The PhotoBook

June 17, 2010

Olaf Otto Becker – Above Zero

copyright Olaf Otto Becker, 2009 courtesy Hatje Cantz Verlag

Olaf Otto Becker’s Above Zero is a beautiful documentary style narrative about the melt water of Greenland’s ice cap. Becker investigates the annual melt water that occurs each summer. It might seem that finding the presence of running water on top of snow and ice to be indicative of environment changes, but in fact the running melt water is an annual occurrence. During periods of the midnight sun when the daily temperature rises just above the freezing point of zero degrees Celsius, snow and ice will melt and small runs of melt water eventually converge, creating streams, rivers and shallow pools resembling lakes.

 Looking at these photographs in an environmental context, what can not be discerned from Becker’s photographs is the relative change of the amount of melt water that occurs each year. That is left to the scientific analysis, such as at the Swiss Camp that Becker documents in the concluding photographs of the book. There are no indications that allow these photographs to advance issues of global warming or global cooling, but only that some melt water does occur.

 Similar to most investigations of natural occurring events, what is missing is a fuller sense of the actual conditions; the smell, sounds, and the feeling that occur while being present. What can only be hinted at is what occurs in real time. In this regard, Becker recounts: “Halfway along the river, a steep gradient turned in into a thundering torrent with white-water rapids. After another four kilometers, and now twelve meters wide, it crashed down into a moulin, displacing the air trapped deep inside the glacier and sending up a fountain of spray several meters high, like an exhalation from the blowhole of a surfacing whale.”

 Becker appears to be attuned to the characteristics of the melt water, with an aesthetic sensitivity to the changes, curves, merges, flows and drops. He attempts to avoid a purely scientific viewpoint of what he calls uninteresting melt water. Becker’s photographs are also limited in tonality, bordering on monotony, with consistent grey skies, white snow and ice, gray and black soot, with crystal clear turquoise, green and cobalt blue bodies of water. The graphic abstract qualities of the environmental conditions are further enhanced by the flat overcast light which collapses the pictorial space. The modeling of most of the edges and planes result from a build up of black soot that clings to the surface when the melt water rises each day.

 In Becker’s photographs, it is difficult for me to decipher a sense scale, observing what appears as water, unable to determine width or depth of the channel or velocity of the flow. Becker has attempted to hint at a sense of scale by including the horizon in most of his photographs but that does not seem sufficient.

 The presence of large amounts of gray particles on the white snow appears surreal, as you might visualize in the currant rash of HDR photographs that accentuate the shadow details. The soot could be natural contamination from the regions volcanoes, or the result of pollution from either North America, Europe or due to Polar winds, Asia and Eastern Europe. For those who travel between Europe and North America, most of the air travel transitions over Southern Greenland, thus another potential source of potential contamination. The contamination results are gray, not brown, yellow or other tonality.

 The transitional melt water appears very clear, as though staring into the dizzying blue abyss of the super clean water of a nuclear reactor. The width and depth of crystal clear water can be deceiving, and without a reference point, even more so. I can recall landing our canoe on a river bank in the Rockies, thinking that the river depth was only a foot or two at most, I jumped over the side only to become completely submerged and I was still unable to contact the river bottom.

 This is a lot of discussions about global warming, but I did not know of one of the effects of air pollution; that on the snow, these small particulate sites are focal points for absorbing light and act as radiant bodies, creating holes and accelerating the melting. The effects can be visualized where they have pock marked the surface, but his photographs are insufficient to explain why the pock mark holes are present.

 Konrad Steffen’s Afterword is a scientific oriented essay on what is being observed at Swiss Camp on the Greenland ice cap. Freddy Langer provides the introductory essay. The photographs are captioned with the longitudinal, latitudinal and altitudinal coordinates. The horizontal book, with the fine color printing and binding, complements Becker’s photographs very well.

by Douglas Stockdale

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