning to understand how the universe came into being and what Earth’s chances are for a future.
Even scientists, who depend on hard evidence for every truth they espouse, start with a leap of imagination. We all learned the scientific process in grammar school: hypothesis and testing and conclusion. But what about before that hypothesis? There is a moment, or perhaps years rather than a moment, of great flying through imagination, to even think of the unthinkable, to put together an idea to test in the first place. By placing writers, painters, photographers, and occasionally even composers and choreographers, side by side with scientists, and asking them to consider one another’s bodies of knowledge, is a radical idea.
Diane Tuft’s book of photographs, Gondwana: Images of an Ancient Land, is a crucial voice in that conversation. Her photographs are exciting because—besides their sheer beauty—she uses detailed facts about Antarctica in her compositions. Her photographs ask questions, big questions, and also point toward new ways of thinking about answers. She pairs quotes with some of her pictures, including this one by Aristotle: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Diane Tuft does this gloriously.
Lucy Jane Bledsoe is the author of four books about Antarctica, mostly recently a novel, The Big Bang Symphony.
Gondwana photographs by Diane Tuft appear in The Coachella Review courtesy of Assouline Publishing.