THE BROADER PICTURE: AT THE WORLD'S WHITE ENDS
Sunday 22 February 1998
There was a time - the Victorian and Edwardian epochs - when the English were obsessed by the ice-caps. Francis Spufford's wonderful book I May Be Some Time chronicled this obsession, which began as a solid geographical endeavour and ended in the romantic, absurd tragedy of Captain Scott and his companions. They dreamt of rediscovering a world still in its white virginity, silent and immaculate, where a nation already uneasy about its own decadence could return to virtues of manliness and comradeship. It was a dream which killed them. But Scott's diaries, at least, managed to transmit to the next generation some of his own visions of Antarctica: as an arena for heroism ("I may be some time," said Oates as he left the tent to die) and as the ultimate challenge to human survival ("Great God! This is an awful place!").
The virginity is long gone. Huge cruise liners unload their passengers to stroll on the Antarctic Peninsula; rich trippers pay fortunes to parachute onto the Pole; a manmade rent in the ozone layer yawns over the ice-caps. The ultimate wilderness has retreated to where humans walk in space or lollop on the moon, and the fashion there is to react with a gee-whiz , hiya-kids delight rather than to speak of God or awfulness.
Pogorzaly's own reaction to the world of ice is serious and reverent. But it is very un-Scott. The daughter of a forester, she started out as an oceanographer and marine biologist before turning to photography. And when she did take up a camera, she made her name as a portraitist before her first encounter with the Arctic and Antarctic and their enormous imagery. This was not such a strange transition. Her portrait studies were usually of old faces, showing a fascination with the crevasses and protuberances worn by time into human features. What grief and love do to faces, temperature change, wind-weathering and current-drift do to ice.
But she has also discovered that the "dream of the ice" is not an abstract intellectual fantasy remote from carnal things. The ice turns out to be very sensual indeed. These polar landscapes, which she first saw in Svalbard (Spitzbergen), are anything but impassive. They can convey terror and cruelty, certainly. But these photographs also record the fleshy range of textures in floes and hummocks, the dark and womb-like lap of crevasses, the feathery decay of ice exposed to wind and water.
A chunk of ice, stranded on the shore and doomed to melt away, glows like a huge diamond enclosing an inner light. It's a reminder that irreversible changes are beginning to take place across the two polar regions, as global warming sets in and whole sections of the glacial cap break loose. As these pictures show, even icebergs die.
! 'From Whose Womb', photographs by Marzena Pogorzaly, is at the Royal Geographical Society, SW7 (0171 591 3000), to Thurs; mornings only.
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