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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Southern Exposure: Antarctica

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

At the edge of the world, where there is no more, and where the cold can snap you in half, Stuart Klipper finds transcendence.

It is in Antarctica, Klipper says, "where my soul feels best."

It also is where the 59-year-old fine art photographer regularly has had to brave some of the most daunting working conditions of his career.

At the 14,000-foot top of Mt. Erebus, the dominant, jagged jewel of the Ross Ice Shelf, "the wind was hard and the air was cold – minus 20s….. It took me five minutes to change a roll of film, while concomitantly avoiding having a nose drip fall into my camera's innards, where it'd freeze solid on contact."

Eleven days earlier, and closer to the frozen ground, came this journal entry: "I have now really gotten to work. Now my feet are wet; really – I had my (vapor barrier) bunny boots on for over 20 hours yesterday! And if you think hat hair looks bad you oughta see what helmet hair looks like" (from the flight helmet he had to wear for helicopter trips).

For a remarkable five times Klipper has been part of an equally remarkable program whose spiritual roots go back to the Depression-era and New Deal programs that made use of artists and writers to advance the public's knowledge of the world around it – and, of course, to put all kinds of people, even artists, back to work.

Klipper has been part of the Antarctic Artists and Writers program of the National Science Foundation, a federally funded program that brings "artists, writers, photographers, poets and other scholars in the humanities" to the Antarctic every year. Their mission is simple: to answer the basic questions, "What is Antarctica like?" "What is its contribution to our culture and heritage?" And, arguably, most important, "What is it like to be there?"

I first heard of this program six years ago when I met Ann Parks Hawthorne, another photographer with "a serious case of wanderlust." Hawthorne, who at the time was a veteran of two NSF-funded Antarctic journeys, beguiled me with her tales of this frozen, foreign world – and of the hardships and her heroic efforts, not only to keep her cameras from freezing, but also to make good pictures.

"You really can go down there and get overwhelmed," Ann told me as I made her portrait for a magazine interview. The visual overload, she went on, can be so heavy – the scenes so breathtaking and varied – that you'll have "sort of endorphin poisoning and come back with a bunch of really bad pictures of penguins."

Nevertheless, this Bronx boy who loves his comfort was enchanted. It has been an off-and-on fantasy of mine to apply for this fellowship and head to the South Pole, for a two- to three-month stay during Antarctica's austral summer, or if I really were a masochist, during the austral winter.

Of course, I haven't done a thing toward this goal. Instead, I finished my book on Maine and am now working with my wife on a book about Venice. But the familiar tingle re-emerged last winter when Washington area photography dealer Sandra Berler called me up and said I simply had to see her show of Stuart Klipper's gorgeous color panoramic landscapes made at the bottom of the world.

As it happened, Judy and I literally were packing for a month in Venice to continue work on our book. It was not until a few weeks ago – after receiving a thick packet of slides from Stuart – that I finally saw what Sandra was talking about.

It should come as no shock that Klipper, who also is an associate professor of art at Colorado College, is a poet. His images, too, are poetic – all in color, his exhibition work all panoramas. Looking at these broad horizontal images one is awed at the Antarctic's substantial nothingness that nonetheless grounds you.

"Antarctica," Klipper told me, "as 'otherworldly' and 'extraterrestrial' as it is, is an edge, too, a place where, on Earth you feel more [a] part of the firmament than perhaps anywhere else."

He probably would appreciate Ann Hawthorne's naïve cartoon postcard she sent to friends before her first-ever trip to Antarctica: a white card with a line across the middle. "Antarctic landscape," she called it – and later couldn't believe how wrong she was.

Klipper speaks of "clarity," when he speaks of the Antarctic. "This is a place that is so far apart from the mainstream of human experience, not just beyond the embrace of culture and history, but even the evolution of our species on the planet. Such a vantage point allows one to cast one's eyes back at everything else – that's the sort of clarity I'm getting at."

Writer Barry Lopez spoke of it this way in Harper's Magazine after his trip some 15 years ago:

"The air here is so clear the eye can fasten effortlessly on the details, on the sharp break of shadow creases, in distant mountains, making binoculars curiously redundant. The hues of yellow and brown, the tints of oranges and red that elevate the sedimentary rocks above the igneous layers of granite, take the starkness out of the land but do not alter its line, which is bold, balanced, serene…"

It is a measure of how far technology and experience have come that, despite the bitter weather and other hardships, artists and writers, and of course the international scientific community that inhabits the place, can work in the Antarctic in comparative ease, if not comfort. [To appreciate how far we've come, read Caroline Alexander's brilliant narrative, The Endurance – Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (Knopf, $29.95). It is a tale of the ill-fated 1914 voyage that left Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew stranded for 20 months until their final rescue. Enjoy the book, too, for the astonishing images made by Australian photographer Frank Hurley – who not only braved it all, but who came back with pictures as well.]

By contrast, Klipper's wonderfully detailed e-mail journals and other writing evoke a world in which vegans are accommodated at mess call, where one can debate the merits of "a very nicely prepared fish in a dill and caper sauce," where NPR is on the radio, and where, as he once wrote, "tonight, there's a contra dance…. I'll check it out."

On the technical end, Klipper reports, "I have used a Linhof Technorama since 1978. Except for two projects, I've always shot color with that camera. I use whatever Kodak's (ISO) 400 color negative emulsion is current. I never work with only one camera.… Most recently my auxiliary cameras are a Mamiya 6x7, a Hasselblad Xpan, a Konica Hexar – and an Elph."

As for processing – "It all comes home with me and then straight to the lab."

If all of the above fascinates you – as I admit it still does me – check out the National Science Foundation's Web site for information about what it takes to be part of this grand adventure at the bottom of the world. www.nsf.gov/od/opp/aawr.htm

For information on Stuart Klipper's work and that of other photographers: Sandra Berler Gallery, 7002 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase, MD 20815. Phone: 301-656-8144

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.


© Stuart Klipper
Scenes from Stuart Klipper's most recent Antarctic adventure include a starkly beautiful and abstract view of an ice floe against the brilliant blues of water and horizon...


© Stuart Klipper
...a dramatic aerial shot of the type of chopper...


© Stuart Klipper
...and, to paraphrase fellow Antarctic shooter Ann Parks Hawthorne, a really good picture of penguins.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Dr. Burnett's Magic Box

Shooting Fireworks (Indoors)

Pre-Digital Prestidigitation

Dropped Cameras: An Anecdotal Indictment

The Print Lab Around Your Neck

Wedding War Stories