Picture Stories

What Does Nothing Look Like?

A photographer captures the subtle beauty and landscape of the barren ice sheet in Greenland.

All photographs by Murray Fredericks
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Icesheet #2338, panorama composed of three images
All photographs by Murray Fredericks

The longest night of his life, photographer Murray Fredericks says, was spent on an ice cap in Greenland in March 2010. He had been dropped off by helicopter about ten days earlier to begin work on his Greenland Ice Project. After braving the minus 50 degree windchill alone, he got a call on his satellite phone. An expedition team passing within a couple of miles were being followed by two polar bears, who had since changed direction and were heading his way. “I got a call saying, ‘Get your gun ready, and don’t fall asleep,’” he remembers. And then a blizzard blew up, threatening to collapse his tent and clogging his gun with snow.

You might draw the conclusion that the thrill of adventure is at play here, spurring a need to conquer extreme environments and live to tell the tale.

“It was absolutely horrendous,” he recalls.

Luckily, the weather shifted, he melted the snow from his gun over the stove, and when there was a scratch at his tent several days later, it wasn’t a polar bear but two Canadian expeditioners who had lost their communication equipment. In a turn of serendipity, Fredericks happened to be heading out by chopper the next day and was able to help them out with a ride back to civilization.

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Icesheet #2654. Late sun with 22-degree halo.

What is at play is an unwavering commitment to his artistic vision. Fredericks returned five different times over the next three years, from 2010 to 2013.

“What I’m really fascinated with is the psychological impact of a photograph. Why does a landscape image have such an effect on people? Even when it’s an image of nothing.”

Haunting Time-Lapses From the End of the Earth

Watch Greenland’s landscapes come to life in this time-lapse video. Full-screen viewing is recommended.

This concept of “photographing nothing” began as an experiment, Fredericks says. His first foray into this space was with his project “Salt,” photographing the salt flats of Lake Eyre in his native Australia. Eight years and 16 or 17 visits later, he was curious about what would happen if he took this concept to an even more minimal landscape—the barren ice sheet of Greenland.

“There’s the physical reality of creating a body of work where there is nothing to photograph. When you choose to photograph an empty white ice cap, it takes a very long time to get any images at all because you’re relying on the subtleties of weather, of light, of the snow.”

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Icesheet #5256

Over the course of the project, he collaborated on a documentary film, Nothing on Earth; created a series of stunning still images and time-lapses; and even worked with a musician to produce a video and music piece in an abandoned radar dome. For Fredericks, though, the final exhibition space is his guide, from start to finish:

“What I’m visualizing when I’m out there is a large gallery space. When I know how to stop on these projects is when I feel I got this very succinct statement and very succinct experience for people … to walk into the exhibition space and feel.”

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Icesheet #0712. Late sun and fog.

The smallest he prints his photographs is about five feet, he says, and sometimes his exhibitions are comprised of only a couple of photographs. Viewers are invited to be immersed in an experience with minimal distractions, left to draw their own conclusions to the question Fredericks places in front of them: “What does nothing look like?”

More of Murray Fredericks’s landscapes from the Greenland Ice Project, and the vision behind them, are featured in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic. A trailer for Fredericks’s documentary, Nothing on Earth, is viewable here. You may also see more of Fredericks’s work on his website.

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Icesheet #3055