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The Arctic Is Ready for Its Close-Up

Photographer Diane Tuft captures a landscape transformed in her new photo book “The Arctic Melt.”

Written by Gloria Dickie Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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© Diane Tuft

In her new book “The Arctic Melt” (Assouline, $95), New York City-based photographer Diane Tuft confronts a swiftly changing landscape with her camera and an artistic eye, capturing vast swaths of sea ice, meltwater channels ripping through the Greenland Ice Sheet, and the crumbling mountain glaciers of Svalbard and Norway.

The resulting images portray both an ethereal and ephemeral sense of beauty – a swan song for the landscapes we’re about to lose, and an appreciation of their grandeur even in death.

Arctic Deeply recently spoke with Tuft to discuss her approach to this multi-year project and what she hopes to accomplish.

Arctic Deeply: What made you want to capture the melting Arctic? What drew you to that region?

Tuft: I’ve been doing this a long time, since 1998. I’m an artist with a science and math background, so I started off photographing infrared and ultraviolet light on the landscape in 2005. I used infrared film in my camera and went to places in the world that have a lot of ultraviolet light in order to capture the inner workings of landscapes that we couldn’t see because humans can only see physical light. Through that exploration, I got involved with ozone depletion – the places in the world that have a tremendous amount of ultraviolet light have it because there is ozone depletion. And ozone depletion was really because of climate change.

In 2012, I received a grant from the National Science Foundation to go to Antarctica to photograph the effects of ultraviolet light on the landscape, because there’s an ozone hole there. But when I got there I realized it was a lot more than just ultraviolet light; that it was really a history of the Earth. That project became “Gondwana – Images of an Ancient Land,” but there was quite a bit about global warming in that book.

Since I had gone to the South Pole and explored Antarctica, I decided to go to the North Pole and explore the Arctic.

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© Diane Tuft

Arctic Deeply: What were some of the logistical challenges of this project?

Tuft: In Antarctica, I traveled mostly by helicopter. In the Arctic, it was extremely difficult to plan the trip because you’re not allowed to fly over the Arctic Ocean in a small plane. If you’re in a helicopter, it can only go two hours because you have to refuel. The planning of that trip was the hardest thing I had to do. I wanted to capture the mountain glaciers and the Arctic Ocean. Those were two very difficult places.

For the North Pole, I really wanted to be on the ocean. The only way to do that was to take a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker. I literally wanted to be into the ocean. You can see satellite images of the ice disappearing, but it’s not the same thing as being on the ocean and seeing how much is covered by ice.

Arctic Deeply: What was your artistic approach to “Arctic Melt”?

Tuft: As an artist, I always see things in different shapes and in color. When I photograph, I’m really looking for something that is sculptural and sort of innate. Everybody has a way of looking at things. No matter what I look at, that’s the way I capture it. I never crop anything outside of camera. I look at everything inside the camera. It is the beauty of what’s there and the beauty of what won’t be there.

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© Diane Tuft

Arctic Deeply: Was it difficult to reconcile that the beauty of the meltwater and the landscapes are the result of the impacts of climate change?

Tuft: I have to say it is stunningly beautiful to fly over Greenland and see what’s happening to the ice sheet. The color of the water is spectacular. But it is extremely disheartening. I had been to Greenland in 2007 and revisited in 2016. In 2007, the ice sheet was powdery snow with little pockets of cryoconite, which are these little black holes. They were all over the sheet. So I photographed that. And when I went back to the exact same place at the exact same time nine years later, it was nothing like that. It was all these ridges of silt and ice, and meltwater lakes flowing in between. It was drastic. Scientists were diving in the lakes. It was shocking. It was 65F (18C), before it was 30F (-1C). There were rapids coming out underneath the glaciers.

Arctic Deeply: Did you have a favorite image or series of images from this project that you felt spoke most to what’s happening in the Arctic?

Tuft: I would say the meltwater. It’s strange when you’re looking at ice and silt and there’s a river of water in between, because it doesn’t happen anywhere else. People can see glaciers and calving of glaciers, but meltwater on an ice sheet is something that really strikes homes.

And then in Svalbard, the images of how when the glaciers melt they expose minerals from the Earth below, creating these red rivers.

Arctic Deeply: What would you like to convey with “Arctic Melt”?

Tuft: I’d like to convey that climate change is real. And that we really need to pay attention to it and to address it as a real issue that will affect us drastically as human beings, as a society, and all the living species on this Earth. And it’s not going to go away.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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© Diane Tuft

The Arctic Melt will go on sale April 20, 2017.

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