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Above Zero | Olaf Otto Becker

November 2, 2009

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The Copenhagen December 2009 – UN Climate Change Conference will be in 34 days, from Decenmer 7th to December 18th trying to find the proper ways to fight climate change. In this scenario, and after his breathtaking, prize-winning photographs of the coast of Greenland in Broken Line, Olaf Otto Becker (*1959 in Travemünde) turns his attention to the interior of the island in his new series, Above Zero.

Second only to Antarctica, Greenland has the most expansive continental ice sheet in the world. Becker’s spectacular portraits of this region are taken with a cumbersome and heavy large-format camera during physically strenuous, sometimes life-threatening tours among glacial crevasses and snowmelt flows. His photographic studies reveal the overwhelming beauty of this ice-covered landscape while at the same time documenting the existential threat to it, for even here, in this completely uninhabited region, human influences have fatal consequences: dust and soot in the air form black, crusty deposits that, in conjunction with global warming, accelerate the melting of the ice sheets—with no doubt unavoidable catastrophic results.


As Freddy Langer quotes on his essay Symphony of Ice: “Landscape can never be conceived of independent of people. It is always sculpted nature, nature shaped and used, in some cases abused, but invariably subordinated. This definition now applies to wilderness pictures, too, which strictly speaking should be characterized by the complete absence of humans.”

The project is divided in different fragments of a map that enabled Becker to form a mental picture of the inland ice some 150 kilometers northeast of Ilulissat, even before he sets off the image that was a satellite picture provided by NASA.

With a choice of rivers both large and small, he selected just a few with the intention of exploring them on foot. Georg Sichelschmidt and Becker reached the first of them after a ten-day trek inland from the coast. The journey was arduous since every day they had to negotiate hundreds of meltwater streams, cracks, and crevasses in the glacier—each of them with ninety kilograms of gear loaded onto their pulkas.

The result is the project Above Zero:

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Working with a logbook, Becker writes about all the research and his adventures and findings with some poetic texts like this one:

“We reached this river only after a long and strenuous detour. Huge crevasses and rivers had repeatedly blocked our way and forced us to find a new route through the inhospitable terrain. What had on the satellite pictures dating from 2006 looked like a river connecting four separate lakes turned out to be very different in reality. The waters of the first lake had collected in a glacial depression supplied by hundreds of little meltwater streams”

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The part we found more interesting is that about the Swiss Camp, that is an atmospheric research station which was built in 1990 and has been run by Konrad Steffen of the University of Colorado in Boulder, USA; Jay Zwally of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has collaborated with the research team in Colorado since 1995. NASA uses Swiss Camp to calibrate its satellite data (ICESat), which it does by creating snow profiles near the measuring stations. Using a suite of measuring equipment for parameters such as temperature, wind direction, hours of sunshine, and melt volumes, Steffen and Zwally have collected a vast body of data on Greenland’s ice cap. Their readings, like the satellite data and climate models, provide pointers to the ice sheet’s past and future development. The inexorable meltdown regularly obliges the two scientists to anchor their measuring stations deeper and deeper in the ice cap, if only to prevent them falling over during the melt period.

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These kinds of images make us wonder if these are the new Instant City from which Archigram talked 40 years ago. Archigram’s Instant City was described as a mobile technological event that drifts into underdeveloped structures, with provisional structures (performance spaces) in tow. The whole endeavor is intended to eventually move on leaving behind advanced technology hook-ups. And exactly this is what’s happening in these research camps, that are ephemeral but at the same time, they need some infrastructures as working tentes, generators, depth radars for measurementslet and different kind of materials. Just take a look:

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The photographic project will be exhibited at  the National Museum of Photography in Copenhagen and comes with the book Above Zero, with texts by Freddy Langer, Konrad Steffen and Jay Zwally.

More info here and for the book Above Zero here.

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