Cold Shots: LGCC Prof Visits Antarctica
by Jeffrey Harmatz
Apr 21, 2009 | 2915 views | 0 0 comments | 48 48 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Antarctica may seem like a barren no-man's land sporadically speckled with packed research stations packed with scientists braving the most unforgiving ecosystem in the world, but there is a tremendous amount of beauty on the underappreciated seventh continent, and teams of writers, artists, and photographers are regularly dispatched to its frigid reaches to document it.

One of those photographers was Scott Sternbach, the head of LaGuardia Community College's photography department, who won a grant to snap shots of the rapidly changing ecology of frozen bottom of the globe.

"I've always been interested in looking at things that are disappearing," said Sternbach, explaining his initial interest in the project.

Another of his photography projects focused on the declining number of dairy farms in upstate New York, and the diminishing effect global warming is having on the polar ice caps spoke to him in a similar way.

While global warming and the melting of the ice caps is a relatively modern phenomenon, Sternbach decided to approach the subject from a decidedly early-twentieth century fashion. Inspired by the photography of Frank Hurley, who was aboard a 1914 Antarctic expedition that was marooned for a year, Sternbach used an antique, slow shutter camera similar to the one used on that particular expedition.

Living out of Palmer Station, a 40-person facility on the northernmost peninsula of the continent, Sternbach spent time living with researchers and traversing the barren Antarctic desert taking photographs of plant and animal life, as well as the researchers and the facility that housed them.

"The people that work there are heroes of the effort to save the planet," said Sternbach of his station mates. "They are risking their lives and taking a pay cut to collect data to prove that our lifestyle is causing global warming."

The weather on the Antarctic Peninsula was not exactly what he was expecting. Despite the fact that it is a frozen tundra, Sternbach said that the weather rarely dropped below 25 degrees Fahrenheit, and that he was able to spend a lot of time outside of the station.

"It was windy and wet, but the area has a reputation for not being as cold as other parts of the continent," he explained. "It's not the South Pole, but it is fierce. There are 10 to 50-knot winds, and lots of precipitation."

He said that being there was an assault on his senses. But sometimes, in the right conditions, Sternbach said that the peninsula was one of the most beautiful locations in the world.

"You would occasionally get a day that was sunny with no wind, and it would be like nothing you've ever seen before," he said.

In the two-and-a-half months he spent at the Palmer Station, he took more than 300 photographs with the antique camera, and thousands more with a digital camera. He photographed the frozen landscape, the wildlife, including penguins, seals and fish, but paid special attention to the scientists that he lived with.

The photographs, taken with the antique camera, have an extremely slow shutter speed, requiring Sternbach and his subject to remain still for an extended period of time. The camera gives the images a heavy, old-world quality that, if not for the modern clothes and equipment visible in his portraits, wouldn't look out of place in a book from the first half of the 20th century.

"A slow-moving camera is a great way to take photographs," said Sternbach, who at first thought that bringing the large camera on his trip would be biting off more than he could chew. "But in the portraits, the shallow depth of field gives the subjects a classical look. And when people sit for a long photograph, they become very relaxed and reveal more about themselves to the camera."

During his time on the Antarctic Peninsula, Sternbach had the opportunity to observe the life cycles of several animals, including different species of seals and penguins.

"It's spectacular to see the animals that can survive in these conditions," he said.

The photographer also had the chance to witness firsthand the effect that climate change is having on the Antarctic ecosystem.

"In the last decade, the region has become five degrees warmer, and there is a lack of sea ice," Sternbach said. "Many animals depend on that sea for breathing and breeding. Right now, there isn't enough of it, and it is affecting the entire food chain."

He also saw the diminished penguin colonies, and the establishment of species used to warmer weather in areas where they are not native.

Sternbach's photographs, reproduced at a large, poster-sized scale, are currently on display at the gallery at LaGuardia Community College.

"So far, the response has been amazing," he said.

In addition to the exhibit, he has lectured students at a number of different colleges about his experience, and has plans to compile the photographs into a book.

He is also hopeful that he will be able to return to the continent in the near future.

"It was gut-wrenching to leave," Sternbach said. "There is so much more out there to photograph."

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