by Michael Blann on March 20, 2019
A polar opposite from shooting the summer mountains of the Tour de France, a recent client trip took me to the extremes of this planet on a journey to Svalbard, Norway, and the northernmost town in the world. You can see the full portfolio from Svalbard here.
It’s -20°C and I’m attempting to tether my camera to the laptop whilst wearing a thick pair of gloves (I’ve temporarily removed my mittens from over the top to manage this). Mark, my assistant is sat huddled in the snow over the laptop case trying to coax the life back into the lifeless slab of metal. Our local guide, who’s carrying a rifle, keeps a watchful eye out for polar bears. It’s extreme but it’s what I love about my job, you never know where it will take you next and the things you’ll experience.
I’m staying in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago deep within the Arctic Circle and Longyearbyen, its primary settlement is the northernmost town in the world at 78° North. It’s the midway point between mainland Norway and the North Pole and my final destination on a two-week photographic commission in Norway, the one I’ve been most looking forward to. On paper it looked like a good idea – the perfect location to capture truly global imagery for one of my clients but sat in these extremes I’m starting to question the wisdom of the adventure.
Whaling first drew settlers to this remote location in the 17th Century and when this died out it was almost deserted until coal mining drew people back in the 1900’s. It then became an important hub for scientific research and a strategic location for radio communications during the war. Now it has a population of 2500, a university, and a steady flow of arctic tourists. Despite this, it still feels unique and off the beaten track and once you step away from the relative safety of Longyearbyen itself, you quickly realise you are in the wilderness, a snowy desert that extends some 60,000 km2, half of which is covered by glaciers.
Apart from the very real threat of being attacked by a polar bear – very intelligent, calculating predators – you are susceptible to extreme cold which can fall as low as -50°C. This makes working in these conditions very challenging. Just the physicality of having to wear so many clothes restricts your movements and makes handling cameras with intricate controls almost impossible. Lens changes have to be slow and orchestrated when wearing thick gloves and even the most basic camera functions such as firing the shutter have to be controlled through the computer software. These metal objects are the perfect conductors to suck the heat out of your hands rendering them useless so time without mittens on is kept to a minimum. That said, you learn to adapt and take advice from locals – wool is king as it wicks away moisture from the skin and several thin layers are preferable to thick garments. Keeping ankles, wrists and your neck warm are key as the blood is close to the surface of the skin and allowing feet and toes to move freely allows the blood to circulate and bring new warm blood to the extremities (shoes should be ½ size bigger than normal!).
Spare camera batteries, which lose their charge quickly in these environments are kept close to the body to maintain their warmth, whilst laptops with LCD screens are more susceptible to the cold and quickly become drunk and sluggish, an indicator they are about to shut down. Only a warm environment and a boost from a power socket will bring them back to life. However, care has to be taken bringing cameras into warm environments as the lenses quickly fog up which can have long lasting effects. Consequently large silica gel packets fill all available space in the camera Peli cases.
This environment does have its positives too. The landscape and quality of light (pollution free) is a photographers dream. The mix of cool, off-white snow mixed with warm winter sunlight gives a subtle colour palette, which can be nurtured and enhanced in post-production to bring out all the subtitles and nuisances of this environment.
But twilight is the real revelation. At 78° North, it lasts for several hours enabling us to shoot in low light (which is neither day or night) and well beyond the 15 minute window we are normally afforded. We have come to Svalbard at the right time too, by late April, Svalbard experiences midnight sun or perpetual daylight until the sun dips below the horizon again in late August. By mid October the archipelago falls into 24hrs of darkness until the sun reappears in mid February. During our stay, I found myself getting up at around 3.30am, unable to resist the new dawn and with thoughts that I was about to miss out on something.
Photographically, Svalbard lived up to my expectations and more. When planning the shoot for my client, I was hesitant about suggesting this location as I worried that it would be too challenging to actually shoot in and come away with meaningful images. A white desert might not seem the obvious location to fulfil a brief, which is primarily interested in depicting human activity and the human footprint left on a landscape. Luckily they were willing to take a gamble and put their faith in my gut instinct. Contrary to logic, this pristine, empty wilderness only emphasises signs of human life and the eye is immediately drawn to those human reference points and spots of man made colour that stand out against the shades of white and cool blue. It’s uniquely beautiful and a place that makes me very grateful that I am a photographer and had the opportunity to visit.
Some interesting facts about Svalbard...
- By decree of the local government, all front doors in Svalbard are left unlocked at all times providing a safe haven in the event of a polar bear attack.
- Longyearbyen is home to the Global Seed Vault, a 120m cavern excavated into the mountain which maintains a constant cool temperature preserving nearly 1.5 million varieties of seeds as “spares” in case of extinction.
- Svalbard was occupied by the Nazis during WW2 who established a meteorological outpost. In 1945 the garrison lost radio contact with the rest of the world and were unaware of the ceasefire in 1945. They were the last German troops to surrender after the war.
- There are more skidoos than the 2500 inhabitants on Svalbard.
- After Norwegians, Russians are the next largest inhabitants followed by a large Thai population.
- All images above ©2019 Michael Blann. All rights reserved. -
My teens were spent exploring the south coast on a push-bike with dreams of riding the Tour De France one day. After a year racing as an elite for a team in Australia (and my dream over) I headed home to get my education back on track with a place doing art (printmaking and illustration to be precise) at Kingston University.
It was here I took my first “proper” pictures in Sofia, Bulgaria, which impressed the examiner enough to give me a degree and got my book in front of Eamonn McCabe at the Guardian who gave me the encouragement to keep going.
I spent the next few years cutting my teeth as a studio manager in various advertising agencies whilst immersing myself in my newly found passion for photography. Eventually, buoyed up by a healthy economy, I took the handful of pictures I had and created my first portfolio, which launched me into a new career as a professional photographer. No sooner had I made the leap, Getty Images offered me the role as their “London Creative Photographer”. You could say right place, right time. I spent the next 6 years roaming the world and photographing everything their creative needs dreamt up, learning and perfecting the craft along the way.
Eventually the drive for self-expression and autonomy won out and I decided to find my own voice again. After setting up a studio in West London and with a new portfolio and ideas about the type of things I wanted to photograph, I started to build a new client base.
And now? I’m working for some of the best agencies and brands in the world shooting advertising campaigns and helping companies see their ideas come to life…
…and yes, I’m still riding my bike and dreaming about riding the Tour.