Icy Images

by Arlene McKanic on March 16, 2006 for the Queens Times Ledger

Queens Times Ledger 5-16-06

Hall of Science at Flushing Meadows Corona Park hosts exhibit of Antarctica photos.

Photographer Holly Gordon’s shot of “Icescape: Charcot Bay,” shows a soft day in Antarctica. The sky is gray, the sea is gray and full of lumps of gray ice.

“I felt like I was floating in a frozen Margarita,” Gordon remembers. “The air was so moist, the snowflakes were these big pillows. They would float down and melt.” She went on an expedition to Antarctica in 2000 and the photographs she took on that trip are now on display at the Le Croy Gallery at the Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

The predominant colors in the photos are blue, white and black, and the exceptions tend to grab the eye. A lovely, lonely photo of the most southern post office in the British Empire – Antarctica is administered by several powers – shows a gray building with a bright red door on a rocky promontory. In another shot, a refugio is a distant dab of color among gray rocks. The rare, Arizona-esque mesas of James Ross Island are black and the patches of green at their feet are actually algae and lichen.

Gordon’s photos of penguins, some in close-up, are as intimate as portraits of loved friends and relations. There are Gentoos, dopey-cute Adelies, Chinstraps with a very thin line of black under their chins. One picture shows a misplaced Macaroni penguin nesting among Chinstraps on Greenwich Island.

The Macaroni, a squat little person whose name comes from the spray of golden feathers on its head, usually nests at another part of Antarctica. In another photo an Adelie penguin gets a drink from a melting chunk of iceberg. (The water around Antarctica is fresh, Gordon explains, because the heavy salt is pulled down from the surface of the cold water.)

“They look like such arthritic little old men on land,” she says with obvious affection. “And yet underwater they fly.”

The penguins’ tuxedo coloring makes them hard to see by predators, like the skua on land and prey, like fish under water. Though the penguins in Gordon’s photos are the usual crisp black and white, she says, “penguins aren’t very clean because they live so close to each other and they poop on each other.” There’s a photo of a penguin heading down a trail that’s more than a bit filthy. Gordon and her fellow visitors were warned not to walk on the trails – not that they’d want to – because they were the penguins’ only access to the life-giving sea.

“There are 17 species of penguins,” Gordon says. “There are some in Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and the Isabella penguins in the Galapagos.”

Along with the penguins, Gordon captured building-sized, blindingly white icebergs whose blue shadows seem to make them even whiter. Global warming is causing them to melt at an alarming rate and there’s already evidence of pollution in the otherwise pure air. Some 98 percent of the Antarctic is covered with an ice sheet that’s more than 2,000 feet thick. Experts say if it all melted, many coastal areas on earth, including downtown Manhattan most likely, would be submerged.

“Antarctica is the most mountainous place on earth, the coldest, the driest, the windiest,” Gordon says. The continent has four seasons, like everywhere else, though winter is eight months long and spring comes in November with the first ice cutters. Gordon was there during the summer, in time to photograph the last sunset of 1999 in Paradise Bay. Sometimes, she recalls, it was warm enough to wear a light jacket.

The Antarctic sky is a deep, clear, almost indigo blue. “The air here is a gray filter,” says Gordon of New York’s atmosphere, which seemed clear the morning she and the writer visited the exhibit, but is still nothing like Antarctica’s. “It’s the difference between looking through a clear window or a smoky window. The air down there is so pure.”

In case you want to book a trip, be warned that the journey is grueling. Gordon got fairly seasick on the way down, though she says, “I didn’t vomit. I just had to lie down a bit. It’s not a journey for the weak stomached or faint of heart!”

“Antarctica: Journey to the Extreme,” will be at the Hall of Science till March 26.

Galapagos photos delight in Hall of Science exhibit

by Arlene McKanic on March 24, 2005 for Queens Times Ledger

In one of Holly Gordon’s beautiful photos of the Galapagos Islands on display at the New York Hall of Science, a baby frigatebird has wandered over to the nest of a Nazca booby, who has decided to adopt it. No one knows why; the chick’s parents are still around. And, not only did the booby foster this chick, but took in another one later on.

This is one of the enigmas Gordon, a Long Island-based photographer, discovered in these mysterious, volcanic islands off the coast of South America.

One of the first photos in the collection shows Gordon’s party disembarking from a rubbery, Jacques Cousteau-invented Zodiac boat onto a jagged volcanic coastline on Bartholomew Island. It was one of the dryer and more decorous disembarkations, she said. From then on she moved around the islands to capture on film the booby and its adopted chick, the orange red Sally Lightfoot crab and the giant tortoise with the long neck adapted to graze on a bush that would otherwise be too high to reach.

The islands, which have different names in Spanish and English and sometimes look like moonscapes, have allowed different species of the same animal to evolve, like the land and marine iguanas.

The Galapagos are home to the only sea-going iguana in the world, which is descended from the land iguana. Land iguanas rafted over from South American on floating debris. When they got to the islands, some started going into the waters to partake of the algae.

Over eons the sea-going land iguanas spent more time in the water, and became marine iguanas. There are many photos of them, including a close up of a prehistoric gentleman smiling in the sun, a grouping of the lizards with splashes of red on their backs – no one knows why this group of iguanas has red coloring – and a green green iguana resting atop a green green bush. There’s a crowd of iguanas the exact black and gray color of the rocks they’re sunning on.

“Oh, there they are!” You might cry out when you finally see them.

There’s a photo of clumps of lava cactus sprouting, improbably, from the tufa – even Gordon marveled at how alien everything seemed. There’s a portrait of a female lava lizard with bumpy skin; the lizards with the bumpy skin, Gordon explained, tend to survive longer than their smooth-skinned cousins when conditions get harsh. Again, no one knows exactly why.

There are photos of sea lions, the largest Galapagos mammals, if you don’t count the dolphins. Mostly they’re resting on the beach and sugared with sand – each beach seems to have a different colored sand, some salt and pepper, some pure white, some actually green from the volcanic olivine deposits.

You can almost hear the silence of Gordon’s landscapes, which are all shades of gray, beige, white, and even pink, broken up by occasional greenery. A view of Pinnacle Rock taken at dawn shows cone shaped, pastel colored hills marching toward the horizon. Another photo has sinkholes that look like giant fossilized footprints.

There are photos – by the way, all of the photos are film, not digital – of male great frigatebirds sporting their bright red gullar sacs. These sacs, which are at the throat, are used to attract females, though Gordon believes the females are more interested in the real estate the birds control.

“Sometimes the trees looked like they were full of these red balloons!” She said.

It takes about 20 minutes for the sacs to fill up with air.

“Oh, I thought they just puff out their chest,” I said. Uh, no.

Gordon was in a boat once when she saw something explode out of the water. She took the picture quickly and it turned out to be a flightless cormorant in the act of swallowing a red fish larger than its head. There’s another photo of a cormorant, on land, the iridescent blue of its back feathers matching the sapphire blue of its eye.

There’s a photo of a gorgeous swallowtailed gull, which is the only nocturnal gull. Nobody knows why that is either, but I had a theory: The green turtles usually hatch at night to avoid the diurnal animals that might feed on them – have the swallowtailed gulls exploited this? Speaking of green turtles, there’s a photo of a tiny and determined hatchling that had the bad luck to emerge from its nest during the day. It had moments to live – a frigatebird got him before he could reach the safety of the water. Gordon, who doesn’t shy away from nature’s ferocity in her work, admitted that this might be hard, but nature wouldn’t want a turtle dumb enough to emerge in broad daylight to pass on his genes. Besides, frigatebirds have to eat. So do Sally Light foot crabs.

There’s a photo, at once beautiful and gruesome, of a bunch of them feasting on the carcass of a drowned booby on the beach. A couple of gray mockingbirds contend fiercely on the sand. They look like the doves on those L’Air du Temps perfume bottles but, according to Gordon, “I was surprised they didn’t kill each other.” In the end, both birds just got up and walked away.

The Galapagos, which belong to Ecuador, are a protected wildlife sanctuary, which is why the film “Master and Commander” had to film in Mexico. Gordon could see the difference, anyway.

The Hall of Science heard of Gordon, according to Marcia Rudy, director of public programs, when she had an exhibit of butterflies at the Rockaway Artists Alliance. Some of Gordon’s butterfly pics were taken in Central America, and she’s photographed all over the world, including Antarctica. She wants to go to the Seychelles and Madagascar, photograph every species of penguin and find an agent who can really make her career blow up.

In the meantime, her beautiful and haunting works from the Galapagos will be at the New York Hall of Science till the end of the month. Go see it. The Hall’s at 47-01 111th St. in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

Nature, Technology Focus of New Rockaway Exhibits

by Arlene McKanic on May 6, 2004 for Queens Times Ledger

Queens Times Ledger 5-06-04

Gordon’s exhibit is made up of gorgeous prints she took of the fauna of the Galapagos Islands over two trips she made a few years back. There are red- and blue-footed boobies with their cute/ugly chicks, including one booby who has, improbably, adopted a frigate bird chick whose parents still come to feed him. Male frigate birds flaunt their inflated chest sacs like bright red balloons to attract females.

A seal lies on the surf, coated with sugar-white sand like a pastry while the nose of another seal makes a resting spot for a fly. A bright red Sally Lightfoot crab scuttles over pumice stone looking for provender.

The close-ups of land and marine iguanas make their pebbly faces seem as prehistoric as dinosaurs, though the species can’t be more than five million years old, as the islands, born of volcanic eruptions, aren’t more than five million years old.

“The way they got there was that they flew or they rafted,” said Gordon of the animals. She added that the islands, which all have several names in English and Spanish, used to be connected by land bridges. When the sea rose the land bridges disappeared and the animals stuck there had to evolve. Her marine iguana, who suns serenely on a rock, evolved from the land iguana. The marine iguana has a red body, while the land iguana is gray and black. Nobody knows why. The red coloring has nothing to do with what the lizards eat, nor does it seem to give any survival or reproductive advantages.

“It just is,” Holly shrugged.

When you look at these iguanas, giant tortoises and seabirds you’re tempted to find them ugly and ridiculous – they don’t call the birds boobies for nothing. They’re also beautiful and dignified, and this ability to capture both aspects of her subjects, the beauty and severity of nature, seems to be the talent of the photographer. Even her landscapes alternate between barren lunar views and lush, green pastures.

In one set of photos, a baby sea turtle who was unfortunate enough to hatch during the day is captured by the camera minutes before its death by a hungry frigate bird. Most baby sea turtles hatch during the night, when most of the predatory birds don’t hunt.

The turtle’s demise was all for the best, Holly said, else it might live to pass on its dumb, daylight-hatching genes to another generation of sea turtles, and so hasten its species’ extinction.

In another photo, the corpse of a frigate bird has washed up on the beach to become lunch for a bunch of Sally Lightfoot crabs.