Photo Gallery: Capturing a desolate yet beautiful wilderness
Norfolk photographer Garlinda Birkbeck has just had the feeling of rowing through the most enormous gin and tonic – with all the focus on the ice. Ian Collins reports.
Photographer Garlinda Birkbeck has now added blue to her favourite repertoire of black and white imagery in a ground and ice-breaking trip to Antarctica.
Her resulting images – highlights of which can soon be seen in London – are a wonderful update of Herbert Ponting's famously monochrome photos from a century before, taken on that fateful Terra Nova mission to the South Pole which resulted in the deaths of Robert Falcon Scott and his companions.
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That Birkbeck note of colour shines from the interior of older icebergs caused by the crushing out of oxygen which filters out the blue. It looks like flickers of fire.
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And here and there are further flashes of red – on the beaks of Gentoo penguins. Such small markers only underline the immensity of all that icy white, and the black in a polar region which is dark for months on end.
Looking back on an epic journey, from her home at West Acre, near Swaffham, Garlinda says: 'I wanted to see icebergs. I couldn't imagine great pieces of ice like the one that had sunk the Titanic and had become part of our vocabulary.
'And the Antarctic is an environment that so many have tried to conquer. There are not many places left like it.
'More than anything else I wanted to see it before I got too ancient. I knew it would surprise me.'
And surprise it did. 'It surpassed my expectations,' she says. 'The beauty, the desolation, the sheer scale, number and variety of icebergs.'
Many of her photos were taken from the ship, but the staggering Blue Ice Castle was captured from a tiny kayak. 'I think it works partly because of its low-level perspective,' Garlinda says.
'Manoeuvring the kayak with the oars clanking against anvil-sized lumps of brash ice was like rowing through an enormous gin and tonic.'
The crabeater seal on the ice floe was taken from the photographer's cabin window. 'This picture is about scale – the tiny crabeater on its disintegrating ice floe in a vast sea seems to me to tell a David Attenborough-like story,' says its creator, and the viewer may indeed towards that lost-looking seal as we lately did to a blind baby rhino with which the great naturalist enjoyed a grunting conversation on our TV screens.
The seeming fragility of a flying bird (a pintado) in the onslaught of a blizzard invites the same message, until we reflect that this creature is designed to survive and thrive in such wild wastelands where Captain Scott and his party lie buried.
Another seal resembles a fat lady in a Lycra body suit, enjoying a spot of sunbathing on the ice, while waddling penguins – so ungainly on land while so graceful in the water – are always good for a giggle.
But the iceberg resembling a house as cast in plaster by sculptor Rachel Whiteread is uncanny and unsettling.
'Though when we set out I didn't know exactly what I wanted to photograph, I did know that my interest was in land and seascapes rather than wildlife,' says Garlinda. 'Having said that, it's the pintado in the wild snowy sea and the crabeater on the ice floe that make those particular pictures.'
She continues: 'One of my favourites here is Crossing the Line. We were all called on deck to see this phenomenon. The steady fierce southerly wind pushes the brash ice into a straight line which stretches for miles, and on this occasion the line coincided with the Antarctic Circle itself.
'As the boat crossed the Circle the sea turned from grey into white within the space of a few yards. This photograph was taken as we re-crossed the Circle, having gone as far south as we could before being turned back by the ice.'
Garlinda Birkbeck has been a photographer for more than 30 years, starting in the traditional style of black and white photography which she developed in her own darkroom. In recent years she has moved into the digital age and into colour but she still prints all her own work with a state-of-the-art digital printer using the same techniques she perfected in the darkroom.
She has covered a broad range of subjects from landscapes, sailing and field sports, to children, professional portraits and charity commissions, overseas and at home.
But this journey to the end of the earth has brought her full circle – underlining the epic and elemental quality, with that monumental sense of stillness, which she has caught very close to home in, for instance, tree studies on the Houghton estate.
'Black and white photography is about shapes and light,' she says. 'It can be more sculptural and more abstract than colour. For me it is all about atmosphere and drama.'
And how fitting then, that one of the first to see and admire these Antarctic pictures was writer Anthony 'Foyle's War' Horowitz, who was on the same expedition – leaving his retreat on the Suffolk coast to complete his final book in the Power Of Five series.
He says: 'While I was trying to capture the dazzling but pitiless nature of this last great wilderness for a novel, Oblivion, Garlinda Birkbeck was doing the same for this exhibition. I think her work is extraordinary.
'She manages to capture the very essence of Antarctica as I experienced it, yet makes it her own. A tiny bird snatched out of snowstorm, a crabeater seal clinging for life on a diminishing square of ice…she photographs life where there should be none and almost effortlessly recreates the eternal drama. Once again, I am in awe.'
Garlinda Birkbeck's Antarctica is at Rebecca Hossack Gallery, 2a Conway Street, Fitzroy Square, London W1T 6BA (www.r-h-g.co.uk) March 6-30.