The Shrouds on the Glacier du Rhône | Granta

The Shrouds on the Glacier du Rhône

Simon Norfolk & Klaus Thymann & Francis Hodgson

I noticed straight away that Norfolk and Thymann’s views of the shrouded mountain held a peculiar quality of light. High in the mountains, where most photographers are happy to be wowed and wooed by the shifting qualities of cloud-dappling and storm-darkening, they thought the light wasn’t good enough. They weren’t prepared to ‘capture’ or ‘reproduce’ the scenes they saw. They were making something new up there, creating an artwork as surely as if they held burins or gouges in their hands. Anybody who thinks these photographers simply ‘took’ these pictures, and that he or we could do something roughly similar just by being up there in the cold misses the point entirely.

The special light has been made possible by a fancy helium balloon, which allowed them to suspend lights in the middle of the scene, in the manner of a lighting-director choosing how to light an opera. The balloon was not easy to control, and created challenges of its own. Where most artificial light trespasses in on a view from the sides and edges, the balloon allowed Thymann and Norfolk to drop light from above – an idea which is metaphorically apt, just as it is physically appropriate. The glacier is melting, after all, at its furiously accelerated pace, partly because more of that light from above is getting through to it.

Thymann and Norfolk are heirs of those Romantic landscapists. Call the series an elegy, or a requiem, or a lament – the exact words can be sorted out elsewhere. These are great poetical views, the work of the hand and eye and brain of two fine artists, bouncing ideas off each other, as slanted and deliberate as anything the Romantics produced in front of that same glacier.

I’ve had these pictures on my computer some time. And they stay in my eye, echoing. That somebody is wrapping glaciers to eke out the last tourist money before they disappear is not a big deal at all. That someone else has been up there and found it a symbol for the absurd losers’ gamble that we are all playing with climate change and our environment, that is different.

Twenty thousand years ago, the Rhône Glacier was a dome of ice ninety-six hundred feet high, part of a sea of ice that covered the whole of this part of Switzerland, with only a few isolated crags poking up above it. That sea flowed in a number of directions away from its cap. Standing next to the waterfall at the edge of the present glacier, you would have been under a mile or more of ice.

Now it’s a deeply disturbing scene up there. We’re looking at a wreck of a glacier, beautifully swaddled for death.

The sheer futility of those blankets is one thing. They do, in fact provide a measure of insulation. But they provide it over a tiny area – just enough to remind us of the hundreds of thousands of acres of glacier around the world where no such protection has been put in place. Covers or no, the glacier is shallower, shorter, narrower than ever before. The tarpaulins can’t resist the weather very well anyway – we can see how they have torn and frayed in the winds. If the tunnel has to be dug again every year as the ice shifts, each time slightly further away from the Belvedere hotel, each time slightly shallower as the glacier’s depth diminishes, so it seems the blankets have to be renewed as well. We’re beginning to see something of the vertiginous inadequacy of any of these man-made measures to preserve and protect. Deep, deep down in the crevasses of global warming, tiny figures are toiling away to effect change. It won’t work; it can’t work. Yet it has to work.

Simon Norfolk & Klaus Thymann

Simon Norfolk was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and studied at University of Wales, Bristol University, and Hertford College, Oxford. His photographs appear regularly in National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, and the Guardian Weekend.

Klaus Thymann is a multi award-winning photographer, filmmaker, writer and creative director. In 1996 he was the youngest ever winner of the Scandinavian Kodak Gold Award. In 2013 he won the Sony World Photography Award, and in 2008 he founded Project Pressure – Visualizing Climate Crisis. The charity is collaborating with world-renowned artists to incite positive behavioural change.

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Francis Hodgson

Francis Hodgson is Professor in the Culture of Photography at the University of Brighton.  He was for many years the critic of photography for the Financial Times.

Image ©  Anton Corbijn

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