A Portrait of ice

Photographs by Caleb Cain Marcus
Text by Marvin Heiferman, Robin Bell and Caleb Cain Marcus
Softbound, 12 x 14.5 inches, 30 color illustrations
Damiani, 2012

Reviewed by Lauren Greenwald

Issue 51

A Portrait of Ice is Caleb Cain Marcus’ second monograph. Made up of 30 photographs taken over a 2-year period, Marcus photographed glaciers worldwide, from Patagonia to Iceland, Alaska, Norway, and New Zealand.

Most of the images have a vertical format, somewhat uncommon in landscape photography, in which a vast expanse of sky is anchored by a field of ice in the bottom section of the frame. The book is arranged sparely, in a progression of large, full-page illustrations without identifying text; the viewer advances through the series of images along with variations in the colors of the sky and by the changing topographies in the ground. Instead of a specific narrative, the implied movement of the ice forms and the subtle progression of colors pull the viewer through the book, much like the experience of riding over the ocean, where one watches the color of the water shift as the depth changes, or a cloud passes over the sun.

While we are all familiar with pictures of glittering blue icebergs, the subtle variations of color seen here are a surprise, a result of unique environmental and geological aspects of each location. The 2010 volcano eruption in Iceland created gray, spiky peaks of ash beneath the glacier of Sólheimajökull, while the images of the Sheridan glacier in Alaska show undulating fields of golden tinted ice, like plains dusted with snow. It’s a nice meditation on place, and Marcus includes great tidbits of information about each glacier in the Expedition + Glacier Notes following the images.

Marcus’ other contributions to the book text include the Preface, as well as an excellent little addition titled Thoughts on Color, in which he describes what he calls instinctual color. He notes, “Instinctual color emanates from the blurred space between artist and subject and exists in a visceral form… When used in a series, color can evoke layered repetitions as in music, each striking a slightly altered chord, which is felt individually and as a whole.”

Another fascinating aspect of these images is the lack of horizon. It’s such a strange thing, especially in exploring this kind of subject matter, that it takes a moment to comprehend this. All of the images show the edge of the ice, not a horizon line.

Without this, as well as any other indicators to create scale, one is left with an eerie unsettled impression; a questioning of the veracity of the images. They are reminiscent of land as seen through a plane window, or perhaps a very clever scale model.

In writing this review, I came across an interview Marcus gave with Smithsonian Magazine this March, in which he talks about this horizon idea, saying, “When I took the pictures, I had this idea to try to see what would happen if the horizon disappeared. Living in New York City, unless you live very high up, you never see the horizon, which is really kind of odd and something that took me a few years to realize. You are missing that. It is such a grounding presence for people to be able to see the horizon. I’m not sure we are really aware of the effects of not being able to see it. I thought, okay, if I get rid of the horizon or I try to, how is that going to affect the feeling of the picture? You lose a sense of scale.”

These images make me think, as well, of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes; in a sense, they are the anti-Sugimoto version of a landscape, in which the serenity of Sugimoto’s flat seas and boundless vistas is replaced with the tense energy of Marcus’ frozen, captured seas and false horizons.

The Sublime in 19th century Romantic painting idealized the vast and wild side of nature; all that is unknown and terrifying paired with a certain seductive beauty. Painters like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, painting the American West, were, to the cultures viewing their paintings, on the virtual edge of civilization in the wilderness. In this group of images, Marcus seems to perch on the edge of the known world, balanced precariously on a shifting ground that is disappearing rapidly.

For the armchair traveler, this book is pure escapism. While I can appreciate the environmental concerns upon which this body of work touches, I am happy to lose myself in the bizarre beauty of the images and to simply imagine what it might be like to traverse these ice fields. What is the last undiscovered frontier? Is it the sea? Or is it perhaps the Artic? A frontier so fragile and ephemeral that it’s ultimately unknowable and inaccessible.

The only flaw here, to my mind, is the delicacy of the book. The book begs to be pored over, hunkered down on the floor, preferably in front of a fire. The stiff, paperback cover makes it difficult to open fully, and I would have preferred a binding that could open fully flat. The white cover is pristine, and it almost seems a shame to open it and use it. On the first handling, my (clean) hands left faint prints on the back cover; maybe it’s a metaphor for the delicacy of the subject matter. But these are small criticisms. A Portrait of Ice is a gorgeous publication, a credit to the artist and the subject matter, and one I’m pleased to have in my collection.

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Lauren Greenwald lives in Las Cruces, NM and is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Photography at NMSU.
To learn more about Lauren, please visit her website.