The Photograph Explained: Ice Ghoul Daguerreotype By Joyce Campbell
Most of us will never visit Antarctica and those who do make it there tend to obsessively document the experience through photography. The landscape is epic, the weather is by turns impossibly difficult and wildly dramatic, and the vivid, other-worldly sunsets go on all night long. As a result, Antarctica poses a particular set of problems to any photographer lucky enough to be sent there specifically to make art. It is very difficult to know what to do in this incredibly photogenic place that no one has done before.
As a Creative NZ/Antarctica NZ resident artist, I was flown in for two brief weeks in this completely alien environment. The pressure to produce was enormous, as was the temptation to forgo sleep in this place where the nights were perpetually, spectacularly aglow. I was also responding to my life in George Bush’s America, where I lived in an atmosphere of rampant climate change denial. At that moment, as it does today, Antarctica seemed like the most important place on the planet. My instinct, in the face of these various precedents and pressures, was to dive back into a pre-colonial, pre-history of Antarctica – to a time before the heroics began, when no storied explorer had yet set foot on the continent accompanied by an inevitable photographer, and when the effects of modern industry were yet to begin their incremental corrosive work on the ice caps.
So I chose to shoot daguerreotype in Antarctica: drawing on a technology whose invention marked the beginning of the modern era, the utilization of which preceded Antarctic exploration altogether, one that was unpredictable, deeply physical, unreproducible, and undeniably an artifact of light striking silver at a particular moment in time.
In committing to make the first daguerreotypes of Antarctica I took a huge risk. I had never made (or even seen) a daguerreotype when I wrote my residency proposal. I didn’t know if the cold would render the chemistry unresponsive, although the daguerreotypists I approached for advice seemed confident that the plates would hold up to the sub-zero temperatures, and that their sensitization might even last a few more crucial hours in the cold. I took that risk because I wanted to set up a situation where something unanticipated could happen. I hoped to open a window into a prehuman Antarctica – one where the ice could picture itself.
Under the Antarctic Treaty System all projects are rigorously screened for environmental impact and any potentially hazardous substances are managed and tracked until their return to New Zealand. I knew that mercury and bromine were not going to make the journey with me to Antarctica. I chose to pursue a much gentler, more ecologically palatable form of Daguerreotype. I travelled to Montana to learn the Becquerel technique from acclaimed daguerreotypist Jerry Spagnoli, who generously offered to sell me the 5 x 7 Deardorff field camera that I took with me to the ice. I polished my 5 x 7 silver-plated copper plates before I left, saving the final, silk velvet buff for Antarctica. The chemistry required was iodine (to be housed in a fume hood already installed at Scott base, which I used to sensitize my plates), sodium thiosulfate (the most basic form of photographic fix), and gold chloride. All chemistry was carefully contained, with rinse water returned to New Zealand by ship at the end of the season. The plates were developed, in an inexplicable, almost magical process, by placing the plates in sunlight passed through an Amberlith filter.
I shot on an early 20th Century 5 x 7 Deardorff field camera with a Fujinon W-150 lens. The adjustment knobs were metal. Gloves came on and off with agonizing results! I backed every silver plate image up with 5 x 7 black and white film, so the series exists in two very different forms.
I was searching for something in the landscape that would express its wild, prehuman savagery, and I found that thing high on an ice fall (a kind of mini-glacier) during a training exercise. What I saw out of the corner of my eye, as we were descending during an impending white out, was a kind of icon, about two meters high and carved in the ice by the previous winter’s wind. I couldn’t photograph in those conditions, but I felt really strongly that I had to get back to that site. The next morning my incredibly generous guide offered to take me back. The images I made were completely unexpected. The ice form, translated by the high contrast and very narrow three stop latitude of the Bequerel process became a howling ghoul with a gaping mouth – an embodiment of the furious ice.