The documentary Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, follows National Geographic photographer James Balog as he photographs the ominous arctic landscape. The film begins with the requisite montage of news clips heeding the contentious debate surrounding global warming and climate change. Balog, who is introduced shortly after the film begins, is a self-made photographer with an M.A. in geomorphology. Despite his adoration of science, he did not identify as a scientist by profession. Balog became a photographer and set off to capture the world’s most stunning untouched landscapes.
By Allison Palenske
The film documents Balog’s long-term photography project The Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), founded in 2007. A momentous project unfolds before the camera’s eye as Balog and his field assistant Svavar Jónatansson assemble a team of engineers, climatologists, and glaciologists to capture the life of glaciers in the Arctic range. The team installed 24 cameras mounted on military-strength tri-pod apparatuses across the terrain of Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, and Montana. The cameras were set on a timer to show a time-lapse experience of significant changes in the glaciers’ forms.
Due to the plot and progression of the film, a sense of urgency is promoted—both the urgency felt by the EIS team to capture these changes on film, and the need of adopting policy and lifestyle changes to help combat the downward spiral of significant carbon emissions. Using human figures and digital techniques, the images shown in Chasing Ice address issues of scale and temporality, inciting human empathy for a pressing issue.
His process does away with the notion of a point-and-shoot photographer as Balog chooses the Arctic North to be his studio. The stunning visuals provoke a certain dialogue and provide alternative proof to environmental issues by working beyond statistics and data. This film highlights photography’s ability to act as a visual voice for science, moving beyond quantitative data and towards qualitative data.
Chasing Ice began documenting Balog’s EIS project in 2005, and the film was released in 2012—well after the debate surrounding climate change began. Despite the plethora of documentaries and photojournalist projects already addressing environmental degradation, Chasing Ice sets itself apart because of its attention to Balog’s process and inspiration. Whereas television programs such as Planet Earth do not devote a majority of screen time to artistic techniques, Chasing Ice is essentially about the journey of production. The film exposes the setbacks and triumphs familiar to artists and scientists alike, drawing note to the growing symbiotic nature of fusing art and environmental science.