Interview: 30 Years of Arctic Photography and Science
I recently spoke with Christoph Ruhsam, the polar photographer behind the new book, Frozen Latitudes, and honorary secretary of the Austrian Society for Polar Research. For Ruhsam, who works in the IT industry for a living and serves voluntarily as the Austrian Polar Research Institute’s honorary secretary, traveling to the Arctic has been a lifelong passion. Originally from Austria, he grew up close to the glaciers that for millennia have kept the top of the Alps in a deep freeze. But during his lifetime, he’s seen his landlocked homeland’s cryosphere shrink to a fraction of his childhood memories.
This early attraction to icy landscapes kept drawing him farther and farther north, taking him to Iceland, Greenland, and even Franz Josef Land, the Russian archipelago first officially discovered by the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition of 1872, which named it after the empire’s nineteenth-century ruler. After thirty years of traveling across Arctic landscapes, Ruhsam had taken enough photographs to put together a fine art photography book, published this year by German press Seltmann and Söhne.
Over those three decades, he also became increasingly concerned about climate change. His interest in the science driving the Arctic’s drastic alterations, and in conveying them to people, is part of what makes this photography book different from other offerings. Frozen Latitudes’ final chapter includes charts illustrating the rise in global and alpine mean temperatures and an article by Wolfgang Schöner, a well-respected Austrian glaciologist and one of Ruhsam’s mountaineering friends. The book’s text is also printed in both German and English, making it accessible to readers on both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean.
The rapid sublimation of Arctic landscapes before our very eyes is one reason why it is becoming ever more cherished even as humanity’s collective actions continue to melt the ice caps. While nineteenth- and twentieth-century explorers saw towering icebergs as terrible and fearsome, now they are objects of melancholy beauty, floating vestiges of a more frozen world. The Austro-Hungarian explorers of a century and a half ago, for instance, could hardly have imagined that not far from where they sailed, one day, an Italian pianist would float atop an iceberg playing “Elegy for the Arctic” on a Steinway shipped from Hamburg.
During our conversation, Ruhsam gestured towards the irony of how appreciation for the Arctic is growing as it becomes scarcer, a phenomenon an economist could explain in more transactional terms. “There is a permanent value in pristine landscapes which are becoming less and less,” he noted.
Highlights from Frozen Latitudes, out now by Seltmann and Söhne.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Mia Bennett: How did your interest in the Arctic begin?
Christoph Ruhsam: I think it somehow relates to my Nordic-bound interests in general. When I studied to be an electrical communications engineer in the ’80s, my wife and I started to look around the northern parts of Europe, and we always reached out further north. Somehow, we were in Iceland, and after Iceland we came right to Greenland. At that time, of course, global warming was not yet such a big topic. But we already knew from various reports that there was something going on, so that was another motivation: to look at what was going on in high northern hemispheres.
On the other hand, I’m an Austrian, and I’m right within the mountain areas of the open range. We’d seen large glacier systems, rather tiny compared to what you see in the Arctic, really disappearing over the last decades, and that also made us aware there was something going on.
Probably the last point on that side is one of our best mountaineering friends, Wolfgang Schöner, became one of the most renowned Austrian glaciologists. So the fuel came from various sides and that simply made us always looking further north. And of course, as a very passionate photographer of landscapes – pure landscapes – that’s what my motto is. I always took a lot of photos, some where I thought, well, I think I now have a nice book and should try to find a publisher, which I succeeded in doing.
MB: I spent last autumn working at the University of Vienna, where there is a strong group of polar researchers, and I’ve met a number of Austrians interested in the Arctic over the years. I even know one young man from Austria who moved to a small village in northern Finland. Given that Austria is both landlocked and quite far from the Arctic, what explains the country’s fascination with the north?
CR: I think it’s still a very personal relationship that everyone has to establish. But one reason might be that glacier systems aren’t very far away. Though they are going higher and higher, still, they’re quite visible. As an Austrian, you have a tight relationship with nature, learning skiing at an early age. This gives us a certain emotional connection to wintertime and the Arctic, which, let’s say, is considered to be a permanent winter situation, though not that much anymore, especially in summertime. So that might be one driving force for Austrians to be a little bit more attracted to the Arctic than other nations.
Photographer Christoph Ruhsam in his element | Christoph Ruhsam
MB: You’ve seen a great deal of the Arctic over a significant period of time – some thirty years. Do you think Arctic landscapes really are pure and pristine?
I think one of my motivations to go always further north was to leave behind the destroyed sites that you can see all over the northern countries further behind me. But looking at your website and the various exploitations that are currently being done in Greenland, it’s clear that especially due to the warming of this area, industrial activities have increased over the past decades. So that has an impact, of course, on both sides. On the one hand, it may provide a better living for the Inuit and other Native tribes living up there to probably become less dependent on natural resources. But on the other hand, I think we all know from other similar industrial activities that they probably don’t get highly paid, that they are positions requiring little education, and that it gives them another dependency on something that may move away after 10, 20, or 30 years when a certain site has been completely exploited.
On the one hand, it’s the pristine landscapes I’m looking for. But as you say, they’re definitely changing, and there are sites that are definitely not pristine at all, which is a big pity. I received that in a personal way from a “pure landscapes” perspective, and that’s also why my photo book tries to capture the beauty of the High Arctic. There is a permanent value in pristine landscapes which become less and less, and permanent value may be worth more than short-term exploitation that just leaves a big gravel pit behind, or a landscape very much polluted by oil or other chemicals after the industrial site closes down. You can see that very much if you go to the northern part of Russia.
I’ve recently read about your travel to Murmansk. I have seen those destroyed landscapes where you believe you are not on planet Earth, but rather further out in the universe. I think those sites really leave a really destroyed landscape behind, and that is a big ecological disaster for the locals who cannot pick berries anymore or the reindeer herders who have big trouble getting healthy food for their reindeer. So I think that is one of my messages that I want to convey with the book: pristine landscapes have a value that go much higher and further, that go completely beyond short-term exploitation.
MB: There’s been a massive proliferation of Arctic photography these days, what with Instagram, social media, and everything else. What sets your book apart from the rest?
CR: It’s a pity that the inflation of photos has become really high due to Instagram and all the other social media. My photo book, I think first of all, distinguishes itself from other digital media because it’s a printed set of photos, and that will make it really last much longer than anything else you can see on the internet. A photo on Instagram is liked, and tomorrow, it’s already gone. So I wanted to attempt the rather permanent value of a book. And secondly, I can show you here [Christoph opened the book to some of its panorama shots, which bleed across two pages], I have used the possibility to print across both sides so we have really nice, large-scale panorama photos. A standard monitor on a digital device is not able to represent wide-scale photos without constantly zooming in and out. I think seeing those very rare panoramic images, which I had stitched together from up to 20-25 single photos on the computer – that, I think, is one other uniqueness of this book.
I think it would also be interesting for the audience to know that the book is not only about my photo passion. It’s also about insights into the cryosphere. My friend, the glaciologist, Wolfgang, wrote chapter six, called “The Cryosphere,” providing scientific background information: what is the cryosphere, what is it composed of, what are the ecological conditions, and also what are the meteorological conditions that make it unique. He then explores the recent temperature and carbon dioxide changes that he measured firsthand, and i think that’s a very nice combination. You have pristine landscapes, you get to know first-hand expeditions, stories that are quite ambitious in many respects, and in the end, you get a solid scientific background and information about what the frozen latitudes actually are about. I think makes the book quite comprehensive not only for people interested in photography, but also people wanting to learn a little bit more about what’s going on in those northern latitudes.
MB: Your photographs span over 30 years. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the Arctic?
CR: In the early ’90s, we were in east and west Greenland on a summer expedition where we crossed certain landscapes, which were to our understanding really pristine. We just followed at that time a rather coarse map from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, and the glacier systems had been mapped in the 1930s. When we tried to reach one of them, Midgard Glacier, in southeast Greenland, we really thought we would be able to touch the ice and experience the ice walls and vertical cliffs. But when we arrived, which was about 50 years after they were mapped, the glacier had retreated 15 kilometers, so we only spotted it with our binoculars.
When I wrote the book starting a year ago, I started to look at Google Maps and tried to get a hold of these glaciers, especially in southeastern Greenland. Midgard Glacier was gone. Now, there is no big glacier – just two side glaciers that come down from the inland ice. So if you compare my photos from 1990, within another 15 years, the glacier has retreated another 15 kilometers. It’s now physically gone. I think that acceleration, which I saw firsthand, is one of the things I took with me from a non-scientific perspective. That’s a clear sign that global warming is upon us, and there is probably not much we are currently doing against it.
The final chapter in Frozen Latitudes discusses the science of Arctic climate change.
MB: In contrast, is there anything you’ve seen that’s stayed the same in the Arctic, perhaps culturally or socially?
CR: I would say that the Natives that we talked to and that traveled with us, they have not really changed a lot. I think those whom we met, some from the western part of Greenland, some from the southeastern part, and some from Ittoqqortoormiit – those people we lived and worked with, they are still trying to a certain degree to use the local resources. They’ve also experienced a big change in communications. You can easily Skype with the rest of the world. But they’re still trying to live in a rather traditional style, in a hybrid combination using modern communications and modern living styles, to a certain degree. There is, on the one hand, a certain attempt by the Greenlandic government to keep expenses low in these remote settlements. but people in these areas are also trying to keep their lifestyles. They have been, I think, really trying to live much more from local traditional hunting and gathering capabilities than those who are moving into the bigger cities and more western-oriented society, which is of course also established.
A dogsledder in Gubbedal, Liverpool Land, Northeast Greenland | Christoph Ruhsam
MB: What was it like traveling to Franz Josef Land, the archipelago off Russia’s Arctic coastline?
CR: That was a very unexpected opportunity. I had at that time a personal crisis where I also thought job-wise, “What will I do?” So suddenly, I had the opportunity to take part in an expedition to Franz Josef Land, which was also for an Austrian a very important experience because it is named after one of our last emperors, Kaiser Franz Josef. There were so many islands that were named after places near my hometown. For instance, I live 40 kilometers from Wiener Neustadt, and there was an island called Wiener Neustadt Island. I had known all these names for many decades from various books I’d looked at, and suddenly I had the chance to go there on a small-scale expedition.
This was in 2012, which had the lowest sea ice record ever measured by satellites. We were north of Franz Josef Land right at that time when the lowest sea ice levels were reached, and we were in search of sea ice, not just polar bears. We did not intend to go to the North Pole, as we weren’t on a nuclear icebreaker. It was a traditionally equipped ice-strengthened vessel. But still, the crew tried to approach the ice edge, and we had to go up to 83°N in order to reach at least some ice patches. That was just 700 kilometers from the North Pole. So we really saw what satellite records at that time measured: that it was lower than ever before, and the ice patches were not very thick. The ice-strengthened vessel could more or less break them easily. That gave another indication that it was not just the area that was reduced at that time by 50% compared to the satellite measurements that started in 1979. It was also the thickness, the volume, which was reduced by 80% compared to the original records from the 1980s. So, this was another firsthand experience that not only big glacial systems are disappearing, but that the complete Arctic Ocean ice cap is becoming thinner and smaller. That, of course, is an accelerating feedback loop which will, I think, give us in the coming years a very fast diminishing ice cap so that nothing really will remain in the next 10-20 years. That’s at least what scientists have estimated.
Wiener Neustadt Island from the north, Franz Josef Land | Christoph Ruhsam
So that was a very interesting experience to experience the old Austrian empire in Kaiser Franz Josef Land, and also to see what goes on in exactly those hot spots in terms of global warming, where the average increase in temperature is expected to go up 8°C more than in the past. Globally, we always discuss keeping the increase below 2°C, but that’s just a global average that is trying to be reached. In some Arctic areas, the rate will considerably overshoot. Franz Josef Land is one of those areas with a predicted increase of 8°C compared to before. That’s something I experienced at that time, and it gave me another idea that global warming is not something we can ignore.
MB: What do you shoot with?
CR: I’m a Nikon guy. I’ve always had one of the, let’s say, upper-class cameras, DSLR cameras, but I always had to find a compromise between weight and versatility. It means I usually have a big zoom lens with me so that I’m not handicapped by having to unmount lenses because now, I suddenly need a wide angle or zoom lens. Especially under very cold and not very friendly conditions, it’s not handy to have all of that, for instance, on a dog sled. So I’m currently using a Nikon D750 with an 18-200mm zoom lens. That’s a compromise in terms of weight, size, and versatility.
MB: And so you do all these travels and expeditions to the Arctic in your spare time?
CR: Yes, that’s the one thing. I have to pay myself, and I have to reduce the time I spend up there to a couple of weeks every year. I have children and a wife, so I have to balance that all out.
Mia Bennett is a frequent contributor to The Maritime Executive magazine. Her research and writing focus on how commodities cycles, globalization, and climate change are affecting trade networks, transportation, and natural resource development in the Arctic. She holds an MPhil in Polar Studies and is currently a PHD candidate in the UCLA Department of Geography.
This editorial appears courtesy of Cryopolitics and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.