Exhibition of 3 LensCulture Earth Award Winner: Vienna, March 16 - June 30, 2016

The exhibition ”Seen on Earth” will feature the three winners of the Fine Art/Conceptual category from the LensCulture Earth Awards 2015. Simon Norfolk’s award-winning series seen here, along with the work of Mandy Barker and Eduardo Leal, will be shown in an exhibition at the Kunst Haus Wien in Vienna (with prints generously donated by Foto Leutner). Don’t miss the opening party on March 16, 2016!

Below, we share Norfolk’s original artist statement as well as a recently conducted (and exclusive) interview with the artist himself (and a video documentary produced by Norfolk!).

Artist’s Statement

These fire lines indicate where the front of the rapidly disappearing Lewis Glacier was located during various times in the recent past; the years are given in the titles. In the distance, a harvest moon lights the poor, doomed remnant of the glacier; the gap between the fire and the ice represents the relentless melting. Relying on old maps and modern GPS surveys, I have rendered a stratified history of the glacier’s retreat.

It seems entirely appropriate to make these images here. Mount Kenya is the eroded stump of a long-dead, mega-volcano. Photographically, I hope to re-awaken its angry, magma heart. The mountain has an especially fierce demeanor; the peaks are childishly sheer and ragged, and since I first saw them, I’ve been thinking of Gormenghast and Tolkien.

The “Fire vs. Ice” metaphor I employ is especially satisfying. The fire is made from petroleum. My pictures contain no evidence that this glacier’s retreat is due to man-made warming (glaciers can retreat for lack of sufficient snow, or due to thinning cloud cover), but it is nonetheless my belief that humans burning hydrocarbons are substantially to blame.

So, see it now before it’s gone: get over there quick before Mount Kenya is just an unadorned rocky stump, robbed of its innocent, frozen crown. Unless, of course, you feel that flying around the world and injecting tons of hot CO2 into the troposphere in order to witness the melting of Africa’s glaciers is just a little too ironic.

—Simon Norfolk


Last year, Simon Norfolk was named a Series Winner in the Fine Art/Conceptual category of the LensCulture Earth Awards 2015 for his series, “When I am Laid in Earth: Mapping With a Pyrograph.”

The project visualized the retreat of glaciers by charting the gradual reduction of Lewis Glacier on Mount Kenya with lines of petroleum-fueled fire. In doing so, the series dramatically calls us to consider our part in the diminishing natural landscape.

Below, Simon Norfolk is interviewed by Alexander Strecker, the managing editor of LensCulture.

LC: You were partially inspired to travel to Mount Kenya by the famous written account of an Italian prisoner of war, Felice Benuzzi, who escaped from his prison camp and tried to summit the mountain. Can you say a bit more about the origins of this story and how it relates to your work?

SN: In fact, Benuzzi was escaping from a British POW camp, which had been set up in Kenya during the Second World War. It took him a year to gather all the material he would need for his climb/escape and even so, his equipment and rations were incredibly meager. He did have a map of the mountain—but a map that came from the sketched illustration on the label of a biscuit tin. Undaunted, he and two other prisoners broke out and spent 18 days climbing. At the end, half-starved and frozen, they broke back into the camp and turned themselves in. As punishment, they received 28 days of solitary confinement, which was then reduced to 7 (in recognition of their “sporting effort”).

All that is to say: I’ve always been very interested in the British Empire—the history of it, the morality of it. The British often think of the Empire as a glorious thing, while those on the other side felt like victims. Growing up in Nigeria, as a British citizen, and then being forced to emigrate to England at the age of 5—I suppose I’ve always had a double view on the matter. An outsider’s perspective, if you will.

More specifically for this project, I felt inspired by Benuzzi’s mad-cap mountaineering. When I went, I took my rakes, some chicken wire, a drum of petroleum…it felt like a adventure. And like Benuzzi, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. After all, once you’re up on the mountain, you can’t just run back and grab the tape that you forgot, or pick up an extra battery to replace the three that have frozen and stopped working. It took us four days just to walk up the mountain! Once we were up there, we had to make do with what we had.

But all of this went into the project itself and shows in the results. So much contemporary photography has no risk, no jeopardy. The artist doesn’t gamble anything. Pictures that show us what something looks like aren’t very interesting—I can see those anywhere. There needs to be something at stake.

LC: I read that “When Benuzzi came back down, after 18 days on the mountain, he apparently felt so rejuvenated — as if he had absorbed enough beauty to sustain him — that he decided to sneak back into the camp and picked up his life again as a prisoner. The mountain was that large and impressive, that sublime.” How does this story square with your pictures and your project? Can the beauty of nature sustain the human heart, even through imprisonment…?

SN: I don’t think that’s quite right, for me anyways. It’s not that beauty sustains us, it’s that beauty can provide us with wisdom.

For example: I’ve always loved Romantic painting. As you can see in my film (see below), I even included one of my favorite paintings. I think many people misunderstand this painting. It’s not about going on a walk or going into nature to find beauty. Notice that he’s wearing formal clothes as if he’s come directly from town. Also, notice the title, ”Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.” He’s not looking down at clouds but at a fog—the distractions of the everyday world. By taking himself up to the mountain, he can see the fog for what it really is: nothing more than vapor and obfuscation. The wanderer, thus equipped, can return to the world with a better, clearer view.

That means that beauty can offer a moral education. A clearer way of seeing the world. By taking some distance, we can start to see things as they are. That’s an essential idea to the sublime.

Personally, I’ve travelled all over the world in making my pictures. But the beauty that I saw in Afghanistan, for example, doesn’t make it easier for me to deal with the world; beauty alone doesn’t sustain me. In fact, it probably makes me more confused—how can a place be so beautiful and so full of suffering? But the beauty I saw there, or on Mount Kenya, does give me a moral education and some clarity about how I look at the world.

LC: This series required a great deal of scientific research and analytical preparation. Meanwhile, your photos are emotional & artistic—you write in your statement that you hope to, “re-awaken [the volcano’s] angry magma heart.” Do you feel any tension in stimulating an emotional response vs. making an intellectual, quantitive argument? Do these approaches need to be opposed?

SN: There are some important details to emphasize, which I think will answer your question. First, I’m telling the story with fire—fire made with petroleum. The reason that’s important is because I believe burnt hydrocarbons (petroleum, especially) are a main cause for the world’s glaciers retreating and so I needed to make the work with that same material.

Now, when I made the first experiment using the chicken wire, carpeting and petroleum, the results looked like lines of lava. I was making lava on the side of Mount Kenya, the dead, eroded, barren stump of a former megavolcano. Suddenly, I felt that if I could tell the story of the mountain, if the mountain could speak, it would vomit up angry, lava-like words for what we had done to it. The lines that I was drawing, which looked like magma, were a form of expression from the volcano’s slumbering heart.

Another important factor in why I chose Mount Kenya was because I wanted to clearly capture the retreat of a glacier. Finding a retreating glacier is not hard at all—but finding the right mountain, with the right glacier is difficult. In short, the glacier had to be very clean and white, but surrounded by dark rock. For example, there’s plenty of glaciers in Greenland, but if I photographed them, it would be hard to tell where the glacier ended and the fresh snowfall began. That’s where Project Pressure came in. Their database of glaciers was an immense help in steering me towards Mount Kenya.

The final factor was quotidian, but real: the location had to be feasible. In other words, I had to go somewhere where I would have a chance of succeeding in making the work. Even so, this was definitely the hardest project that I ever did.

As I mentioned, there was an immense amount of planning necessary. I had to make sure I had every damn thing (though not too much, since someone had to lug it up the mountain). While I was focused on ropes and fuel and batteries, my Kenyan producers were reminding me we needed things like food…

I shot this on assignment for the New York Times Magazine, so I had a budget at the start. But when I reached the base of the mountain, the money had run out. That was it: if I didn’t get the shots I needed, I was in big trouble. There could be no re-shoots, no do-overs. There was a lot of pressure.

On the mountain itself, conditions were challenging. It was bitterly, miserably cold. In the low temperature, my brand-new batteries kept going down (lithium doesn’t do well in cold). To make my pictures, I needed very long exposures, so I would leave out my camera for a few hours to make the shot and when I returned, it would be frozen solid. Or the battery would give out, when everything else had been perfect. I also lost many nights and many exposures to clouds rolling through—an evening which started out clear would disappear into the mist as soon as the exposure had begun.

In total, I was up there for 18 days [just like Benuzzi…]. In that time, I only made 8 usable exposures. 8 files I could pass on to my editors. Never have I spent so much money to have so little to show for it. But that’s what I could get.

LC: You spent years prodding at the word “battlefield” and examining the definition of war-zones in prior projects. How do you think this Mt. Kenya series relates to that long-running interest?

SN: It’s certainly related but first I have to clarify my focus. I’ve never been interested in battlefields or war, but something a step deeper: in empire and archaeological sites. What I really am drawn towards are the stratified layers of histories, of which battlefields are just an interesting example. A battlefield is something like a land slippage: underneath the surface, there are countless strata lying on top of each other. On an Afghan battlefield, you’ll find the American empire lying on top of the Soviet, on the top of the British, encapsulating 150 years of imperial failure.

Likewise, what I’m trying to do in Mt. Kenya is to search for strata and capture a different form of layering. That was another reason that this glacier worked so well—it’s been very precisely mapped since the 1930s. This allowed me to carefully track its disappearance over time, to visualize the invisible layers of history that the retreating glacier has left behind. My photographs are like placing time bands onto the landscape that capture its change over time.

LC: What do you hope to achieve with this work? More generally, do you think photography (art) has an ability to inspire change? I know that alongside the LensCulture award, you’ve been given a Prix Pictet commission, a prize dedicated to sustainability and awareness…

SN: To be honest, I’m very confused about what photography can do. It often feels like a kind of fumbling and groping forward. I’m certainly not sure it’s the most effective way to spend our money. I mean, I stand up and get a fancy prize for printing out colored pieces of paper and meanwhile someone is living under a piece of plastic in Calais. We’re awarding ourselves baubles and making fools of ourselves.

But I suppose the key balancing aspect in my life is that my wife is a doctor, at a public hospital. Just last week, she put a man’s hand back on. I’m so glad that I come home and ask her, “What did you do at work today?” I’m thankful to have that, for perspective it provides.

Which brings us all the way back to the Romantic painting, from the start. Perspective and clear sight, that’s all we can ask of photography, or art, I think.

—Simon Norfolk, interviewed by Alexander Strecker