MSU professor circles the Earth photographing evolution of polar ice

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Within a matter of a few days this fall, Montana State University professor Ian van Coller traveled from one end of the Earth to the other photographing polar ice.

“Within two weeks I went from 80 degrees north to 78 degrees south with five days at home in between,” said van Coller, who collaborates with paleoclimatologists to document ecological conditions across the planet.

Van Coller, a professor of photography in the School of Film and Photography, won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2018 for his photos that document deep time and global paleoclimatology. His work continues. In December he photographed the work of an eight-person research crew based at Princeton University that was working in the Allan Hills of Antarctica, about an hour south of McMurdo Station. The team has extracted ice cores that are more than 2 million years old, the oldest retrieved ice on the planet.

Van Coller’s work there was part of a National Science Foundation-funded project for writers and artists to document scientists’ study of the effects of a changing climate. He and colleague Todd Anderson, a printmaker from Clemson University, were embedded for a week with the team that is studying how current glacial cycles emerged.

Ian van Coller

Photography professor Ian van Coller, a Guggenheim Award winner, recently traveled from the North Pole to an NSF-funded project at the South Pole to document the work of paleoclimatologists studying polar ice.

The extreme high winds in the Allan Hills create conditions that draw ancient ice toward the surface, allowing the team to extract cores of old ice. The cores were then dated by measuring isotopes of the gas argon trapped in bubbles in the ice. The trapped bubbles also contain samples of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases that serve as “snapshots” of prehistoric atmospheric conditions. The researchers, led by senior scientist John Higgins, professor of geosciences at Princeton, recently published their findings in the journal Nature.

Van Coller said he and Anderson, who has been a partner with van Coller on several book projects, experienced one of the harshest climates on the planet for about a week. He said fierce winds scour and polish the ice in the area to a brilliant blue glare. Van Coller was with the team in the middle of the Antarctic summer with 24 hours of sunlight. Still, “everything freezes there,” van Coller said.

“It might be one of the most unique and amazing places I have been,” he said. “However, I’m in no hurry to return.”

The Antarctic assignment closely followed an opportunity for van Coller to photograph the melting glaciers past the North Pole in arctic Norway. In contrast, he was there just a couple of weeks before 24-hour darkness.

“The ice there is melting, which is really frightening,” he said.

Polar camping

Ian van Coller spent a week in these tents in the Allan Hills Camp of Antarctica documenting the work of a team from Princeton. 

Van Coller’s polar photographs will likely find their way into one of several book projects he is now working on. Van Coller has published 11 large format, handmade books, many of which are collaborations with paleoclimatologists and which were the basis for his Guggenheim Award

Royce Smith, dean of the College of Arts and Architecture, said that van Coller’s work now transcends both the physical and the photographic.

“His is not only an artistic practice that documents the aesthetic and sublime dimensions of dramatic geological features and shifts; Professor van Coller’s works rewrite and transform photography into a medium of active collaboration and robust conversation — often allowing the voices of the artist and the scientist to bear witness together within the expressive power of a single work,” Smith said. “Van Coller’s photographic spirit gives voice to the ice, which he brilliantly describes as ‘a fugitive substance with a long memory.’”

In the nearly two years since winning the Guggenheim, van Coller has visited many locations across the globe, including Africa, South America and the United States in his quest to photograph paleoclimatology. Montana’s Glacier National Park remains one of his favorite locations, he said. But he is similarly partial to the jungles of Colombia, “where the bird life is truly remarkable.” A native of South Africa, van Coller has exhibited his photographs internationally. He is now at work on at least two books that are in different stages of completion.

Those interested in photographs of his adventures will not have to wait until the limited-edition books are published or his work is exhibited. Van Coller frequently posts his current work on Instagram. To see a selection of his most recent photographs, go to instagram.com/ianvancoller.


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