S&F Online
The Scholar & Feminist Online is a webjournal published three times a year by the Barnard Center for Research on Women
BCRW: The Barnard Center for Research on Women
about contact subscribe archives links
Issue: 7.1: Fall 2008
Guest Edited by Lisa Bloom, Elena Glasberg and Laura Kay
Gender on Ice

Blankness in the Antarctic Landscape of An-My Lê

Elena Glasberg

As world reserves of oil and gas go on shrinking, and as the richest mineral deposits approach exhaustion, international consortia will begin to exert pressure on governments to permit exploratory drilling in the unglaciated dry valleys . . . and on the continental shelf of Antarctica . . .. The machinery, the supportive establishments, and the roads that will be necessary for conducting intensive, year-round exploration for oil cannot but produce a devastation at least equal to that which the consortium of petroleum corporations at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic coast of Alaska have been responsible. (Eliot Porter, Antarctica, 1978)

U.S. Conservation activist and landscape photographer Eliot Porter's concern 30 years ago over the possibility of pressure from a "consortium of petroleum corporations" to drill in the fragile U.S. Arctic might well have been written in the summer of 2008, as the ice of the North Pole melted to create a new, open zone of imperial contestation. The Antarctic, though protected for the present from economic mining interests by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty Secretariat (ATS), has nevertheless become a focus of economic pressure driven by a renewed scramble for scarce resources.[1]

Glasberg figure 1
Figure 1 Eliot Porter, The Crater and Lava, Deception Island, Antarctica, January 19, 1975, Dye imbibition print (Kodak dye transfer), (c) 1990 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. Bequest of the artist, P1990.51.478.2.

Yet the photographs comprising Antarctica (1978) depict a "timeless" and composed Antarctic landscape, betraying no sign of the human intervention that nevertheless motivates and frames the album. Porter, a celebrated nature photographer, was the first to bring to U.S. public attention a place very little known. Much wider and deeper public cultures of Antarctica developed in Britain, where the race to the south pole at the turn of the 20th Century reflected directly on imperial history, and in southern hemispheric colonial and commonwealth countries like New Zealand and Australia, where relation to the British crown still shapes national self-understanding. "Deception Island" serves as the cover for Antarctica, emphasizing the relative familiarity of its greenish, grass-like lichen and varied rock forms, and clearly echoing the strategies of Porter's earlier landscapes in the American west.

Porter helped create the Sierra Club aesthetic, which was also a complex strategy of promoting conservation in the U.S. post-War era.[2] Advocates sought to curb development in Yellowstone Park, but advocacy required promotion. The photographic school that developed to capture and control the image of the western landscape created dramatic and anachronistic images of seemingly untouched nature. Tourism, unleashed as a force to save the park, also created a pressure to industrialize and pave roads through the newly-desired wilderness: a paradox of eco-tourism now continued in relation to Antarctica.[3] Following the lead of the Sierra Club to use aesthetics as a strategy to promote conservation, Porter aimed to preserve the Antarctic wilderness against the inevitability of capitalist development through the power of his lush, full color coffee table book. But bringing the little known, non-nationalized Antarctic to a U.S. audience as wilderness, and as a handsome album of carefully framed photographs, also heavily marked the Antarctic as an object of U.S. national concern, and possibly of ownership. This tension between the documentary features of photography and its instrumentality to ownership, both private and national, continues to generate visual meaning in Antarctica.

Photography in the Antarctic has, since the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration (1895-1917), been the most overexposed of visual technologies. The mediation of photography brought into view a territory that had previously been represented only in written narrative and paintings and sketches that did not circulate as widely as photographs. Yet for all its popularizing, and indeed because the medium of photography became so ubiquitous and powerful, its significance in the creation of Antarctica as a place is often taken for granted. As documentary proof of national territorial claims, knowledge-gathering and mapping, and as advertising/promotion, and even as an aesthetic practice in itself, photography has played multiple roles in the creation of Antarctic place even before 1911-12, when both Norwegian and British explorers photographed their arrivals at the South Pole.[4] In this essay I build on the centrality of Antarctic photography to the creation of Antarctic place in order to make a claim about how a particular U.S. landscape aesthetic has emerged within and through the contemporary era's breakdown of national borders and of awareness of environmental crisis.

The 2008 series Events Ashore by U.S. photographer An-My Lê exemplifies this post-national, post-ecological view of the Antarctic. Working within and against the powerful imperial notion of Antarctica as a tabula rasa and the landscape tradition that nurtured Antarctica's blankness, Lê presents Antarctica as a "non-place," questioning assumptions about the impact and future of national presence on the continent.

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6                Next page

© 2008 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 7.1: Fall 2008 - Gender on Ice