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Interview: Magda Biernat on Adrift

Interview Magda Biernat on Adrift Magda Biernat's Adrift, currently installed at photo-eye's Bookstore + Project Space, was recently awarded Center's 2016 Director's Choice Award. Adrift is Biernat's commentary on global climate change. Gallery Associate Lucas Shaffer interviewed Biernat about her inspiration for Adrift, what it took to make the images, and her ultimate goals for the project.
Magda Biernat's Adrift installed at photo-eye Bookstore + Project Space

Magda Biernat's Adrift, currently installed at photo-eye's Bookstore + Project Space, was recently awarded Center's 2016 Director's Choice Award. Adrift is Biernat's commentary on global climate change as witnessed in the areas most affected: the earth's polar regions. Photographed throughout 2013, Adrift pairs Alaskan Inupiat hunting cabins along side Antarctic icebergs in compelling color diptychs. Drawing on her experience photographing architecture, Biernat's images are precise, clean, and even, giving the icebergs and fishing huts the same visual weight within the frame despite their massive difference in scale. Gallery Associate Lucas Shaffer interviewed Biernat about her inspiration for Adrift, what it took to make the images, and her ultimate goals for the project.

Adrift #01, 2013 & Adrift #02, 2013 – Magda Biernat

Lucas Shaffer:     In your project statement you mention that Adrift began during a 17 country trip through the Americas in 2013. What was the original purpose for the trip?

Magda Biernat:     The original purpose of the trip was exploration and search for inspiration and creativity. This was a second year long trip my husband and I did together. While living and working in NYC, it is very easy to lose track of time and before you know it 10 years have passed and all you've been doing is working. I work as an architectural photographer and rarely I have time to pursue my personal projects while working on projects for my clients. So every 5 years or so we take a year off from our work lives and travel in pursuit of inspiration.

LS:     When did you start imagining Adrift in its current form?

MB:     As an architectural photographer I am always attracted to bold geometric forms and shapes, which both the icebergs and the hunting huts had in common. The way I joined the two subjects together into Adrift happened after I came back home and started developing the film. The icebergs were photographed at the very beginning of the trip in Antarctica in January and the hunting huts at the very end of the trip in Alaska in December. I had not thought about pairing them together at the time, however, while scanning the material I noticed the similarities between the forms and felt like both subjects complemented each other visually. It felt like I could tell a better story by showing them together, a more complete story of the changes happening around us. Not only is it talking about the effects of global warming on two opposite ends of the earth, but also shows how they are connected. Changes in one part of the world effect the environment in places thousands of miles away.

Adrift installed at photo-eye Bookstore + Project Space

LS:     Did you have to return to either location to re-shoot?

MB:     No. I have not returned to either of them yet. But I hope to come back to Alaska next year to explore the area around Barrow, it's an interesting place with a fascinating culture. And I'd love to return to Antarctica.

LS:     Can you describe the experience of photographing the icebergs? Generally how large are the icebergs that appear in your images?
Magda Biernat on location in Antarctica

MB:     Being in Antarctica was like being on another planet. It was so quiet and serene. The icebergs are quite large — sometimes the size of a skyscraper, but they are even bigger under water as you probably know, sometimes many times larger. On more than one occasion an iceberg that had caught my eye collapsed, once as we were quite near it in a small inflatable boat. We had to turn around and speed for shelter to get out of the way of the wave it created. It's hard to describe how dramatic it is to watch one of these things come apart. Like an explosion.

LS:     Where specifically did you photograph? Did you need a guide to find the hunting cabins in Alaska?

MB:     The icebergs were photographed in different places around the Antarctic Peninsula and the photographs of huts are taken in Barrow, Alaska. We went to Alaska in winter, and ended up in Barrow in the middle of December, which was not very smart, but it also meant we were the only visitors in town and since we were traveling on a budget we didn't rent a car but were walking everywhere in the snow, in minus 20 degree weather in our bright yellow parkas that we got on our Antarctic expedition. Thus we attracted the attention of the locals and made some friends who offered to show us around in their trucks. Lots of people worried we'd run into the polar bears that wander around the town often looking for food. I knew about the hunting huts and I asked Pete, our new Inupiat friend, about them, and he offered to take us there. They were about 30 minutes outside of town. We definitely couldn't have walked there.

Adrift #22, 2013 – © Magda Biernat

LS:     Are all of the cabins you’ve photographed abandoned?

MB:     They are actually not abandoned, they are just not used during winter. They are mainly huts that local inupiat hunters use in the spring and summer. But since many of the animals are changing their migration patterns and many of the locals are moving south in search for work, I wonder how much longer they will be used.

LS:     How did the Alaskan cabins first come to your attention?

Magda Biernat on location in Barrow, Alaska
MB:     I had actually seen a series of beautiful photos of the cabins taken by fellow photographer Eirik Johnson. As we were going to end our south to north journey in Barrow, I hoped to see them. Barrow is an incredibly photogenic place and I photographed structures, houses and huts all over the town but in the end it was these hunting huts that complimented the icebergs so well.

LS:      What was one of the most unexpected or difficult things that happened while shooting?

MB:     As I mentioned before, we were in Barrow in the middle of December. At that time of year there is no sunlight. I literally had about two hours of dusk, so I had to be on one hand very fast while photographing the cabins (it took me about 1 hr or so) but on the other hand the exposures were very long and I was standing in the snow up to my waist in frigid temperatures. At one point I was shooting and a police car pulled up to us and told me I had to get back in the truck. He'd just chased a polar bear out of town and it was headed directly towards us.

Adrift Installed at photo-eye Bookstore + Project Space

LS:     How did you make the decision to exhibit the work in diptychs? Are there specific images that are meant to be paired together? If so, how do you make those choices?

MB:     I paired them based on similarities in shapes. When you look at them up close many of them have very distinctive features that are mirrored in the other image.

LS:     How did you feel making this work, putting the book and the exhibition together? Did you learn anything new?

MB:     The decision to make a book came very fast. It was December and I was invited to give a talk at the Annenberg Space for Photography in April. I decided it would be great to have a book signing after the talk. So I had 3 months to make a book. There was no way I could have convinced any publishers to make a book in 3 months, therefore I decided to self-publish. It was an interesting process, and I wouldn't be able to do it without the help of my contributors. My husband, Ian Webster, did a logo and graphic design of the book. Martin Pedersen, former Executive Editor of Metropolis Magazine, where I used to work, was the editor of the book and wrote an excellent preface. My mentor, Jean-Marie Casbarian and fellow artist Rori Knudtson also wrote essays for the book. I learned a lot very quickly about how to put a book together, proofread it and work with a printing house.

Adrift by Magda Biernat, published by Ink and Bellows LTD, 2015

LS:     Do you consider yourself an environmental activist? Do you see Adrift as a political statement about climate change?

MB:     No, I don't consider myself an environmental activist, but as an artist I have a responsibility to address the issues that are important. I didn't set out on this trip to create a series that speaks so much to the issue of climate change, it really began to present itself as we traveled. Climate change issues are all around us and if we don't talk more about them and do something about our environment, the terrible consequences are going to face us sooner rather than later. Living in New York, we don't see change as effecting daily life very much – apart from big unusual storms like Hurricane Sandy, but during the south to north trip we witnessed first hand the warming effects in Antarctica, the drought in the Amazon rain forest and the Arctic which had very little snowpack even though we'd arrived in winter.

LS:     Do you have a goal for Adrift? Are you hoping to initiate a response or an action from your viewers?

MB:     I've always created work that I felt was aesthetically pleasing. It was important for me to draw the viewer in by creating something beautiful. In Adrift, on first glance you don't see any evidence of the global warming issue, everything looks sort of peaceful and beautiful. But in the context of what's happening, that the ice caps are melting, makes you wonder how long will that beauty exist. By highlighting the stark beauty of the natural world I want to bring the attention to the very real threats to its continued existence.

Adrift is on view at the photo-eye Bookstore + Project Space in Santa Fe, NM through September 3rd, 2016. For more information on the project, or to purchase prints, please contact Gallery Director Anne Kelly at 505.988.5152 x 121 or

Magda Biernat –image © Jennifer MacFarlane
View the Adrift Online Portfolio

Purchase a Copy of the Adrift Book

CENTER's 2016 Director's Choice Awards 

A native of Poland currently based in New York City, Magda Biernat  is a multi-media artist whose works range from architectural and landscape to conceptual photography and video installations. Her work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally and she has been the recipient of several awards, such as the LensCulture 2015 Emerging Talents Award, TMC/Kodak Grant, Lucie Foundation Awards and Magenta Foundation Flash Forward.