Portrait of a Landscape
Photographer Camille Seaman found her passion thanks to a fluke. She was 29 years old, on an Alaska Airlines flight from Oakland to Los Angeles, when she volunteered to give up her seat on the overbooked plane in exchange for a free ticket anywhere the airline flew. She chose Kotzebue, Alaska (mostly just because she liked the name), a village on the shores of the Chukchi Sea. It was there that she fell in love with the stark beauty of the polar regions and committed herself to using her art to communicate the wonder of those icy landscapes.
During the following decade, Seaman, now 44, traveled to the Ross Sea in Antarctica, to Greenland, and to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago to document the fragile beauty of these areas and to show how they are being impacted by global climate change. Most often she trained her camera on the icebergs she encountered, which she found mesmerizing.
Seaman’s lustrous photos of icebergs have a heroic grandeur to them and, at the same time, a kind of intimacy. Seaman says that she came to think of the icebergs as individuals, each one of them unique in its color, shape, size, and lifespan. They are, she says, “stoic, glowing masses of time and experience.” She prefers to describe her iceberg pictures, not as landscape photojournalism, but rather as portraiture.
Seaman’s most recent project, which she calls “The Big Cloud,” took her to the Great Plains to capture massive tornados called “supercells.” Her shots have a powerful dynamism; you can almost feel the wind whipping about. Yet, much like her iceberg images, there is also a preternatural stillness to the scenes, as if the whole of creation has been distilled into an instant.
Whether she is shooting icebergs or storm clouds, Seaman says her goal is to prompt the viewer to appreciate the “interconnection of all life on Earth.” This is a value, she says, that she learned from her grandfather, a Shinnecock Indian who, when Seaman was a child, would tell her to sit still for up to an hour and just watch the world unfold. She avoids preachiness – going so far as to skip the phrases “climate change” and “global warming” – and strives to connect to her audience on an emotional rather than an intellectual level. While there may be a certain fearsomeness in her scenes, she has no interest in spurring more anxiety about our global plight. She would rather prompt love and affection for the natural world. In that sense, her photos aren’t elegiac – a record of what we are losing – as much as prophetic, a glimpse into the world we are building and will live in and, no matter what, will have to care for.
Camille Seaman is a TED Senior Fellow and a Stanford Knight Fellow. Her photographs have appeared in National Geographic, TIME, and The New York Times, among many other publications. She has exhibited at galleries around the world, including a solo show at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC. View her work at www.camilleseaman.com.