Caleb Cain Marcus’s very particular approach to photography is suggested in the title of his wonderful new book, A Portrait of Ice. Whereas we might expect a study of glaciers like this to be primarily about the appearances of landscape or current anxieties about climate change (and in truth neither of these issues is ignored here) Mr Cain Marcus approaches this work as portraiture.
That’s not a purely metaphorical notion for him either. This is how he addresses the issue in a brief couple of paragraphs headed Thoughts on Color:
A photograph … can try to express what is not immediately visible to the viewer, moving beyond the exterior surface of the subject and peering into its inner vibration. The preconceived line between the artist’s vision and what the subject resonates blurs until the influence from artist and subject can no longer be distinguished.
This approach is clearly highly romantic, though its manifestation in these photographs renders the idea utterly plausible. Mr Cain Marcus spent the better part of two years photographing glaciers in the southern and northern hemispheres – first in Patagonia, and then in Iceland, Alaska, New Zealand and Norway – and the images he has brought back from those places are at once stark and seductive. His pictures are almost all higher than they are wide (coincidentally in what we routinely refer to as ‘portrait’ format) and the icy surfaces that they portray sit heavily on the bottom edge of the frame. The rest of the picture is effectively empty: distant clouds, mist, or windswept snow only occasionally reveal any sense of even atmospheric substance. Thus the character of the glaciers’ very different surfaces commands our attention – here only gently modulated (as in photographs of Sheridan, Alaska), there shattered and shard-like (Fox, New Zealand), somewhere else looking almost mountainous (Sólheimajökull, Iceland), and in other places variously combining these different natures.
What all the pictures have in common though is the palpable sense of the power that dwells beneath the surface. This is not terra firma, but a rather a dynamic terrain that is literally charged with energy. In his preface Mr Cain Marcus declares, “Glaciers are living things. Something in-between a tree and a mountain,” and it is clear that for someone like him who has stood on the surface of these slowly moving territories of ice their energy rarely seems benign. He writes that it is “like walking a tightrope that ends in nothingness.” That sense of unfamiliarity and danger is writ large in these images.
What these pictures also have in common is what Mr Cain Marcus calls “instinctual color”. I called him on the phone and asked him what he meant by this. He told me that most photographs of glaciers present colors that are far more intense than these, but that “this color has been refined to reflect what I feel is the energy or essence of the glacier – the personality of the glacier. I didn’t want the pictures to be too intense or too saturated. I wanted them to be these beautiful things that would resonate for a longer period of time. Once I came back from photographing them, I would have a very particular vision of color in my head for that particular glacier, and so I would try to match the color of blue that I remembered.” And he adds crucially, “That’s what makes images interesting for me – they’re not just what we see; they’re something more than that.” There is nothing left to mere chance here, however: as he writes in his Thoughts on Color, “To create instinctual color that extends beyond the mind and onto the print, the color must be followed through the mind until no uncertainty surrounds it. Only at this point can it be physically realized.”
Mr Cain Marcus keeps coming back to a relationship with these glaciers that is at its core emotional, which is what might expect given his comprehension of these photographs as portraits. It turns out that his first experience of a glacier was not intended as part of a photographic project at all. When he visited Perito Moreno in Patagonia he hadn’t even wanted to take a camera with him at first. Fortunately he did, because, as he puts it, he “fell in love with the glaciers.”
At the beginning of this book there are thoughtful essays by Marvin Heiferman, Robin E. Bell, and as I have noted, by Mr Cain Marcus himself. At the back there is a visual index identifying the locations where the photographs were taken and providing a little bit of information about the different glaciers. All of this assists our comprehension of the artist’s relationship with his subject. In truth though – and shouldn’t this be true of all portraiture? – it is the poetic eloquence of the photographs themselves that keeps us fascinated and coming back to them over and again.
All images in this post courtesy the artist.