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.