Masters of the Ice: Charles Rabot’s Arctic Photographs (ca. 1881)

“They are so beautiful, so magnificent, those deathly solitudes, so strange in their fleeting finery of brilliant colors, that they always leave one with a burning desire to see them again”, Charles Rabot wrote in 1894 of the particular allure of boreal landscapes. Hardly had he returned from a trip to Greenland, as he put it in the preface to his travelogue of the Russian taiga, when “nostalgia for the countries of the north took me” and sent him off on another of the peregrinations that would mark his life. The opening of that book includes a portrait of the author that, while showing nothing of his physical appearance, captures the image of the intrepid explorer that he wished to convey to the world: knee-high leather boots, matching gloves, and face entirely obscured by a thick swaddling of mosquito netting to prevent him from being eaten alive by gnats.

A self-styled glaciologist, Rabot undertook four expeditions to the Arctic in his lifetime; when he wasn’t voyaging to polar climes, he was writing about them in his capacity as editor of the journal La géographie or advising the likes of the prince of Monaco on their own itineraries. His written accounts theatrically capture the difficulty of life in these harsh climates, as in a description of the struggles of providing medical care in rural Scandinavia:

Each doctor has under their purview a vast area, some as large as one of France’s departments. . . . The shortest trip is a tedious trek in the summer and a voyage of a few days in winter, beneath bursts of snow, in the icy darkness of the northern night. The life of a Norwegian doctor is a veritable study in devotion and sacrifice. Too often, alas! their aid is in vain; before the arrival of the doctor, the sick person has long since passed away. “We’re here for moral support,” one of these excellent men told me sadly.

In contrast to the melodramatic style of his writings, Rabot’s photographs of the North are characterized by an abiding sense of stillness. This comes through both in the staginess of his ethnographic photos of Sami communities and his landscapes, where wide-angle shots in soft semi-shades of black and white give the impression of an infinite and unchanging expanse. With their fuzzy light, with their areas of grayish blur, many of the latter photos appear almost to be frozen at the heart of a block of ice — or perhaps glimpsed through a glass darkly. If there are any people to be seen in these snow-pied expanses, they are tiny afterthoughts so overwhelmed by the whiteness around them that any individuating features are obliterated completely — to the extent that these figures seem less like the protagonists of the shots and more like another accidental void bitten into the negative by the frost. This is the push-pull logic presented by Rabot and other so-called explorers of the era: the landscape is unconquerable; I myself have conquered it.

Scroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Proficient in multiple Nordic languages, the French Rabot seemed to have a particular affinity for Norwegian culture and exerted considerable effort campaigning on behalf of that country’s territorial claim to what was then called Spitsbergen (modern-day Svalbard). As part of the so-called “Literature Lobby”, he edited, authored, and translated numerous articles advancing Norway’s cause, even going so far as to testify at the Paris Peace Conference regarding the matter. “No other nation compares with them in their geographical discoveries, the number and accuracy of their surveys, and the extent of their scientific results in this archipelago”, he argued in a piece that veers between geography and jingoism, later stating that “nearly all the expeditions that have visited this Arctic land have engaged Norwegians as ice masters.” Rabot also wrote in favor of Denmark’s colonization of Greenland, calling it a “philanthropic” project in which the sole aim of Danish authorities was “to better the situation of the natives and lift them bit by bit out of their condition as savages.”

While he could stirringly describe the destructive might of nature at such extreme latitudes, Rabot was also aware, over a century before our time, of the heavy toll that human interference was taking on the regions he studied. As Alexandre Simon-Ekeland points out, “Only one travel account [of Norway’s North Cape], written by Charles Rabot, overtly recommended in 1898 that all tourists participate in a whale hunt . . . urg[ing] them to do so fast before the whales disappeared from the region.” That Rabot’s response was not to call for a halt to the commercial activity laying waste to the environments he claimed to so love but to give advice on how best to watch them get sucked dry is a grim intimation of our current moment.

RightsUnderlying Work RightsPD Worldwide
Digital Copy Rights


DownloadDownloadRight click on image or see source for higher-res
Found ViaFound Via