The newest Jacob Spori Art Gallery exhibit “Naturalists of the Long Now” features glacier photography by photo artist Ian van Coller. He has been teaching at Montana State University since 2005. Van Coller remembers how his family’s interest in bird watching sparked his love for photography at the young age of 12. He eventually went to art school and became a natural world photographer.
Van Coller appropriated the phrase “long now” from the Long Now Foundation based in San Fransico. He described how the foundation’s endeavor to build a 10,000-year clock shares a similar motive to his project as a glacier photographer.
“The idea is to get humans to think about longer expanses of time, both past and in the future. Sort of trying to conceptualize where humanity might be in 10,000 years, ‘What would that look like? Will we even be around?’ instead of just thinking about this kind of immediate future that we are so focused on. And so, I’ve been interested in looking at things on the planet that are archives of deep time and glaciers are really the ideal thing,” van Coller said.
Glaciers form when snow falls and becomes compressed, freezing into layers upon layers of ice. Small pockets of air also become entrapped inside these ice layers, preserving small elements like pollen from the climate of the time the snow fell. By examining layers of glacier, scientists can deduce how climate has changed over centuries of time.
The challenge of ice archives is their ever-changing state due to melting and refreezing. Van Coller collaborates with scientists by keeping photo records of significant glacier findings and by capturing the ice formations in general. He said this collaboration was initially challenging because there is little expertise crossover between glacier science and photography. This fueled his desire to research glaciers and to share his artistic perspective with his scientific colleagues.
“As a photographer, I became frustrated that the photograph didn’t tell me enough information. At what point is it just another photograph of a melting glacier? It’s beautiful and maybe sad but for the viewer and for myself, there’s kind of a barrier where there’s a lack of information, a lack of understanding about what a scientist might see, and I realized that I wanted to know more, learn more,” he said.
Through experience, van Coller has become more versed in glaciers and how to digest dense scientific research, but his approach to glaciers is still primarily an artistic one.
“For me, it’s really about this crossover again, letting the scientist become an artist and (for me) the artist become a scientist and allow that knowledge to be more easily accessible to a wider audience, hopefully,” he said.
Van Coller works to capture the integrity of glaciers and their history. This is reflected in his photography displayed in the exhibit.
“I feel my role is to put people in that place hopefully, just to experience a little bit of what I got to experience and hopefully build an empathy and a connection to that landscape and how beautiful it is and maybe how fragile it is. I think that sort of high resolution, large prints is part of the process of doing that,” he said.
The “Naturalists of the Long Now” exhibit is free to the public and can be viewed in the Spori Art Gallery at BYU-Idaho through October 20.