Our guest blogger is Hood River photographer Leah Hedberg. Follow Leah’s art and writing at www.theArtofWelcome.com
Art In the Face of Failure: Andrée’s 1897 Arctic Balloon Expedition in Search of the North Pole
by Leah Hedberg
It’s one of the most outlandish tales in the history of exploration. A journey of science, art, curiosity, and peril. The story begins in July 1897. Three explorers are tethered to a hydrogen balloon headed for the North Pole.
Wait a minute, you may be thinking, as I did upon encountering this story — what?
But it’s a true story: a hydrogen balloon drifts above the arctic … three Swedish explorers swinging in its basket. Fog gathers ice on the balloon, which sinks under the growing weight.
Ten-and-a-half hours of free flight precede 41 hours of bumpy ground contact. The explorers offload cargo until the balloon finally comes to its side on polar pack ice. The crash is gentle enough not to injure the men; it leaves their cameras, ground supplies, and navigational instruments intact.
They climb out of the basket onto a sea of drifting ice. Twenty-four year old Nils Strindberg, the photographer for the expedition, collects his fifteen-pound cartographic camera from the wreckage.
He steps away from the balloon into the white-scape, and exposes this photograph.
The men will not live to see the image developed. Tragically, they will perish three months later, after wrestling heavy sleds across jagged ice and floes, hunting seal and polar bear, and recording the struggles in their journals. The mystery of their fate, and Strindberg’s exposed-but-undeveloped film, will lay in the ice for 33 years on the island of Kvitøya, until its discovery by sailing vessels in 1930.
It’s a remarkable story. And in the history of photography, it’s a notable instance of latent-image stability, an occurrence in which film is exposed to light, but chemical development is delayed (and still successful).
Yet this image is more than a photographic or historical oddity. It tells a human story.
To begin, it is amazing the photo exists at all. It’s one of 93 expedition photos preserved by a tin box, years of cold conditions, and conscientious discoverers. It exists in one sense because someone cared to make the photo, and yet it only exists because others likewise cared to preserve it, because of particular conditions that ice-mummified the film, and because of its unlikely discovery. The photo is a mirror of human struggle and dignity, its existence a kind of winning lottery ticket for meaningfulness.
One of the meaningful aspects of the story being told in Strindberg’s photo is that of humans trying to find our place in the natural world.
Here, we are conquerors of the world, and we are failing.
That it shows human frailty and failure is part of what makes the image a transcendent work of art. The photo is technically flawed owing to the decades it spent in the snow, but art isn’t about perfection achieved through technical excellence. It reaches deeper, daring the viewer to confront the messiness of life, to think, and to feel something.
If we can return to the story and try to imagine what Strindberg and his companions may have thought and felt, we might come to view this scene as a living, moving work of art, because of how it achieves the following:
Art transforms failure
As the men lose altitude, they descend onto ice about 300 miles north of their launch point, and 300 miles shy of the pole. Exhausted from a long flight, they must accept this epic failure and continue in some direction.
Strindberg is an amateur photographer, not a seasoned artist. But he is also a student of physics, and his scientific training likely instilled in him the persistence that both good art and good science require. So it may come naturally to Strindberg-the-scientist to seek a coherent view of the now-tragic North Pole balloon experiment by reframing it into an artistic composition.
In art, as in science, failure is often the critical nexus for revelation and meaning. To see failure as an end point or effect is to be a victim, but to claim failure as a cause is a path to empowerment and creation. In art and in science, failure has the effects of abrading limitations, identifying problems more worthy of solving, and inspiring new attempts to refine process and discover meaning.
Art inspires resilience
Whatever his thinking, Strindberg adapts; he photographs the balloon, now pathetic and defunct, on its side. It could be daytime in the photo, or the white night of northern summer. He knows that the long, continuous night of arctic winter looms in the months ahead. He captures his companions, Andrée and Fraenkel, insignificant-appearing in the vast horizonless landscape.
The moment he repurposes his specialized aerial camera to cover life on the ground, life now in question, Strindberg changes his aim from cartographic study to documentary storytelling. At this time in history, the phrase ‘documentary storytelling’ is not yet in the lexicon — to Strindberg, all of this would have been considered surveying. Yet as a photographer, I can’t help marveling at how nimbly he shifts from the kind of aerial photography he may have envisioned to making a photo that is so vulnerable and personal, instead.
That he shoots the crash scene at all shows Strindberg’s resilience. He might die in the days, weeks, or months ahead; nonetheless, he spends a few minutes considering apertures and shutter speeds, a tricky exposure with the bright snow and contrasting balloon.
Art offers gifts
This was surely a troubling moment, and it’s a photo Strindberg can’t make objectively, since he’s stuck inside the story. He tries anyway, stepping away to get the whole, austere picture.
As he makes the photo, Strindberg gives, and receives, the gift of distraction that art offers first to the artist, and later, to the viewer. He distances himself from his personal predicament to risk sharing a vision of humanity with the observer, a vision he may feel instinctively he will not live to see fully realized. This is, among many things, what art is and does.
Through photography, Strindberg also gains and shares perspective, another gift of both scientific and artistic inquiry.
Art encodes meaning as metaphor
The photo of the crash site tells the story of this expedition both artistically and metaphorically: the scale of persons in the natural world, lines of rope tethered to a now-shattered dream, the fallout of failure strewn on clean snow. There is also the roundness of the balloon, like the earth Strindberg and his companions tried to fly to the top of.
There is a contrast from light to dark, hope to failure, and everything in between. There is a feeling of humility, and the way life has of making perseverance the only option.
Art invites compassion
Historians agree that S.A. Andrée, the expedition’s leader, based the trip on sloppy planning, faulty balloon-steering methods, and reasoning not supported by the broader scientific community of the time. People criticized Andrée as headstrong, foolish, and culpable for his own death and the deaths of his companions.
But the photo doesn’t judge. It shows.
Photographs convey a story that is real and tactile. This photo shows the turning point from heroic mission to bitter and toilsome struggle. We are presented with a sense of the experience. After sensing something of the heft of the crash and the cold, we can choose to judge or to have compassion. It is precisely sensitivity to the distress of another, and the desire to alleviate suffering, that define compassion. But compassion is a difficult choice, since we cannot actually alleviate the suffering that is crystallized in a photo from the past. Or can we?
The power of a good photo is that it asks us to try. It invites seeing in imagery parts of ourselves and the ones we love, suspending judgment, and allowing thoughts and feelings to occur that connect us to our humanity.
Art asks a question
Strindberg doesn’t have the luxury of philosophizing about this photo, let alone seeing it after the exposure is made. He simply gives it, a record along the moving frontier of human striving.
At first glance, he offers a photo of his friends appearing fragile and mistaken beside a failed technology in a place they cannot survive.
But there is something deeper. Strindberg offers a photo that seems to ask why, in a century not-long ago, we saw ourselves as separate from the natural world, when in fact the only separate thing about us may be that we see ourselves.
It’s a strange prospect — not unlike a hundred-foot balloon crashing onto arctic ice — but when the weight of the question finally comes to rest, we might begin to understand why we invented photography in the first place.
Leah Hedberg is a photographer living in Hood River, Oregon. Follow Leah’s art and writing at www.theArtofWelcome.com
For further reading on this topic, Alec Wilkinson’s The Ice Balloon: S. A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration (Vintage Books, 2013) is an excellent book. Wilkinson’s meticulous research and lucid storytelling made it possible to enter the world of this photo.