“I like being surprised, being awed,” says photographer Magda Biernat, whose photo series “Adrift” is the product of a yearlong trip from Antarctica to Alaska that she and her husband, Ian Webster, accomplished in 2013. It’s a good thing Biernat welcomes surprises. “Adrift,” which places Antarctic Peninsula icebergs alongside monochrome Iñupiat hunting huts in America’s northernmost city, is the culmination of many unexpected happenings.
Biernat didn’t plan to focus on climate change when embarking on this south-to-north adventure that crossed 17 countries. “By traveling to the polar extremes the issue appeared before me,” she acknowledges. “During the journey I was drawn to subjects such as organic and inorganic structures under pressure from a warming planet.”
Later, when she was scanning the film exposed on the very first and very last days of the trip, she realized how the shapes of the icebergs corresponded to the shapes of the huts, some 11,000 miles to the north. “I was stunned at how well the man-made structures and the natural structures mirrored one another,” she says.
With the icebergs and huts side by side, a larger story about the relationship between humans and the environment and the threats posed by global warming emerged. “Temperatures in the Arctic and Antarctic regions are rising twice as fast as they are elsewhere in the world,” Biernat notes. For the Iñupiat, who depend on thick snow and ice to support winter travel and the migration patterns of animals they've hunted for thousands of years, warmer days could signal the erasure of a way of life.
Yet Biernat emphasizes that her work is not about catastrophe or dramatic environmental disasters. “It’s important for me to draw the viewer in by creating something beautiful,” she says. “On first glance you don’t see any evidence of the global warming problem—everything looks perfect. But knowing what's happening, that the ice caps are melting, makes you wonder, how long will that beauty exist? Hopefully these quieter images give the viewer some time to consider what we stand to lose.”
Photographing extreme geographies can lead to challenging and unforeseen working conditions. In Antarctica, which can only be reached by boat during summer months, the positions Biernat could photograph from were dictated by the rolling waves. Using very short exposure times, she captured the icebergs over the course of 11 days. Conversely, Biernat and Webster reached Barrow, Alaska, by plane in the dead of winter, when the sun remains below the frozen horizon. The hunting hut images were created while standing in waist-high snow during the two hours of dusky light provided one afternoon; exposure times on her Mamiya 6 were up to two minutes.
Biernat looks back on the events of her four days in Barrow with humor, including the underestimated lack of light and minus 15°F temperatures. “We were just wandering around the town in our yellow parkas from Antarctica and a young Iñupiat guy saw us and was like, ‘What are those strangers doing walking around here? You don’t walk around this town—there’s polar bears!’” He picked the couple up in his truck, fortuitously brought them on a tour of the 4,000-person town that included the hunting huts, and brought them to his home for a traditional lunch of whale meat and seal fat pulled from a gigantic freezer. Biernat chalks the experience up to luck and boredom. “People don’t have much to do there so he was like, 'Oh, something interesting; let’s drive those two around.'”
The images in “Adrift” share themes of home, habitat, and displacement evident in Biernat’s previous work but depart from other projects in the postproduction process. The blues and grays of the Arctic were digitally altered for consistency. The hunting huts were almost completely desaturated, rendering them black and white except for tiny hints of color, like the green of a fishing net, hiding among the structures.
“I always think about the relationship between my commercial photography and my personal work,” explains Biernat, who is an architectural photographer by trade but regularly travels with her husband for artistic inspiration. “There are similarities because of the nature of what I am interested in: structures, dwellings, urban landscape, built environment and its influence on global societies.
"I am fascinated by how people inhabit space and how they affect this space in return.”
The difference is that while photographing architecture commercially, Biernat likes to show the setting of the building and its relationship to its surroundings, as well as the scale, by including people in the frame. “It’s almost the opposite in my personal work,” she says. “I try to detach the subject I am photographing from its setting. When you isolate things, you notice them more; they become more special.
“By showing the beauty and fragility of the natural world,” she says, “I want to bring the attention to the very real threats to its continued existence.”
Published by Ink & Bellows Ltd in 2015, "Adrift" is available for purchase at Photo-Eye, Dashwood Books, and Biernat’s website. An exhibition featuring “Adrift” is on display at Photo-Eye Bookstore’s project space in Santa Fe, New Mexico, until September 3, 2016.