Posted on behalf of Michael White
A frozen menagerie of yawning overhangs, rotting underbellies, humanistic curves, tumbled-over organ pipes confronts you. Francesco Bosso’s Last Diamonds is a glorious, sombre collection of 25 monochrome ‘portraits’ of icebergs off the coast of Greenland, gingerly treading the boundary between art and science. Each plate, created using a traditional analog photographic process, offers haunting insight into the cryosphere, exploring a grey, often cloudy sky, a shimmering jet-black ocean, and an iceberg traversing the intersection.
An encounter with art inevitably sparks questions. Do I like it? What does it mean? And does an understanding of meaning change whether or not I like it? For some, context is all; for postmodernists, comparisons are odious and art should be understood solely on the interaction of viewer with work. Going by the latter school of thought, Bosso’s is an unqualified success.
His exploration of light, tone and texture evokes the work of Ansel Adams’ assistant and successor John Sexton. Where Adams was all sweeping vistas, Sexton framed more intimate shots. As with so much great landscape photography, the power of the images emerges in part from the sense of the patience and agility needed to capture a perfectly framed moment from a transient confluence of conditions.
In Diamond #2, the thin black line between iceberg and ocean echoes the sliver of distant land visible. The shared angle between cloud and ice in Diamond #5 suggests an intimate physical linkage. The formality of the images offers an elegant contrast to the turmoil of the active glacial calving fronts where they originated, somewhere out of shot.
What sets Last Diamonds apart from the bulk of landscape photography is the bewildering individuality of the ice. In contrast to the exploration of sculptural form and sheer beauty in photographic collections such as Camille Seaman’s Last Iceberg series (see review here), Bosso’s vision is more subtly varied in tone and light — and somehow, more interiorised.
Even more remarkable is the sense of disorientation spawned by a near-complete lack of scale. Humanity is absent, and what whispers of land there are cannot provide much footing. The icebergs could be 2 or 200 metres tall.
Yet this lack of context, so intriguing visually, creates a problem highlighted by the book’s title. The global loss of ice is indisputable. But in the absence of context and Bosso’s description of icebergs as “gems of nature in danger of extinction”, the viewer might conclude that we are bearing witness to the end of icebergs.
This is premature. Even in Greenland, marine-terminating glaciers — which flow to the sea, calving bergs — are unlikely to disappear within several human lifetimes. Iceberg production in Antarctica will continue into the foreseeable future. Jakobshavn Isbrae, where much of Last Diamonds was shot, has long been the poster child for a rapidly disintegrating cryosphere. But it has thickened and advanced in recent years.
Thus, Last Diamonds tends towards over-interpretation, and would have benefited from a more candid summary of cryospheric processes in a warming climate. There are two points to make. First, the calving of icebergs, even monsters such as Antarctica’s A-68, is a natural process that has occurred for millions of years. Tying any one calving or season to our activities is spectacularly difficult. Second, these activities will almost certainly produce radical changes in the extent of ice throughout the planet, if unchecked.
Art is not beholden to the subtle nuances and endless caveats of scientific discourse. Of course, Bosso’s minimalist aesthetic and stark message may be playing for dramatic effect to stimulate discussion around climate change and the cryosphere. More power to that; but the extinctions he hints at are still avoidable.
Michael White is senior editor in physical sciences at Nature. He tweets at @MWClimateSci.
For more on science and culture, see: http://go.nature.com/2CMOwaL.