When Records Melt #3: Simon Norfolk

by Unseen2 August 28 2018

With climate change standing as one of the most pressing, imminent issues facing our future, photography is being increasingly used as a catalyst to create the positive reaction required to instigate change. Project Pressure, a charity collaborating with leading international artists is stepping up to the challenge, using glaciers as they remain one of the key indicators of climate change.

This year Unseen Amsterdam will be collaborating with Project Pressure to present When Records Melt, an exhibition dedicated to raising environmental awareness through photography. To truly get to the bottom of all that lies at the heart of the exhibition and the charity as a whole, we spoke to photographer Simon Norfolk, who worked recently alongside founder and director Klaus Thymann on a new collabrative project and the most recent commission created in collaboration with Project Pressure.

Can you tell us more about the new project “Shroud” you are working on with Klaus Thymann?
We made it on the Rhône Glacier in southern Switzerland which is disappearing at a colossal rate. Because there is a small shop there that carves an ice grotto into the glacier and charges tourists to experience inside the blue ice, it has been worth their money attempting to stop the glacier’s retreat. They have invested heavily in a special thermal blanket that has kept about 25m (in depth) of ice from disappearing and has kept the ice grotto in business. After a few winters on the mountain, the blanket is starting to show the effect of the harsh climate up there. We came up with a special light, using a helium balloon; top lit, sepulchral. I wanted to recreate the same light you get over a mortuary slab.

But it is the gesture that fascinates me; There is something insane about trying to reverse the inevitable. It has only been done here because this is a working glacier. (It is not scaleable: we cannot do this to all the world’s ice.) The gesture is as forlorn and doomed as the glacier itself.

What experience stood out for you during the expedition?
I’ve always found being in the presence of a glacier most haunting. Silent, withering, accusing. I’m 55 years old: my generation's lifestyle burned away this ice. On a glacier I always feel in some sense, guilty.

The title suggests a connection with the theme of mortality. What message do you hope to send with this?
The glacier seemed to be being wrapped in preparation for its own funeral. This Life/Death state-change interests me enormously. We photographed the shroud to resemble Carrera marble which traditionally in western art has been used by the greatest artists to turn a lifeless stone block into the flowing liveliness of Sculpture. The ice of a glacier is made of water but looks and feels like hard stone. With time and the power of the ice, the strongest rocks on earth are plastic, as carve-able as butter. This glacier, which has existed for millennia will die within the lifetime of children born today. None of the physics of my little, suburban life seem to be quite reliable when we get up there at high altitude, at greater pressure and at much, much longer timespans.

You once said in an interview “Photography Has to Turn into a Moral Imperative”. What did you mean by that and how does this statement relate to the project?
I’m bored with a Photography that just wants to be decorative or novel. The vast majority of photography platforms are only there to make money and build the careers of the artists that make it. I’m more interested in using the privilege of my position to campaign. Mountains were the places where the great English 19th century Romantics that I so admire honed their passion and their commitment to the world. I want to see that feeling in all the Photography that I look at. For me the only worthwhile test in the face of art is “Is it honest?"

Image: Shroud, Rhône Glacier, Switzerland, 2018 © Norfolk + Thymann