James Balog first visited the glaciers of Iceland in 2005, on assignment for the New Yorker. His work and personal life have been consumed by ice ever since.
This whole effort is not just about time-lapse engineering and about the film, but also about single-frame imagery, the connection between the human mind and eye and heart and these incredible landscapes.
Chasing Ice, a documentary tracing his seven-year effort to illustrate just how fast glaciers around the northern rim of the planet are disappearing, opens in theaters next weekend. While ice is nominally the subject of the film, it is Balog’s own personal experiences—ranging from delirious success in the field to nearly debilitating frustrations caused by trying to work in some of the coldest, most remote corners of the planet—that set Chasing Ice apart from being just a rant against a changing climate.
In 2007, Balog formalized his photographic hunt for receding glaciers as the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) and then set out with small teams to both photograph and set up time-lapse cameras on glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, the Nepalese Himalaya, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains.
Like most in recent years who have been trying to bring stories and evidence of climate change to the public, on the eve of the film’s premiere, Balog is relieved that thanks to the recent superstorm that swept the East Coast, high-ranking politicians, including New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have very publicly linked big weather events with climate change.
"There is a kind of tyranny of the marketplace right now," says Balog from his Boulder, Colorado office, "which has suppressed a free and open and honest dialogue about climate change. Ultimately the politicians don’t want to touch the subject for fear of getting entangled with financial interests connected with fossil fuels. And those financial interests—big oil, big gas—keep saying We Shalt Not Discuss the Subject of Climate Change. Which is why the story of climate change has had such a hard time getting out during these past seven years, since we began the EIS. But because of Sandy, everyone’s eyes are all of a sudden wide open. When you have the governor of one of the major states in the country (Cuomo) saying the climate is changing and we’re in a new normal, that puts the issue at the top of the social agenda."
Our conversation continues below.
TakePart: Having labored for many years with a small team in very cold and lonely places, are you surprised by the success of Chasing Ice?
James Balog: Seven or eight years ago it was not at all clear Chasing Ice would even be made. When it was finished it wasn’t clear it would have any kind of audience or any sort of success. So to wind up with the wonderful quality of the film, the tremendous circulation and the acclaim and all of a sudden to be landing it in the middle of the climate change debate is gratifying to say the least.
TakePart: While ice and climate change are the subjects of the film, you are its ‘star.’ How does that feel?
James Balog: If you look at the Chasing Ice trailer, it’s cut as an adventure story and a human interest story. It’s about the passion, commitment, adventure and human interest…and ultimately about trying to understand what’s going on in the world, realizing what’s happening with climate change.
TakePart: Chasing Ice does a good job showing how difficult it is to both get to these remote places and once there keeping cameras, batteries and mechanical parts functioning. Just because the film is out doesn’t mean you’ve stopped gathering images, right?
James Balog: I have to admit it’s a little hard to keep track of everything that’s going on out there. There are currently 34 cameras making time lapses on 16 different glaciers. We’ve also returned to a dozen sites to make still images.
When I started out in 2007 I saw it as a three-year project, I thought it would all be done in 2009. But by 2009 we realized that the power of the historical record was emotional as well as factual and scientific and we needed to keep going for a few more years. Now the power of this record as historic document is so tremendous we can’t stop; it has to go on indefinitely.
Of course that is a pretty serious concept to put in your head as an independent financer. And the project keeps expanding. We’ve got five new cameras way up in the Canadian Arctic and an opportunity to set something up on the Antarctic Peninsula. In addition to the time lapses, there are still photo opportunities as well, requiring me to go back every few years to the exact place I stood before and make still photos. That has proven to be a very powerful tool as well, both matching them with photos taken 50 and 75 years ago as well as the shorter time frames, which can be even more powerful.
We have amassed a huge body of work over the past six, seven years celebrating the art and architecture of these landscapes, which is all about celebrating the single frame. This whole effort is not just about time-lapse engineering and about the film, but also about single-frame imagery, the connection between the human mind and eye and heart and these incredible landscapes. Since my first visit I have been trying to celebrate the spectacle and get deep inside the spirit of these landscapes in pictures. You see a lot of the stills in Chasing Ice, but even more in the just-out book “ICE: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers,” published by Rizzoli.
TakePart: Despite the film being about ice and climate change, which are not always the most scintillating of subjects, your project and the film have gotten incredible attention.
James Balog: We’ve done two films, two books, stories for National Geographic magazine, and I can’t begin to count the newspaper, magazine and web articles. In some ways it doesn’t get any better than this!
During the first couple years we were so saturated by the field work and fundraising that we weren’t able to do much public outreach. But in the last few years I’ve spent incredible amounts of time and energy running around doing presentations, presenting Chasing Ice…it’s all been just mind-boggling.
We have vastly exceeded every hope and dream and expectation I had in the beginning. And now it looks like the dialogue—about climate change—may be changing, just in time.