State of the Planet

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A Hidden World: Nighttime Photography in Greenland

landscape shot of icebergs in a lake surrounded by mountains
‘Untitled (#8709)’, one of Giovinco’s images from the show. (Courtesy of Steve Giovinco)

Inspired by Hudson River School painters and Scandinavian cinema, New York–based photographer Steve Giovinco captures environmental change through long-exposure night landscape images. His latest series, Inertia, explores southern Greenland, capturing locations around the remote town of Narsarsuaq. The photos, created through minutes- and hours-long exposures, show luminous icebergs floating on waters surrounded by mountain silhouettes and ancient Norse ruins. In creating this body of work, Giovinco built on decades of experience: he holds an MFA from Yale and has displayed his work in public and private collections in New York, Miami, Chicago, Washington DC, and more.

Inertia is currently exhibited at New York’s Scandinavia House, a center for Nordic culture in the U.S., in a show called On the Arctic Edge. The show also includes works by photographer and interdisciplinary artist Clare Benson and photographer Marion Belanger. All three artists are currently American-Scandinavian Foundation Fellows.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Giovinco discussed how Inertia and On the Arctic Edge came to be.

This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

photo of the 'on the arctic edge' exhibition title
The gallery in Scandinavia House in New York City. (Courtesy of Eileen Travell)

What draws you to long exposure night landscape photography?

Night photography reveals a hidden world. More specifically, I am drawn to uninhabited places, especially Greenland, which shows evidence of change, and an eerie but beautifully otherworldly landscape emerging from the dark.

Also, even though there is a very tactile, documentary-like approach, it is also somewhat conceptual and abstract because I am capturing the spanning of time and light — which we as humans don’t see. These are “unseen” images, captured, ironically, through a man-made mechanical device.

two photos of dark, mountainous landscapes
Two more of Giovinco’s images featured in the show. (Courtesy of Steve Giovinco)

Can you describe your process for creating nighttime images? Did you encounter any technical difficulties shooting in remote locations in the dark or in processing the images later on?

Most are made at night time with a digital camera mounted on a tripod, often with long exposures, ranging from one to two hours long. This creates strange and eerie light that seems otherworldly. I’m very interested in the intersection of beauty, light, and tracing epic, shifting landscapes. And capturing the hidden world at night as well as the hidden changing climate.

I usually make about three thousand images, then edit down to a portfolio of about 15 or 20; about half are shown here. Because of the long exposures, I use extensive reworking in Photoshop for two reasons. First, I might need to make many dozens of color corrections, including retouching, sharpening, masks, and removing noise due to technical problems of working at night. Second, I use Photoshop as a way to reference the conceptual nature of the images. Here, I can emphasize certain elements — rocks, rivers, ice, etc. — that are not normally seen while standing there in person, but that the camera can capture. As a result, one photo might require 20 to 40 hours of work.

Your portion of the show is described as featuring images of “Narsarsuaq, a small remote town lying in the shadow of glaciers.” How did the presence of glaciers and ice shape your creation of these images?

I am drawn to uninhabited places such as Greenland and Narsarsuaq because they reveal evidence of change through the icebergs flowing through the fjord. I feel it is a unique location because it is both a literal representation of its melting ice and a striking metaphor for change. And perhaps, by extension, a reference to other changes, such as inertia of all kinds — both natural and man-made.

green hills with mountains in the background
‘Untitled (#7015)’ (Courtesy of Steve Giovinco)

You emphasize the darkness through images that generally are dark, but sometimes include areas of light, some of them specific to the Arctic (like the northern lights and icebergs), some of them universal (like the moon). What was your process of discovering these sources of light and then featuring them in your photos?

My working process is very intuitive. In the extreme dark, I usually am unable to see what is in the camera’s viewfinder and instead stand beside the camera “feeling” the image and framing it in the night. Only later do I discover what I’ve photographed. It could be minutes or even weeks later when I return to New York. This process of revelation is a key element of the work.

Your images in the show portray an isolated, mystical version of the Arctic, seemingly dreamlike and magical. But we know that no part of the planet is safe from the impacts of climate change. How, if at all, did the tension between the remoteness of the region and the pervasiveness of anthropogenic climate change impact how you created these images?

I am drawn to places like Greenland and the Arctic because they both are literal embodiments and metaphorical representations of a shifting world. Since I can’t take a five-year-long photograph of the Arctic, which would be interesting, I instead see these one-hour-long photographs as a way to reference and conceptualize the idea of change.

I often think of Greenland’s remoteness and compare it to a place I can understand — ironically, one of the most populated places: New York. There are 56,000 people in Greenland spread across two thousand miles, or the same number of people living in a dozen square blocks in New York. No roads connect towns in Greenland; just boats and air travel. A comparable trip would be like going from Manhattan to Jersey City or the Bronx in a half-hour car or train ride, but the same trip might take three hours in a boat in Greenland. Or imagine going to New Haven, Princeton, or Long Island — it takes about an hour or an hour and a half; there it would be a $500 helicopter ride.

photos hanging in a gallery
Inertia, on display in On the Arctic Edge. (Courtesy of Eileen Travell)

What do you hope viewers will take away from this exhibit?

Since climate statistics are often hard to really comprehend, I hope beautiful photographs of real-world transformations in these remote locations of icebergs and glaciers will bring recognition to people outside art galleries. I find tracing epic change to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance and I feel it is urgent to continue before it changes further. Hopefully, this work nudges people to start to think along this way. For example, here in New York during Hurricane Sandy, the subways were shut down. What if ice in Greenland continues to rapidly melt? How will that impact us along the East River, the East Coast, and the rest of the world? I hope that making these images of the shifting and beautiful environment causes people to pause.

On the Arctic Edge is on display at Scandinavia House through March 4.

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Robert Kalman
Robert Kalman
1 year ago

Steve Giovinco’s pictures will undoubtedly become artifacts of a world that no longer exists. His pictures are a poignant reminder of how fragile our existence really is.