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photo-eye Book Reviews: Above Zero

Above Zero, Photographs by Olaf Otto Becker. 
Published by Hatje Cantz, 2009.

Above Zero
Reviewed by Elizabeth Avedon
Photographs by Olaf Otto Becker. Text by Dr. Konrad Steffan. Interview by Freddi Langer. Hatje Cantz, 2009. Hardbound. 160 pp., 75 color illustrations, 13-1/2x11".

Olaf Otto Becker's new book Above Zero, is a powerful documentation of mythic proportions, both from a photographic and environmental point of view of the endangered landscape. The book is composed of 75 color photographs of Greenland, one of the largest inland ice surfaces in the world, taken with a large-format plate camera. The images are of a beautiful world of glaciers and icebergs, imposing landscapes of a primordial wilderness. Vast voids of ice look that at times look inhospitable and desolate in their silence, quickly change to contours of elegance and grandeur.

Above Zero, by Olaf Otto Becker. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2009.
Becker is a modern day explorer, no less a pioneer than his famous "pole fever" predecessors, from Carsten Borchgrevink, the first Norwegian explorer to set foot in Antarctica, to Ernest Shackleton's well-known Endurance expedition. Between 2003 and 2006, Becker traveled a total of 2,500 miles up and down the coast of Greenland in a rigid inflatable boat. At one point, he failed to notice an approaching ice floe and the collision catapulted him out of the boat onto the floe, leaving him with broken ribs, miles from any settlement. Instead of waiting for a possible Inuit hunter or ship to pass by, he leapt into the water, heaving himself into his retreating boat, taking photographs again the next day.

In 2007 and 2008, after studying NASA satellite photographs, Becker found rivers and lakes that were formed by melting summer snows in Greenland's interior. He partnered with Arctic explorer Georg Sichelschmidt for the grueling expedition. Becker was warned by everyone of the dangers of summer ice, soft and slushy as a swamp in which you can sink up to your knees, but these life-threatening obstacles did not deter him.

Above Zero, by Olaf Otto Becker. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2009.

Above Zero, by Olaf Otto Becker. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2009.
Along with the splendor of hollowed out icebergs, glaciers, rivers and lakes, the images also portray the present fragility of the landscape, showing us our first glimpse how the earth is changing. Freddi Langer writes about the layers of black dust that can be seen on the ice, blown there by the wind and traced back to industrial sites in China. The rivers documented in Becker's work are becoming wider, deeper and longer by the year. On one occasion when Becker left his tent in the same place for a week, the ice melted all around it, leaving it on an island while his pots slid away.

Above Zero, by Olaf Otto Becker. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2009.
Becker photographed glaciologist and climate researchers, Konrad Steffen and seven scientists, at their measuring station, Swiss Camp, where they work on predicting the planet's future. Even at Point 660, a popular tourist spot, taking photographs of one another proudly in this formidable landscape may soon be over.

Becker's book is both a magnificent work of art and a timely warning about the future of "one of the last truly magical places left on earth." Today a CNN headline reads:

Massive Ice Island Breaks Off Greenland. A piece of ice four times the size of Manhattan Island has broken away from an ice shelf in Greenland, according to scientists in the U.S.. Environmentalists say ice melt is being caused by global warming with Arctic temperatures in the 1990s reaching their warmest level of any decade in at least 2,000 years. Researchers predict current trends could see the Arctic Ocean become ice free in summer months within decades.

Above Zero, by Olaf Otto Becker. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2009.
Olaf Otto Becker's photographs of the far north began with his pictures of Iceland, then the iceberg series, and now Above Zero of Greenland's inland ice. One hundred years from now, his photographs may be all that's left to view of this extraordinary world.—Elizabeth Avedon

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Elizabeth Avedon is a book designer and independent curator, former Director of photo-eye Gallery, Creative Director for The Gere Foundation, including the retrospective exhibition and book: Avedon: 1949-1979 for the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Avedon: In the American West for the Amon Carter Museum, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Upcoming exhibitions include " Nicholas Vreeland: Return to the Roof of the World" at the Leica Gallery, NY April 2011.