Tracks

A Walk in the Arctic

Photo by David Heymann

This past summer I took part in The Arctic Circle, an expeditionary program that takes a group of scientists and artists (of all disciplines) sailing around in the Svalbard Archipelago above the Arctic Circle. We were there in the continuous light of high summer — it took several months for me to stop dreaming about the place after I got back.

I write about how buildings form landscapes. I was thinking before the trip I wanted to be somewhere without buildings, where constructions were evanescent or invisible: pathways, boundary projections, defense strategies, and so forth. I also thought that tracks might be worth focusing on, given that so much improbable desire can be simply noted in the scalar difference between the vast frozen nothing and a willful trail of pitiful footsteps.

Underway, we would sail from place to place, then stop and work on shore. The schedule hung on the weather, the mood of the group, the exigencies of the boat and crew. I spent roughly half of each day photographing in the fairly restricted areas we could work — on which more in a moment — trying to document overlapping track systems in vast fields of snow. I am still working on those photographs (each of which is composed of many exposures).

The reason the on-shore work areas were limited is the presence, in Svalbard, of polar bears. With the exception of a few areas in the small towns on the island, you cannot be outdoors on land without a rifle, or without someone with one. Each day our three armed guides would set out a triangle of space in which we might work. These triangulations were carefully considered, given the number of people working and what they were working on, and invariably encompassed some remarkable location.

Also, defined by three potential rifle shots, they were fairly sizable spaces. But in that tundra, where there was nothing, and the air was so clear five miles of distance seemed like one, the work areas felt quite small to me. I really wanted to go into that nothingness alone. During the other half of the day on shore I would take part in guide-led walks, usually with six or seven others, which went from whatever amazing place we were to some other place that was equally amazing, just higher, or mossier, or where the ice was older.

Since there were no real trails, these walks were closer in spirit to the way I wanted to study. The thing with the walks was you had to keep walking to stay with the group, which was led by someone with a rifle — again, polar bears. At first I found this frustrating to working with a camera. Still, the walks worked: the farther we were from the boat and the larger part of the group, the happier I was. I began thinking about how the walks, how the walking away, was the subject. The photographs included here — an ongoing experiment — started from that, then led outward.

Photo by David Heymann

Photo by David Heymann

Photo by David Heymann

Photo by David Heymann

Photo by David Heymann

Photo by David Heymann

Photo by David Heymann

Photo by David Heymann

Photo by David Heymann

Photo by David Heymann

Photo by David Heymann

Author's Note

The photography equipment used on the journey described above was provided by a generous grant from the Olympus Corporation.

Cite
David Heymann, “Tracks,” Places Journal, December 2014. Accessed 05 Dec 2016. https://doi.org/10.22269/141229

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