Chilling beauties: “Icebergs” by David Burdeny

David Burdeny proposed through his work “Shorelines” landscapes of various shores with a remarkable atmosphere of peace and serenity. Long exposure, black and white. His recent work – “Icebergs” – brings us this time further from the coastline, into these cold and little known seas where ice giants wander. We leave the reassuring (black and white) atmosphere of the shores for a trip in color in the unknown where we face the chilling beauties of the Arctic and the Antarctic. We met the author in Brussels before the opening of his show in the Young gallery.

David Burdeny proposed through his work “Shorelines” landscapes of various shores with a remarkable atmosphere of peace and serenity. Long exposure, black and white. His recent work – “Icebergs” – brings us this time further from the coastline, into these cold and little known seas where ice giants wander. We leave the reassuring (black and white) atmosphere of the shores for a trip in color in the unknown where we face the chilling beauties of the Arctic and the Antarctic. We met the author in Brussels before the opening of his show in the Young gallery.

Icebergs David Burdeny
© David Burdeny, Icebergs

The common ground between your new work and “Shorelines” is a representation of the ocean. What is it between you and water?

I don’t know how shooting water preoccupied me during “Shorelines” but it might have something to do with where I live and the particular mechanics of long exposure for shooting it. There is a serendipitous event in the moment of taking long exposure photography, as you don’t know what it is going to bring back as the shutter is opened for a long time. I like to play with this element of surprise. I felt I was finished with this work “Shorelines” at one point and I wanted to work on a topic about the Canadian North by doing something up in the Canadian Arctic. I did some research for about a month especially on Greenland where I went during the summer. I was so amazed by the landscape that I went back twice. More than the ocean, the ice itself fascinated me.

Is there a particular reason why you chose Icebergs as you photographic subject?

For me it was not so much a political statement. If it was all about sustainability, I wouldn’t have gone in the first place with transport means such as a plane!
I think I was looking for this new photographic landscape that was the last pure landscape.

To me, it also appears to be a disappearing place, with these immense objects that could melt down…

There are scientists out there that can talk about it better than I can but I’m happy to record the visual component and bring it to public ground. The icebergs are as deeply beautiful as they are horrific; it’s almost as if they are living things. As you come across icebergs when you drive around you get the feeling that they are live creatures.

Icebergs David Burdeny
© David Burdeny, Icebergs

So from “Shorelines” to “Icebergs” you changed the format and the inherent composition, went from black & white to color, from long exposure to snapshots. The only thing that stayed the same was water as subject. How do you see these changes?

I got restless in terms of technique and photography is always bound to the actual object of making it and I like to experiment with whichever medium.

“Shorelines” have been compared to work from photographers like Michael Kenna or Hiroshi Sugimoto. Was your new work also a way to distance yourself from these comparisons?

Absolutely. For sure.

ShorelinesDavid Burdeny

ShorelinesDavid Burdeny

ShorelinesDavid Burdeny
© David Burdeny, Shorelines

You had to go several times over there? How was it to say: “let’s go to the poles and shoot”?

Going to Greenland was easy the first time, which is one of the reasons why I decided to actually go there. The Canadian Arctic is a more difficult place to get to, there’s hardly any commercial flight, no hotels. By accident I came across this flight that goes from Baltimore to Greenland, so it was a no-brainer as it was easy to get there. So when I got there I spent few days, going down to the fishing port trying to charter a boat. That didn’t work out too well. Eventually, I came across a guy and after some begging he took me out on one of his boats. But it was really blind slide.
Going down to Antarctica is completely different. There are a lot of commercial trips on boats that go down there, anywhere from 50 people to 100. I basically took a cruise! And then, depending on where you want to visit they go out several times a day on zodiacs, where I could take the pictures.

Icebergs David Burdeny
© David Burdeny, Icebergs

Did you experience any technical problems by taking pictures from those small boats, the cold and so on?

It was not so much the cold but rather the movement. I was used to working with tripods and long exposure – all was calculated. But there, I was moving around; as soon as the landscape is gone you cannot come back. So you are at mercy of the pace of everybody else as opposed to my work before, being alone and going around at my own pace. If I wanted to stay in a spot for days I could, but here it was completely different way of working with people around. Again my work in the North was more self-directed as I was traveling alone, save for the people from the boat. So it was a good transition to what was waiting for me in Antarctica, because down there you are at the mercy of the expedition leaders and you have to go where they go, you have fewer options.

How many trips in total for this work?

I did two trips to both North and South. For two consecutive summers I went both North and South each time. Every trip was a week and a half or so. From there I could work up to 10 hours a day, but there was down time to wait for the right light. Being on boats was expensive too so it was better to make most of the right days.

What was the difference in your work between the first trip and the second one?

I started first by shooting film up North in black and white. I felt that I was not getting the resolution I wanted. I was using 400 speed films and on the scan things were not as sharp as I was hoping. I was also just getting four images per roll, so between this and that I switched to digital medium format. Then I stitched the images together. So by solving the resolution issue I got then the stitching issue. With moving boats it was a real issue! So the black and white was shot on film and the color was digital, except for some pieces.

Icebergs David Burdeny
© David Burdeny, Icebergs

How did you work for the panoramic views with film?

I used a Photoman camera where you can mount on your large format lenses. The digital work was on Mamiya with a P30 back.

How did you fund this project?

The project was self-funded through gallery sales. No grants or anything like that.

So basically Shorelines allowed you to make “Icebergs”?

Yes. One series keeping the next one going!

Do you have another job besides photography?

Not anymore. I used to practice as an architect. I was designing residential towers. And I left that a few months ago, in December of last year. Now it is full time photography.

Icebergs David Burdeny
© David Burdeny, Icebergs

Could you explain how you worked before that and how you got to full time photography?

I was basically working on photography before and after my daily job. I can’t say that I was fully focused on my job. I seemed to have something else in mind according to my colleagues!

As a photographer now, do you work on other projects than your own, special orders for instance?

No, only what you see here. I don’t do any commercial work.

So in terms of time management, you had a job and you worked seriously on your photography. How did you make it work? Was photography only for vacations?

It started as vacation time. But in North America you only get two or three weeks holidays a year. So I went away every weekend, also in mornings, and worked at night. This type of photography was really good for working at night. A reason then why I started as a night photographer is because that is the only time where I could take photographs! Time management has changed now, of course, but you have to keep in mind that being a photographer also means spending about 80% of your time on activities that do not involve shooting.

Tell me something about the prize you got last year?

I entered with a series of images from this work, and I got the IPA (International Photographer Awards, ED) award last year in the Nature category in professional division. I also won the same category in the amateur a few years back. There was a lot of good work; you always hope that you win something, but I never thought it would happen! The organization put a big production in a theatre in New York to give away the awards. They gave some lifetime achievements awards to great photographers. Then for the competition part, from the nominated in each category, an overall winner was designated. This award was given to a photographer who did a series on Gorillas (“Slaughter in the Jungle” by Brent Stirton, ED).

Icebergs David Burdeny
© David Burdeny, Icebergs

Did you think a moment like that would happen to you when you first started photography?

First I was just happy to be making photographs, I never intended to ever sell. It was just a private thing, my little secret activity that I was doing. It was not until the University that I started to take it more seriously, although I still never thought I would ever sell a photograph or work as a photographer, because I was in practicing architecture at that time, so it was a pastime. But then I just happened to come across a gallery in Vancouver where I moved seven years ago.
The gallery keeper liked my work and she took me on and started to sell the work really well right after that. But it was a side thing and, of course, I kept my job. But I used the extra income to generate more work.

How did your work get more than a local representation in Vancouver?

Two years ago I got a call from Thomas from the Young Gallery, he came across the work somewhere and I guess they felt that they had an audience for it. And he asked me if I wanted to come for a show here, and of course I accepted. As far as I can tell it went good, they were happy about it, and they invited me back for this show. I feel really lucky, because when the gallery asked me to come back, I only had that wall finished (his work in B&W in the North pole, ED)!

Are you getting more solicitations from galleries or inquiries about your work?

Yes, there are more inquiries for putting shows or representation offers. And “Icebergs” has a broad international audience; I get questions from all other the place.

Do you see it as a finished body of work?

I thought about going north one more time, so I may travel back there in spring, but I still need to look back on the things I’ve done. Going back to film, introducing color, soft pallet.

Icebergs David Burdeny
© David Burdeny, Icebergs

From the “Iceberg” project did you have a lot of pictures to choose from and how did you make this selection to boil down to the work you expose here?

I thought that 20 pictures would be worth showing, but more was kept behind. Since this work was essentially digital I had altogether about a thousand frames, but some were exposure tests or tests on things that would work. Also each image represents about 5 frames stitched together.

And for the film side of the project, in this case you were not able to see anything before you actually got back from the trip…

It as quite frightening! I was still getting used to the camera and the film, I was photographing ice – which is quite difficult – and you would not know what is going to happen!

Icebergs David Burdeny
© David Burdeny, Icebergs

Do you see the change from film to digital as something inevitable or will be film will be used forever?

It reminds me of something I’ve done during my architecture studies. It was to build up kind of a digital multimedia library as people have been talking about books disappearing and so on, and with this you would always have everything on the computer. But I think at some point you have to mention tactility, and film is different than digital; there is this “warmth” about it. It is also a different way of working. Ultimately there might be a point where companies don’t make film anymore, a point where it might be harder to get them processed. It is not that people don’t want to use it anymore; there is just no way they can. But as long as people want to make large prints there is always going to be film. To make huge prints is difficult digitally.
On one hand, film is more expensive and so on, but on the other hand digital work means that you have large files to deal with, batteries etc. It all comes down to different ways of working.

Interview by MF in Brussels

Link to David Burdeny’s photographers website