In July 1869, American painter William Bradford, alongside photographers John L. Dunmore and George Critcherson, embarked on the first expedition to the Arctic devoted principally to art. In the course of the perilous journey aboard a 325-ton steamship called The Panther (previously used for seal-hunting), Bradford made hundreds of pencil drawings and over 70 oil sketches of the frozen North in preparation for the larger paintings he would complete upon his return. Dunmore and Critcherson, meanwhile, took over 400 photographs using the painstaking wet-plate collodion technique, made all the more challenging by the extreme weather conditions the group faced. Bradford, an early promoter of photography, would take inspiration from these photographs upon his return from the 3-month, 5,000-mile journey, which was, as Bradford says, “much farther certainly than anyone had ever ventured for the purposes of art.”
The remarkable paintings and photographs the group produced met a hungry audience, eager to see with their own eyes a landscape few Europeans or Americans had ever witnessed. Queen Victoria became the principal sponsor of a book Bradford published in 1873 with the lengthy title The Arctic Regions: Illustrated with Photographs Taken on an Art Expedition to Greenland, with Descriptive Narrative by the Artist. In what became known as the “Bradford Recitals,” he also took to the lecture circuit, telling stories of his northern adventures while accompanied by magic lantern slides of the photographs projected onto screens, his paintings resting on easels to the side.
Bradford traveled widely in the course of his career, making several other trips to the Arctic and elsewhere, but his life ended where it began, in Fairhaven, MA, a small town adjacent to the prominent whaling port of New Bedford. On his grave rests a granite boulder from Greenland, the land he had celebrated, engraved with an excerpt from a poem John Greenleaf Whittier dedicated to Bradford:
Something it has—a flavor of the sea,
And the sea’s freedom—which reminds of thee.
Nearly 150 years after Bradford’s journey, in April-May 2013, I had the singular experience of working beside several of Bradford’s original Arctic paintings as I created my own large Arctic drawings during a month-long residency at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, not far from Bradford’s old home. The museum had just begun an exhibit dedicated to Bradford’s work called “Arctic Visions: ‘Away then Floats the Ice-Island.” Simultaneously, in the museum’s upstairs space, was an exhibition dedicated to the work of my late mother, photographer Rena Bass Forman, called “Following the Panther: Arctic Photographs of Rena Bass Forman.” Whereas normally I create in the solitude of my studio, in that month, drawing amidst the two exhibits and the guests who came to visit them, I felt particularly enveloped by the presence–even in their absence–of two artists I deeply admire.
My mother, whose black and white landscape photography has sometimes been compared to that of Dunmore and Critcherson, had since 2010 been planning to lead an art expedition up the northwest coast of Greenland that traced Bradford’s path, seeking to find inspiration in the dramatic geography just as he had. But in 2011, she fell victim to a brain tumor when we were in the early stages of planning. As her dedication to the expedition never wavered during her illness, I promised to carry out her final journey and lead the expedition. The following year, I did, inviting a few colleagues to join me.
As we sailed along the coast, we compared exact locations with photographs from Bradford’s trip, marveling at both the similarities and changes in the landscape. Sometimes we were able to match an exact scene, right down to the puddles.
My mother’s passion for the Arctic echoed throughout my experience in Greenland, as did Bradford’s monumental canvases. I felt both the power and the fragility of the landscape, which Bradford captures so well in his paintings—the sheer size and majesty of the icebergs is humbling. It is actually dangerous to venture too close to them, as they might flip or break apart at any moment, which can create a mini-tsunami that can sink a small boat—in fact, Bradford’s party in 1869 narrowly avoided at least two such incidents. The ice fields are alive with movement and thunderous cracking—continued reminders of their destructive capabilities. Yet while their threatening potential is apparent, so is their vulnerability: I could see the beautiful sapphire-blue ice melting under the unseasonably warm sun—an experience Bradford most certainly did not share, as climate change had not yet unleashed its powerful and seemingly irreversible destructive forces.
Zaria Forman, Greenland No. 63, 2013, Soft pastel on paper, 50 x 75 inches
Piece made while in residence at the New Bedford Whaling Museum
Once I was back on land, surrounded by Bradford’s paintings in the New Bedford Museum, it was both thrilling and daunting to consider how I might share my interpretations in pastel on paper. Though I had long explored the interplay of water and sky in my work, I had only recently begun to attempt ice, with its particular complexities, and Bradford’s paintings of ice and icebergs are vivid and timeless. His luminous paintings are keenly attuned to the subtleties of the landscape. I love the way, for instance, in such paintings as Icebergs in the Arctic (1882), he captures how uniquely dark Arctic waters can be. To me, many of his Arctic paintings seem to embody a sense of sadness and solemnity, as if somehow, even amidst the expansionist optimism of his age, he sensed the Arctic’s fate, as time marches inexorably forward, threatening not only the beauty but also the very existence of the ancient landscape and its inhabitants.
So I have found myself in a kind of indirect conversation with him. In certain obvious ways, he has informed my work. I modeled the expedition I led on his 1869 itinerary. Though he painted in oil and I draw with chalk pastel, both of us use photography as a reference point in our work, combined with our memory of witnessing the landscape firsthand. I can’t claim to have had any great epiphanies staring at his work each day of my residency, but I sense that the experience of spending extended time with it has seeped into my own in ways I may not even know. I like to think of artistic influence as something akin to the way light refracts when it hits water—shimmering, oblique, evanescent.
Zaria Forman recently completed a four week art residency in Antarctica aboard the National Geographic Explorer and delivered a TED Talk at TEDTalksLive NYC. Zaria works and resides in Brooklyn, New York. www.zariaforman.com