Go south, young woman

Marzena Pogorzaly's photographs reveal the terrible beauty of Antarctica. She tells Kevin Jackson how she was bitten by the polar bug
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The Independent Culture
It's hard to believe such forms exist in nature. Some of them seem to have been carved or moulded or sliced into vast, abstract sculptures, round and gravid as a Henry Moore, skinny and precarious as a Giacometti, blockish and brutal as a set of Carl Andre's expensive bricks. Others seem more two-dimensional and painterly - swirling white abstracts against a sheer black background. And even the ones that do seem natural don't look as if they belong in this neighbourhood of the galaxy - more like postcards from another star system.

In reality, all these uncanny black and white images are both natural and terrestrial, though from a part of the home planet that few of us have visited: Antarctica.

They were gathered earlier this year by the Polish-born photographer Marzena Pogorzaly, who travelled to the southern ice-fields on H.M.S. Endurance, sponsored by the Foreign Office and the Government of the British Antarctic Territory. IceWorks, a selection of prints from her expedition, opens in Cardiff this week and goes on tour throughout the country next year.

This was Pogorzaly's fourth polar excursion: she's been twice to the Arctic and twice to the Antarctic, and is hoping to make it back south again for the 2000-2001 season, "to see in the real millennium". She says that she finds it hard to explain exactly why she is so drawn to the frozen ends of the earth, but makes a game attempt: "Everyone who goes there is bitten by the polar bug. First of all, in the summer you get 24 hours of sunshine, which is wonderful. It's very clean," she laughs, "very peaceful, very still, with a special quality of air and light. And then there's the ice itself - it's just mind-blowing when you see your first iceberg."

"Mind-blowing" isn't a bad epithet for her monochrome photographs of ice, either. When she put together her first exhibition of polar photographs for a show at the Royal Geographical Society in 1996, her work drew praise from the likes of Al Alvarez (who wrote of her "steady, loving eye" and "faultless sense of composition") and Neal Ascherson, who identified a "vigilant instinct for the numinous" and said that she had "identified the architecture of the inner dream which draws human beings towards the polar regions".

Despite such eloquent praise, she can be quite diffident about the quality of heir own work, though that diffidence doesn't keep her from making scornful references to the convention of photographing the Antarctic in colour, a practice she dismisses as "more pretty pictures for the National Geographic..." Temperament apart, her antipathy for the merely pretty or picturesque may perhaps owe something to her early training in objective observation as a scientist.

The daughter of a forester, Pogorzaly grew up in a fairly remote country district, and went on to study Marine Biology and Oceanography at the University of Gdansk. Her choice of subject was not, she admits, wholly motivated by a disinterested hunger for knowledge. "I never really saw myself as being a professional scientist. Poland at that time... it was like being locked in a prison, really, unless you had some professional reason for going abroad. So I thought, well, Marine Biology... in Poland we have no access to oceans, just the Baltic, so maybe that would be a chance to get away. It was a naive way to think."

Perhaps not so naive: in 1983 - "we still had martial law then" - she came to England on a summer student exchange scheme to Plymouth, and has been based here ever since.

Her life took on a new direction when a boyfriend gave her a camera. She enrolled for a few vocational courses, and, towards the end of the Eighties, began to work as a freelance; I'm pleased to record that she was given her first professional break by The Independent, who sent her off to shoot portraits for the Saturday magazine's Heroes & Villains slot.

Her journalistic career didn't take off properly, but she still shoots portraits, and a selection of her photographs of writers will be on display at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in October.

Her first polar trip was in 1992, when - "thanks to some personal contacts" - she travelled to the Norwegian Arctic to work as a photographer for the Polish Academy of Sciences, who had a base at Spitzbergen/Svalbard. The trip was only meant to last two weeks. "They assured me that it was very busy, like Oxford Street - "You'll easily get a lift to the airport" - but that wasn't true, and I was trapped there for another six weeks." It was during this enforced stay that she was well and truly bitten by the polar bug.

In 1994 she made her Antarctic debut, again with the Polish Academy of Sciences. "I more or less had to hitch-hike there, which I don't advise. I flew to Tierra del Fuego, and then talked my way onto one of the tourist ships." She stayed at the Polish base for two months, and on her return to London began to dream of going south again. For a while, it seemed hopeless. A tourist trip costs thousands, her only regular income came from working as a waitress in a restaurant near Piccadilly Circus and, anyway, she would have found the constraints of a pleasure cruise horribly frustrating.

Eventually, she got in touch with Dr Mike Richardson, who is in charge of scientific research in the British Antarctic Territory. "He said, I'm sorry, it can't be done, but write me a letter anyway." She did so, and, on the strength of the RGS exhibition coverage, was welcomed on board H.M.S. Endurance. Better still, she was given access to the ship's Lynx helicopters when they were not being used for other purposes, so that "practically every day for three weeks I had a helicopter and my own pilot for an hour a time". Her RGS exhibition had been entitled From Whose Womb, a cry of wonder from the book of Job. "The pilots said I should call the new exhibition From Whose Chopper."

Thanks to the Endurance pilots, she had access to entirely new regions and new sights: "These are hidden things, very few human beings have seen them - certainly not the people who go there on tourist ships. They won't sail too close to icebergs because it's far too dangerous. Icebergs are always melting, changing shape all the time, and sometimes they can just flip over and bring thousands of tons of ice crashing down on you. But with access to a helicopter, you can go anywhere you want. We even landed on some."

Eventually, she hopes to take enough Antarctic photographs for a full- length book, which will probably require at least one more expedition, maybe two or three. In the meantime she'll still be waiting tables five nights a week, but she has little doubt that the struggle has been, and will be, worthwhile. "When you're in the Antarctic, it's like being at the Creation - staring at a place which looked like that millions of years ago, when we didn't exist. You hear people, young people, saying something is `awesome', when all they're taking about is a pop group. The Antarctic really is awesome."

IceWorks by Marzena Pogorzaly is at Ffotogallery, 31 Charles St, Cardiff until Oct 23