Notes on Underwater Photography in the Arctic

By Fritz Horstman

I am certainly not alone in my exploration of water clarity.  In 1865 the Italian physicist, meteorologist, astronomer, and priest Angelo Secchi made a disk that could be lowered into water on the end of a pole or string to measure the water’s clarity. Known as a Secchi Disk, his device was thirty centimeters in diameter and painted half-white, half-black. Still in use today, it is lowered into the water to a depth when it is no longer visible, called the Secchi Depth. Secchi would very likely have known about the Swiss physicist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure’s cyanometer created in the late 18th century and put to great use by the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Comprising small squares of paper dyed in tints and shades of blue, from white to bright blue to nearly black, arranged around a circle, one could hold the cyanometer overhead to measure the blueness of the sky by comparing it with the colored papers. (Two of my shipmates in the Arctic, Claudia O’Steen and Aly Ogasian, made use of a cyanometer.)

I spent the better part of June 2016 aboard the Tallship Antigua as it sailed around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Twenty-six artists and I had been chosen as artists-in-residence for the Arctic Circle Residency. My main project was using underwater photography to document the color and clarity of the water near the scores of glaciers we encountered. For years I have been fascinated by the incredible range of color created as light passes through water. The confluence of water’s turbidity, particulate matter, and angles of the sun cast the space captured in the photograph into a breath-taking diversity of hues, saturations, and shadows.

In July 2009, as I swam in a pond near my home in Connecticut, I looked at my feet and noticed the naturally dark color of the water. Just a few hot days later, I was doing the same thing and realized that I could no longer see my feet. The water had warmed, tannins from dead leaves and debris had infused it, the billions of microbes had become trillions, or some other factor had changed enough that what had been fairly dark water was now so full of particulate matter that I could no longer see my feet.

I used my underwater camera to track some aspects of this phenomenon. Expecting that the water would reverse its darkening when summer’s heat relented, I planned to document the water until the end of fall, taking photographs at about 2pm almost every afternoon. With an eight-foot-long off-cut from a framing project I made a device onto which I could mount the camera. At ninety degrees to the long stick, I fastened a platform on which the camera sat. Five feet up from the platform I attached a piece of wood at sixty degrees from the main stick. At every foot between I painted a black line. The piece of wood five feet above the camera, attached at sixty degrees, would let me know when I had gotten my camera five feet below the surface and would ensure that my angle relative to horizontal was consistent. The three feet of stick remaining above the water gave me enough to hold onto the device while standing on a short pier that juts into the pond.

I set the camera so that its ISO and aperture were locked. Only the shutter speed would change as the camera auto-corrected for whatever lighting situation it encountered beneath the water. Engaging the camera’s ten-second timer, I would plunge the camera into the pond and watch until its flashing light let me know the image had been taken.

The images that resulted from this project, which I titled Five Feet Below, were far more varied than I expected. By early December I had around forty photographs displaying a spectacular range of colors from orange to brown to blue-green. The choice to extend the project to cover the entire year was an easy one.

As winter set in I began bringing a steel rod with me to the pond to break a hole in the ice for my camera. Images taken under the ice were grey or brown. In spring when the ice melted the water was extremely clear. With little particulate matter between the camera’s lens and the surface of the water, the blue of the sky became the dominant color in the photographs. Often in the spring photos, my visage can be made out at the top of the wooden stick. As the water warmed, microbial activity picked up, the tannin content increased, and the blue photographs gave way to yellow ones, then orange; eventually by mid-July 2010, the color was very similar to what I’d seen a year earlier. Over the course of the year I took 180 photographs. 

In the years that followed I revisited this project with varying degrees of success. In 2015, I used a similar setup in the Kannagawa River as it flows from the mountains, through town, and to the fields and factories below Onishi, Japan.

With the invitation to sail in the Arctic, a modification to the technique was required. I borrowed a more substantial camera, one that could go to a depth of a hundred feet. Onto a collapsible fishing rod I loaded a hundred feet of very strong line. At the end of the line, attached by four wires going to each corner, a plastic platform with crisscrossing elastic bands served as the camera mount. The camera pointed up, taking in a view that included the four wires and the line as it receded up towards the rod. Four telltale knots were tied at twelve-inch intervals above the mount, giving reference to space and possible current in the water. A stone hung below the mount to keep the camera’s orientation constant.    

The Tallship Antigua moored in Blomstrandbukta, Svalbard; the Blomstrandbreen Glacier is in the background; photograph by Fritz Horstman; 2016

Cyanometer made by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure; 1789; collection of Bibliothèque de Genève

Five Feet Under (Device); 2009; douglas fir, hardware, paint; 96 x 12 x 4”

Five Feet Under (Installation view); 2009-10; C-print photographs and device; photographs printed at 10 x 8”. This is a composite of several photographs, showing the images as they wrap around the corners of the gallery’s walls.

Kannagawa Underwater (compilation); 2015

Collapsible Fishing Rod with Platform for Underwater Camera; 2016

Svalbard’s mountains and glaciers surrounded by frigid ice-strewn water are otherworldly in their beauty. At the head of many of the fjords we explored was the face of at least one glacier. With no trees or human structures for reference, their scale is hard to comprehend. You could be forgiven for guessing that the face of Svidjodbreen Glacier is thirty feet tall and several hundred feet across, when in fact it is more like four hundred feet tall and around a mile across. From a sandbar in the fjord, the other artists and I watched as Svidjodbreen calved repeatedly in the relatively warm June sun. Distance became easier to understand as the sight of massive blue-white shards falling into and throwing up great sheets of water was disconnected from its accompanying booms and cracks by several seconds. Suddenly realizing that we were at least a mile from the face of the glacier, its staggering height became apparent. The sight of the calving glacier reached us first through light waves; seconds later sound waves caught up. It was some minutes later that huge waves in the water made by the falling ice broke over the sandbar.

Svidjodbreen Glacier; photograph by Fritz Horstman; 2016

Using my modified fishing rod rig, I made thousands of photographs of Svalbard’s waters in varying states of turbidity, ranging from mint green to pea soup to white. A particularly vivid set of images came from the waters near the Fjortende Julibukta glacier. In a Zodiac (a small inflatable boat that could be dropped by a lift from the ship) steered by our excellent guide—and fascinating artist—Sarah Gerat, several artists and I went as close as possible to the glacier’s face. With the ever-present risk of the glacier calving, we could only get within a few hundred feet. There, nearest to where the glacier’s meltwater meets the ocean, the silt and grit created as the glacier scraped across the land are at their highest concentrations. From the surface, I could see that the silty water—known as glacial milk—dissipated further from the face of the glacier.

I set my camera to take photographs every five seconds. When Sarah brought us to a halt and cut the engine, I dropped my camera into the water. Letting out line until it went slack or until there was no more, I ensured that the camera reached either the bottom of the fjord or a hundred feet, whichever came first. Using as steady a retrieval as possible, I pulled the camera back to the surface, as it continued to take photographs every five seconds. Sarah moved us several hundred feet away from the glacier’s face and I repeated the process, and then did the same in seven more positions progressively further away. The depth of the fjord varied. In some positions my camera came to rest on the bottom well before all hundred feet of line had gone out, meaning I captured fewer photographs in that location.

 Fjortende Julibreen (detail); 2016

As I’ve arranged the photographs, the far-left column depicts the water closest to the glacier. The image at the bottom was taken at a hundred feet under water. The image at the top of the column was taken a few feet below the surface. Each column moving to the right was taken at positions progressively further from the glacier. The far-right column was taken approximately a mile from the glacier. In this group of images, the two columns closest to the right were taken from the ship, not the Zodiac.

Fjortende Julibreen; 2016

Turbidity decreased with distance from the glacier. While the water a mile out was still not completely clear, the shape of the ship’s hull is legible from the very deepest photo all the way up the column to the top photo. The minerals suspended in the glacial milk read as dominantly white closest to the glacier. By virtue of depth, the available light, a different mineral composition, or some other factor, the images at the bottom of the column closest to the glacier are a murky yellow-green. From a colorist’s perspective, I can see that a fair amount of white is in the mix, but it has decidedly richer hue than the water above it in the column.

Colors, textures, and other qualities of water that can be made – or already are – visible, but require a particular level of focus or reorientation, drive this project. On its way from its source to my eye, light either bounces off the objects in the world or is transmitted through them. In the process, white light is refracted, reflected, divided and partially absorbed in ways that produce all of the colors I can perceive and many I can’t. Most of the information that I receive about the world comes to me visually, which is to say that it’s in the form of light and color. Color is everywhere, so my search for visible evidence of natural phenomena inevitably considers color to be a material worthy of investigation. Noticing small shifts of color raises the question, what is changing around it to cause the color shift? Light green, for example, appears in my eye to be very different surrounded by blue rather than yellow. Light changes color as it passes through water with different silt compositions. I know that my perception of color is wildly subjective. I also know that it is very difficult for any observation to completely objective.

By using techniques borrowed from science I am able to compare the mostly objective results of a photograph with my subjective observations of color. In this poetic complexity of physics and psychology, color and its progenitor light tell the richest story imaginable. However, I am not practicing good science. A scientist could look at my images and possibly glean something useful, or be able to comment upon the evidence I’ve produced, but would certainly want a more thorough dataset. The artist and teacher Josef Albers said he was more interested in searching than researching. A researcher may be interested in finding or proving a theory. A search is an act of curiosity and active learning; it implies an openness and flexibility. Some of my tools and language may look or sound a bit like science, but I would not be invested in this work if there were not a poetic level on which to present it. Nor would it be interesting to me if it was purely self-contained invention. I consider my underwater photography project an artistic search for evidence. The material is there; I am simply isolating and elevating it.

Fritz Horstman has exhibited his photos, sculptures and installations in recent exhibitions in Norway, Japan, France, Massachusetts, California and Brooklyn. He is artist residency and education coordinator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, CT. He has developed and presented lectures and workshops for institutions such as MoMA New York, the Bauhaus Dessau, Yale University, DIA Center for the Arts, The Drawing Center, Princeton University, Bennington College, The New School, Exploratorium San Francisco, Lebanese American University Beirut and the École des Beaux-Arts Paris, as well as numerous elementary, middle and high schools and community centers.

Kannagawa Underwater (detail); 2015

Five Feet Under (details from early spring, early summer, mid-summer, autumn, and winter); 2009-10

Fritz Horstman; photographed in Svalbard

by George Philip LeBourdais; 2016