When did you realize you wanted to pursue art professionally?
I’ve been drawn to art and photography from a young age. I studied art history and photography in college in Paris. At the time I was especially drawn to abstraction. Mondrian, Rothko… And then I discovered Antarctica. This was natural abstraction. Abstraction on a different scale. I just had to try and express through my photography.
How did you get so interested in Antarctica?
After college, I worked in film and television in London for a while. I was involved in a development of a film set in Antarctica. I’ve also always been in love with the mountains. Antarctica was an extension of that and the stories of Antarctic explorers fascinated me. I decided to go back to school and registered for a Masters degree in Polar Studies, for which I wrote a dissertation on the visualization of Antarctica – or how Antarctica has been imagined and represented through different epochs in history.
How many times did you go to Antarctica since?
Five. But I haven’t always gone as a photographer. I’ve also worked as a journalist and science writer, and reported on what goes on down there.
The last time I went was with a Chinese Antarctic Research Expedition and I was the first reporter to cover that. Of course, everytime I go, I also take my cameras. There’s many facets of my interest in Antarctica, but photography is very dominant.
Hence the beautiful photography projects you’ve produced. Tell us about the Topography of Absence.
This is my first and ongoing series. I started it during my first trip to Antarctica. It’s a visual journey of detachment. A journey towards absence. The last photo is just white on white: The reductive surface of the Antarctic ice sheet. The deeper you penetrate into the Antarctic, the more you leave the cacophony of the world behind. Ultimately, all that is left is yourself in the middle of nothingness…
Why is it important that this series is black and white?
At first, black and white seemed self-evident to me. As the series went on, it continued that way. I’m really interested in Antarctica as a elemental space. Very distilled. A place that incarnates “less is more”. Color is beautiful, but it can be noisy. Sometimes, if you take away color, you end up with something more essential. Closer to the essence of Antarctica itself.
That’s so interesting because on the internet, Antarctica looks very blue.
Exactly, most images of Antarctica are filled with saturated blues. People often wait for cloudless days to take their cameras out. But for me, Antarctica is more about misty, subdued landscapes. In those lie the other-worldliness of the place.
And can you explain the title Sans Nom? Why is it “nameless”?
That particular series was taken in the Pridz Bay Region of East Antarctica between 1 am and 4 am, when the air was completely still, and a thin mist descended upon a group of icebergs locked into the winter sea ice. Traveling through this ice-scape felt like entering a lost city, resembling Atlantis, where the icebergs replaced monumental ruins. They evoked a sense of eternity – as if time had stopped. The icebergs also spoke of cycles and the transience of all things. The reason the series is called ‘Sans Nom’ (Nameless) is that unlike the mountains which they evoke, these icebergs are never given names. They are objects of transience. Here one year. Gone the next.
With Stellar Axis, I was intrigued by the blue spheres.
That’s a very different story. In December 2006, I was photographer for Lita Albuquerque’s Stellar Axis: Antarctica. This was the largest and most ambitious arts project ever undertaken in Antarctica. Lita belongs to the land art generation, alongside James Turell and Christo. Stellar Axis was intended to mirror, or map the southern constellations as seen at 12 noon on the day of the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. It was realized through the alignment of 99 blue spheres across the Antarctic ice cap – the size of each sphere echoing the brightness of the corresponding star. It was a kind of contemporary Stonehenge. A big and beautiful book on the project is coming out in September and will be published by Rizzoli.
I can’t wait to see the book in fruition. I’m also wondering what prompted you \to take a female nude in Antarctica?
[Laughs] That was on the same Stellar Axis journey. It was one of the documentary team members, Sophie. It was her idea. She said that she would love to pose nude on the ice. Some people think I photoshopped her into the image, but absolutely not.
What are the most striking environmental issues that you’ve noticed since you started traveling to Antarctica?
Part of my work is writing about the science that goes on in Antarctica. I’m not a scientist, but I do have a broad view of what is going on down there. At first, scientists where mostly focused on surveying Antarctica and understanding its environment. But over the past forty years or so, a lot of the science has been about measuring the effects of climate change on the Antarctic environment. Melting ice is just one of them, and will eventually have huge repercussions on coastal cities such as New York or Shanghai as it increases global sea levels.
If you weren’t an artist, what other career might you have pursued?
I’m going to sound like a five-year-old, but I’d have to say an astronaut.
What about other countries you hope to visit?
I’ve done quite a lot of traveling. One of my favorite countries is Japan. I love the mix of modernism and ancient aesthetics. Japanese craftsmanship is something I am very drawn to.
How do you define beauty?
I studied art history under Professor Francesca Weinmann. We used to do these trips to Romanesque churches in the French countryside. We’d get there and talk about how beautiful it was. She’d turn around and say, “Never use that word again!” In her mind, you couldn’t define beauty. Five minutes later, she would look up and say, “Isn’t this so beautiful?” [Laughs] Beauty is something you can’t help seeing when it’s there, but it’s impossible to define in words.
For more of Jean’s work, check out his website.