Martin Hartley, polar photographer: ‘We’re on the brink and once we go over the edge we’ll never come back’
Image credit: Nick Smith
Martin Hartley has spent a quarter of a century photographing the Polar Regions. Here he discusses how his job has been made easier by advances in satellite climate monitoring, as well as the advantages digital cameras have over their analogue predecessors.
In the world of polar photography, there are today few better-known exponents of the art than Martin Hartley. In the past quarter of a century he’s taken part in more than 25 expeditions to the coldest reaches of the planet, often to the geographical poles themselves. He’s photographed adventure-style sports assaults as well as scientific data collection missions. One of Time magazine’s ‘Heroes of the Environment’, there are few polar photographers with more established credentials, with his photography a fixture in publications worldwide.
Hartley falls into the tradition of extreme ice photography pioneered by his early 20th-century heroes, Frank Hurley and Herbert Ponting, who recorded the expeditions of Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott. While the intervening century means the technology he uses today would be virtually unrecognisable to his predecessors, Hartley reckons “they’d have jumped at the chance to use digital cameras that can take 50Mb file-size images.”
Hartley is often described as an explorer who takes photographs. It’s a description with which he sharply disagrees: “I’m a photographer and everything else that I do is in support of my photography.” The fitness and survival fieldcraft skills he acquired are simply those required to propel him into the environment in which he needs to work: work that increasingly relies on technology to plan expeditions, navigate, communicate and take pictures. As we sit at his desk in his Bristol studio, computer screens surround us. There are two screens flanking his photo-editing station showing real-time animations of ice distribution and movement in the Arctic Circle. This is all part of his preparation for an expedition he is mounting in early 2020 to photograph the last of the world’s multi-year sea ice.
“From a physical perspective,” says Hartley “multi-year sea ice is a great pile, a giant mass of frozen sea water that can be as much as seven metres in thickness. That’s the kind of ice that used to form on the Arctic Ocean and would survive as much as ten summers.” Due to rising average global temperatures, this ice is now rare, with Hartley estimating that as much as 90 per cent of the ice that forms in the Arctic winter becoming water again by summer.
As a photographer, with a lifelong passion for the icescapes of the north, he feels compelled to document photographically, “the last of these great ice masses. When the Arctic was 5.5 million square miles of ice, it used to reflect more than 90 per cent of solar radiation back into outer space. It doesn’t do that anymore and the Arctic Ocean is now absorbing a lot of energy. That will affect every human on the planet and it will affect wildlife. Basically, we’re on the brink, and once we go over the edge we’ll never come back from it.”
The icecaps Hartley describes as the world’s ‘protective armour’ have been shrinking “since the start of the Industrial Revolution.” When asked if there is a causal link between industrial emissions and the decline of multi-year ice, he says: “You’d be bonkers not to make that link. You can put people who deny that link in the same category as flat-earthers.”
Not only is the ice disappearing, it is vanishing at a rate that is “faster than anyone had anticipated.” This is confirmed in a paper published in October by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) that explicitly states that multi-year sea ice will no longer exist within the range of three to five years. “That’s why I’ve got to go to photograph it: so we have a record for the future.”
The big question is where the last remnants are located. To answer this, Hartley refers to imagery produced by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Copernicus Earth observation programme, in particular a pair of two-satellite constellations called Sentinel-2 and Sentinel-3 that provide, in the words of ESA, “accurate, timely and easily accessible information to improve the management of the environment, understand and mitigate the effects of climate change and ensure civil security.” Crucially for Hartley, there are satellites in the Copernicus programme dedicated to the Arctic, measuring sea-ice thickness on Greenland and the surface of the Arctic Ocean using radar.
Commenting on the dynamic satellite imagery on the screen in front of him Hartley says: “if Robert Peary had had this resource a century ago he’d have been very happy.” Peary was the United State Navy officer who claimed to have reached the geographic North Pole (90 degrees north) in 1908. This claim, although certified by the National Geographic Society in 1909, is now considered to be controversial due to doubts over (among others) Peary’s navigational accuracy. Returning to the screen, Hartley explains that Peary could have benefited from the Copernicus imagery because it shows directions of ice drift and prevailing wind, which is important “because you can’t always tell which way the ice is moving based on the wind direction. This is a useful map for planning my route in search of the multi-year sea ice.”
Switching to the right-hand screen, there is an animation of more localised ice movement that can resolve to 10m, which means that from his base in Bristol Hartley can “go scouting around, looking for multi-year ice.” Once the photographer has ‘hunted from space’, he is then able to decide on a strategy for going out into the field to find specific areas of ice.
While some aspects of everyday life have been incrementally improved or made more efficient by digitalisation, the world of photography was turned upside-down. It went from an elite art form in the hands of the technocracy to one of the most widespread media in a transformation that ‘democratised’ image-making. It went from being a complex protracted process that was resolved chemically to an almost instantaneous phenomenon resolved by binary mathematics. Back in the days of film, the physical ‘consumables’ that went into creating the final image came at a cost premium. In the digital age, capture and storage became cheap, reusable and seemingly unlimited.
At the start of Hartley’s career, the number of photographs that could be taken in the field was limited by the amount of film you could afford to buy or carry with you (with medium format ‘roll film’ yielding only 16 exposures per roll). Today, with 256Gb data cards becoming the norm (that’s getting on for 9,000 30Mb files), the main limitation for the photographer is the availability of power. With very little mains electricity in the remoter reaches of the Polar Regions, the only realistic options are portable PV solar systems or what you can carry in the form of batteries. Due to their weight and size, batteries can be an unwanted burden on an expedition’s equipment manifest, making power-efficient cameras vital for the polar photographer on the ice for as many as 90 days at a time.
“When I first went out on the ice, I was taking manual analogue equipment that was quite prone to failure. Today I am using equipment that would have been quite difficult to foresee from that point in time.” Hartley elaborates by saying that a quarter of a century ago his cameras had only three functions that could be controlled: shutter speed, aperture and ISO (a measurement of light sensitivity of film). “That’s all you needed to worry about.” Pointing to a standard professional workhorse DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) on his desk, he says, “That one’s got 24 external buttons on it and so by comparison it operates like a fighter jet. This camera cost about £5k. You can spend 10 times more than that if you like, but I use the Nikon D5 because it’s relatively light and it is quite happy in the cold.”
This wasn’t the case with analogue cameras. They were vulnerable to environmental extremes of cold, heat, moisture and dust. Yet essentially, says Hartley, two things have happened to make life easier today. “First, we’ve done away with 35mm film. That was a killer in the cold, because this was a strip of emulsion-coated plastic manually hauled from spool to spool over sprockets which would tear the film as it became less malleable at low temperature.” His workaround was to switch to medium-format film with a higher tensile strength, which didn’t require a sprocket system. This used glued paper to effectively lightproof the exposed roll. “But at -25, the glue stops being glue, so you had to warm the cameras up before you could load the film. One way to do that was a battery you wore on your body connected by a cable, but it was all pretty useless. Today’s cameras have hulking great 10.8V batteries. These batteries will power the camera all day. Even in -30 you can still take pictures. It’s actually a bit of a myth that extreme cold drains your batteries, but you did need to keep the old cameras warm for them to function properly.”
At this point, Hartley launches into a long narrative about how he once employed a local engineer to create a heating system for one of his earlier cameras. This involved replacing the battery with an improvised heating element (housed in a hollowed-out battery enclosure) connected to a battery pack in his pocket that could later be recharged from a car battery on his sledge. “So you can see why the current generation of well-built DSLRs is a godsend to people like me. I know other photographers who work in warmer environments might think that they are over-specified. But for the sort of work I do they are absolutely essential.”
Hartley says even with the best will in the world, there are times out on the ice when electronics will let you down, meaning you will need a coherent Plan B. His fallback strategy is to rely on mechanical engineering, specifically a Leica MP (the letters stand for ‘mechanical perfection’) camera that was made especially for him by the historic German company. “Cameras like this bring back the romance of film photography, of course, and I have used mine to compare analogue and digital results.”
Yet before long, Hartley was also projected back to the ‘good old, bad old days’ in which he found himself in a tent warming his camera over a stove simply in order to rewind exposed film back into the cartridge. “The idea is if moisture, salt or whatever has got to your electronic camera, you can go back to one of these faithfully engineered cameras and it will work because it’s old-fashioned mechanical engineering. To be honest, I use my old film cameras as paperweights now because these days the build quality is such that there’s no need to worry about extreme environmental conditions any more. Currently, professional DSLRs are perfectly sealed against moisture, vibration and are shockproof. I’ve got a Nikon D3X DSLR that’s a decade old, that’s been around the world 20 times. I’ve dropped it on concrete and it’s rattled around in the back of a skidoo. It just keeps going. Although I’ve had it serviced five times, the camera body is still as good as ever because these things are practically indestructible. You’ve got to be careful with the lenses. That’s the Achilles Heel these days and that’s because they’ve got moving parts.”
Hartley thinks analogue loyalists negatively judge modern digital photographic technology. “It’s just a simple fact that cameras today are miles better than we could have ever dreamed of. I’ve been doing this a long time,” says the 50-year-old photographer, “but if you had told me when I was back in college that we’d be taking 50Mb files today, firstly, back then I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. If I did, I wouldn’t have believed you. One of the reasons for that is, as I rewind my memory, I can remember how awful my first digital camera was.”
Describing its overall value as an instrument for taking photographs, Hartley uses a string of words not normally associated with the editorial style of E&T. Suffice to say, they are intensifiers loaded with disapproval. “Do you remember ‘shutter lag’? It used to take half a second for the camera to take the picture. That was enough to make me very reluctant to engage with digital cameras, but photography is a field where technology advances rapidly. If you look at the images you can take with smartphones today, the quality is better than we used to get with analogue cameras.”
You can see for yourself what the sea ice at the North Pole looks like today.