Antarctica

This post collects three pieces written in 2019, 2009, and 2007.

 

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My Antarctica

February, 2019

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Antarctica is … well see that’s the problem.

Antarctica is so otherworldly it defies easy description.

Sublimely overwhelming, it’s a place of contradictions and mystery

It’s desolate; it’s alive. It’s immense; it’s intimate. It’s lyrical; it’s brutal.

It’s so remote and yet it touches the rest of the world in one way or another.

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Life

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The Antarctica I know, the peninsula, is surrounded by waters teeming with life – plankton, krill, fish, seals, whales and bird after bird after bird. Its waters feed the world’s waters. But every time I turn my gaze inland, I remember why they call it the crystal desert; its 5,000 meter thick ice receives less precipitation than the Sahara; there there are almost no signs of life.

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Water

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My Antarctica is a place of water, forming clouds in the air, blanketing mountains in snow, freezing into ice, melting into the ocean. It slumbers below constantly changing surfaces, cloaked in an infinite variety of whites, grays, blacks and impossible blues. It’s fantastic formations and transformations are unbelievably suggestive.

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Weather

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My Antarctica is weather.

Not only does it change global weather patterns, its weather is constantly changing.

It whirls through a kaleidoscopic array of moods, sometimes in a single day.

There are times when the sun, reflected from every angle, becomes blindingly bright and seems to penetrate you so deeply that you feel transparent.

There are times when the skies and the waters are so dark and dense they feel like pure night congealed.

There are times when you find yourself slowly passing through dense fogs, as looming monoliths drift by the dim outlines of mountains, before they recede to the far horizon, only to come again.

There are times when the air is so still that you can float through a crystalline mirror for what seems like an eternity.

There are times when the wind is so strong it blows you off your feet, hurls ice crystals through the air, creates waterspouts on the ocean, and blows waterfalls back up cliffs.

There are beams of light, halos, sun dogs, rainbows, and lightning.

On rare occasions you’ll see the stars and perhaps even aurora.

There are sunsets and sunrises that last for hours.

I’ve never been to Antarctica in its winter, when the temperatures plunge to a hundred below during a night that lasts months.

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The Sounds Of Ice

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My Antarctica is a symphony of ice: the explosive crack of slipping ice caps, the thundering crash of glaciers calving, the metallic rush of the resulting tsunami, the hollowing knock of large blocks of ice on still larger blocks, the fizz and pop as they disintegrate into smaller pieces, the crystalline chiming of millions of tiny pieces of ice colliding with one another in an endless gyre, the sighing sound of rain from fast-melting icebergs, the slow drip drip dripping of water from those melting more slowly, and finally the hush that comes when snow fills the air growing ever thicker and quieter.

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Silent

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While there are times when my Antarctica is filled with a chorus of sounds mixing wind, water, ice, birds, seals, penguins, whales; there are other times when my Antarctica is filled with an immense silence that washes over you like a tidal wave and threatens to drag you into immeasurable deeps. It is seductive – and too short lived.

This frozen Eden will capture your heart and never let it go.

There is a profound sense of privilege that comes from being in the presence of such rare beauty. It touches you deeply. Witness to the extraordinary, you leave changed – for the better. It’s as if you’ve been given a gift and you feel compelled to keep giving it.

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Antarctica Facts

February, 2007

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Antarctica is composed of two geologically distinct parts bridged by a vast iceshelf, the larger East Antarctica is a large sheet of continental crust (roughly the size of the United States) exposed only at the coastline and in the 2000 mile long Transantarctic Mountainss covered by an ice sheet averaging 1.6 miles thick and the smaller West Antarctica a cluster of smaller blocks of continental crust and an Andean-like chain of mountains forming the Antarctic Peninsula covered by the West Antarctic sheet (13% of the Antarctic ice sheet), most of which is grounded below sea level, down to 1.5 miles below sea level. Antarctica abounds with unique geographies. Lake Vostok, buried under 11,000 feet of ice, is the size of North America’s Lake Huron. The Dry Vallies have not had precipitation in over 2 million years.

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Most Isolated Continent

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The most isolated continent, (Originally the heart of the now fragmented supercontinent Gondwanaland, Antarctica, the 5th largest of the 7 continents (larger than Australia and Europe, 50% larger in area than the United States of America), measuring 14 million square kilometers or 5.4 million square miles, drifted to the southern pole over a period of 150 million years.) it lies 4000 kms from South Africa, 2500 kms from Austrailia, 1000 kms from Argentina.

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Furthest Point South

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Sometimes called the bottom of the world, from the southern pole you can point in any direction and call it north.

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Longest Days and Nights

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Because of it exists in extreme latitudes, days and nights are dramatically prolonged and seasonally. The longest days and nights can be found at the poles. The south pole experiences a six month period of daylight in summer and a six month period of sunlight in winter (March 21 to September 21).

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Coldest Continent

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The coldest continent, it has set global record temperatures reaching as low as -96.6 degrees Farenheit. Temperatures vary dramatically between inland and coastal areas. Mean inland temperatures range between -40 and -94 degrees Farenheit in the the coldest months and between 5 and -31 degrees Farenheit in the warmest months. Mean coastal temperatures range between 5 and -22 degrees Farenheit in the coldest months and about 32 F in the warmest months

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Windiest Continent

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The windiest continent, it creates its own wind system, with the highest global wind speeds recorded reaching up to 200 miles an hour. Of particular note are katabatic winds that occur when a large slow moving high pressure system (or anticyclone) accumulates over mountains creating orographic precipitation and forming a large pool of cold dense air, further cooled by when Earth vents heat into space, the cooled air spills falls down, and in many cases ice continues to supercool it on its descent, increasing its velocity.

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Driest Continent

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One of the driest places on earth, the air is typically so cold it cannot carry moisture, it is technically a desert, with annual accumulations of less than 3cm or 1 inch (slightly higher than the Sahara desert). The Antarctic dry valleys have had no precipitation in over 2 million years.

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Highest Continent

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The highest continent, it has the greatest average elevation of 1,860 meters or 6100 feet. By comparison, the average elevation of North America is 720 meters or 2,300 feet. It’s highest peak, Mount Vinson stands at 4,897 meters or 16,067 feet.

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Largest Ice Mass

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Buried under snow and ice, up to 4897 meters or 15,700 feet thick, the vast majority of land has never been touched by man. Isostatic compression created by the weight of the ice depresses the continent by more than half a mile, to near sea level. Frozen into Antarctic ice is a record of atmospheric changes dating back 500,000 years. A significant portion of the West Antarctic icesheet is grounded below sea level, down to 1.5 miles below sea level.

The freezing of sea ice in winter more than doubles the area of the continent, experiencing a five-fold increase and decrease annually. The Antarctic ice sheet, technically the largest body of fresh water, contains 90% of the world’s ice and 68% of world’s fresh water.

The Antarctic ice cap creates an average of 100,000 icebergs each year, 90% of the earth’s iceberg bass. Icebergs range in size from the size of a piano (growlers), to small houses (bergy bits), to 10 story buildings and larger, even the size of small countries. The largest recorded iceberg, B15 (300 by 100 miles, or 30,000 square miles, or the size of Belgium) broke off the Ross Ice Shelf in 1987. We typically only see the less dense ice above water (roughly 1/8th – 1/10th the mass), with the remaining compact core below the water comprising the rest of the mass.

If the Antarctic ice sheet were to melt, sea level would rise 60 meters or 200 feet.

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Climate Regulator

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Changes in Antarctica’s climate herald global climate changes. It’s the world’s most significant area of heat loss and acts as a long term storage system in global water circulation. The Antarctic ice sheet works as the Earth’s refrigeration unit. Ice reflects over 80 percent of the sun’s radiation, reducing total global heat absorption. Sheet ice increases water salinity (salt is expelled during freezing) and serves as a barrier to energy exchange between ocean and atmosphere. Near-freezing non-saline meltwater runs off the ice sheet, along with water from melting icebergs, and falls to the ocean floor creating Antarctic Bottom Water (the coldest, saltiest water mass in the deep ocean), a primary driver in global ocean circulation. All of these factors alter weather patterns. A major meltdown will raise sea levels dramatically. (Similar forces are at work in the Arctic. One chief difference is that the melting of land-based ice, of which there is significantly more in Antarctica, more dramatically impacts sea levels.) Antarctica’s relative isolation means there are virtually no geographic obstacles to this circumpolar current, creating some of the most violent seas in the world (“the roaring forties”).

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Global warming

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While there are some who debate whether global warming exists, there is overwhelming agreement among the scientific community that it does. The question is not if we contribute to the acceleration of global warming, it’s how much and more importantly what can and will we do about it.

Global warming indicators are rises in temperature, sea level, and severe weather (causing flooding in some areas and drought in others). Other biproducts of climate change include a significant rise in the spread of infectious diseases. Already displacing many, if it continues unchecked will certainly displace hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Changes are taking place above, on, and beneath Antarctica. The average temperature at the South Pole has risen by 2.5 degrees C in the last 50 years. Analysis of Antarctic ice dating back 500,000 years shows a higher presence of greenhouse gases now than at any other time before. The dramatic increase in greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, over the last 200 years are of particular concern.

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Glacial Retreat

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Worldwide, glaciers are experiencing significant melting. With respect to the largest ice sheet on the planet, glaciers in the Antarctic Penninsula region are the most sensitive. A recent study examining 244 glaciers on the Antarctica Penninsula showed that 87% have retreated. Many ice shelves are retreating at rates of one half mile per year. Others have vanished. In 2002 the Larsen B ice shelf shattered and separated from the continent in the largest single event in a series of recorded ice shelf retreats. Between 1997 and 2002 the Larsen ice shelf lost 5700 square kilometers or 2200 square miles, becoming about 40% of its previous size. Antarctic temperatures have risen 2.5 degrees Celsius since 1940.

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Ozone Hole

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A biproduct of pollution, ozone levels above Antarctica have been depleted creating a ‘hole’ that fluctuates up to 20 million square km (more than twice the area of USA). A dramatic reduction in the use of CFCs in the last decade has led to a an equally dramatic slowing of ozone depletion.

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History

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Antarctica was the last continent to be explored. James Cook crossed the Antarctic circle in 1773. John Davis made the first continental landing in 1821. Roald Amundsen first reached the south pole in 1921. Some areas have yet to be charted. Antarctica is the only continent with no permanent or indigenous human inhabitants. Currently, average populations fluctuate between 2,500 in the summer and 1,000 in the winter.

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Biotic Diversity

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While the continent exhibits low biotic diversity and population densities, with few animals (76 species of arthropods, nearly all of which are found only along the Antarctica coastline) and fewer plants, the waters surrounding it are very high in both. The coldest, densest, most biologically productive waters in the world make other waters seem like deserts by comparison. Antarctica provides breeding grounds for 45 species of sea birds (350 million birds, half of which are one of seven species of penguins), 11 species of whales, and 6 species of seals. The Antarctic waters teem with krill or small shrimp, one of the richest sources of protein on earth.

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Whaling

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Between 1904 and 1965 over 1.5 million whales were killed in the Antarctic. The whaling industry stopped due to overfishing. Blue whale populations have plummeted from approximately 250,000 to 1000. In 1994 the International Whaling Commision declared an area around Antarctica as the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, in the hopes that the area will restore itself given time. The resolution passed with a vote of 23 to 1. A move to revoke it in 2006 failed with a vote of 33 to 28. Only Iceland, Japan, and Norway continue to harvest whales today, roughly 2000 a year, ostensibly for scientific purposes. Other types of fishing, such as long lines which ensnare seabirds, take their toll on the ecosystem. Some less cautious vessels also introduce rats to surrounding islands, which devastate sea bird colonies.

One result of the reduction in whales has been an increase in krill. As whales populations recover slowly, other species with higher reproductive capacities that also rely on krill as a food source, such as seals, are experiencing increased population growths.

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International Territory

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Initiated by USA president Eisehower, the Antarctic Treaty was signed by more than 40 countries, June 23 1961, freezing all territorial claims and establishing a demilitarized zone. The Protocol on Environmental Protection was adopted in 1991, designating Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted science and prohibiting mining until 2048. Recently, many countries have been increasing their scientific presence, in part to solidify their position for future claims. America has built a 1000 mile ice highway connecting McMurdo base on the coast of the Ross sea with the South Pole. Australia has built a runway for civilian operated flights at Casey base.

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Tourism

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90% of tourists visit Antarctica between November and March by ship. 75% land at just 20 locations. Tourism to Antarctica is not regulated by the Antarctic Treaty Environment Protocol. Instead it is self-regulated by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which promotes safe environmentally responsible practices. The 80 IAATO members primarily use smaller vessels carrying between 40 and 250 passengers. On the whole IAATO has worked well, with the exception of a few larger tour operators (comprising approximately 18% of the total number of tourists) of who have refused to join IAATO. Adventure tourism is on the rise in the area. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition attempts to address responsible growth, representing 40 countries and 200 conservation groups. Inspired by it overwhelming beauty, many tourists feel a responsibility to share their experiences with and inform other people.

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Useful Links

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There are a number of excellent resources on the region and related issues.

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Discovering Antarctica – discoveringantarctica.org

International Polar Year  – ipy.org

International Panel on Climate Change – ipcc.ch

Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition – asoc.org

International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators – iato.in

International Whaling Commission – iwcoffice.org

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Antarctica Evolving Photographic Practice

July 15, 2009

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To date, I’ve made three voyages to Antarctica. December 2-11, 2005 we sailed down the Antartic Penninsula from Deception Island through the La Mer Channel to Plenneau Bay. February 4 – 23, 2007 we sailed to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia before returning to the Antarctic Penninsula, again ending at Plenneau Bay. January 10 – 22 we sailed south of the Antarctic Circle to the Gullet and then worked our way up the Antarctic Penninsula finally departing from Deception Island. All three voyages were photographic workshop expeditions organized by Michael Reichmann and cotaught by Stephen Johnson, Seth Resnick, Jeff Schewe and myself.  The participants were all avid photographers, some of them professionals.

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On the first trip I was very surprised to step off the boat at the end of the voyage with a finished body of work, which contained a majority of images that were directly representational with very little alteration. This was the first time I extensively reviewed and processed a volume of images on site. On the second trip, I set a goal to repeat this process, hoping to expand that small body of work and explore that way of working more deeply. On the third trip, I repeated that process looking for ways to amplify latent themes and vary my approach in meaningful ways.

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Each trip was more productive than the previous one. On the first trip I made, more than a dozen finished images. On the second trip, I made more than three dozen finished images. On the third trip, I made more than six dozen finished images. I attribute this increase in productivity to an increasingly clear vision and mission.

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Currently, for this project, I’ve limited my photographic practices to the standard practices accepted by most editorial photographers and expected by most media outlets: cropping; despeckling but not retouching; ; noise reduction; sharpening; little or no local color adjustment; no compositing, except for panoramic stitching. I’ve deliberately not released obviously related highly altered images within this body of work, nor do I currently display highly altered images in the same context. Interestingly, there are few clear published guidelines for what is considered acceptable practice today, even though there are many controversies over specific examples released by various media outlets.

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Because I’m best known for producing highly altered photographs, to many this may seem like a reversal of my previous practices. In fact, it’s not even a return to my roots, it’s an intensification of practices I have always adopted. I have always produced a number of images that involve minimal alteration. Typically, they have been placed in the same context as highly altered images and so they are considered differently. I have always used minimally altered photographs and highly altered photographs together to clarify the nature of photography itself as well as our uses and expectations of it. So, the limitations I impose on myself for this project are really only a shift in the balance of practices I adopt. This shift has been in response to many factors, including my desire to continually challenge myself artistically, but primarily to satisfy my desire to make effective conscientious contributions to culture by intensifying the use of my work for environmental advocacy. I’ve begun simultaneously producing dual bodies of work that run in parallel with one another, one minimally altered and one highly altered.

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Let me clarify my use of the terms minimally and highly altered. To avoid assumptions and even more because of the tremendous respect I have for the work and practices of photojournalists, I am reluctant to use terms like journalism and documentary to describe my work, even though it is produced with similar practices and has similar intents. Because I also exhibit work in contexts that showcase a variety of mixed media, I am reluctant to use the term representational; in those contexts, anything that represents a subject even in the most minimal way, such as a horizon, would qualify as representational. Every photograph is altered to one degree or another, so I avoid the terms unaltered. Framing this issue as a dichotomy, drawn between two poles, altered and unaltered, offers only an either/or choice, makes an assumption that there can be such a thing as an unaltered photograph, and implies that a photograph can be unbiased, and moreover does not adequately address the wide spectra of practices both possible and applied between them. Images are altered to one degree or another, for one reason or another, and it’s important for the viewer to be informed of both, particularly in the field of journalism and for images that are intended to play socially conscious roles.

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At the heart of these issues is the matter of representation. Some would argue that representation is the single most important issue for the medium of photography. The language we have at our disposal today does not adequately address the spectra of possibilities available to us previously or the new possibilities that have arisen as a result of evolving technology. Limited language limits conception and subsequently application. We need better language. Better language: better perception; more choices; better choices; better results. To create better language we need better dialog. Dialog is something I have always sought to stimulate in an effort to advance understanding of, acceptance for, and even celebration of highly diverse practices within the arts and as a result empower viewers with even more interesting and higher quality information.

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My work in Antarctica can be seen as both separate from and similar to my larger body of work, which is a fine art production rather than a product of journalism. The primary impulse of this work is to inspire, connect, and involve viewers with the subjects of this work; Antarctica as a regulator and indicator of global climate; photography as an evolving medium that continues to advance representation; and contemporary media practices. The images are intended to be repurposed in many different ways and in many different contexts to increase their effectiveness at stimulating awareness.

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With regard to the practices I have adopted in the production of my work in Antarctica, while I have not challenged current practices to date, I fully intend to and I intend to do so in a respectful and meaningful way. Today, we are using new tools and there are new possibilities. Today, we should not be limited by the conventions built upon outmoded technologies of yesterday or practices adopted based on them. It’s important that we regularly reconsider, revise, and expand our practices, as our capabilities and needs evolve, both to strengthen our understanding of them and to promote our awareness of new practices and their conscientious uses. There are many new ways to advance representation and create sophisticated high quality information and that truly informs viewers about how, why, where, and when that information was created, released, and distributed so that viewers can form their own opinions and come to their own conclusions in informed ways.

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In many ways, contemporary culture is experiencing a media crisis. Standard media channels no longer enjoy the credibility they once did. There are fewer and fewer of them and they are operated under continually shrinking budgets, while trying to respond to demands for increasingly diverse content and increasingly rapid response. Now more than ever we need a rigorous and sustained dialog on media practices, from creation through delivery, from professionals and amateurs alike. And we need new media products. Many of us today have become outsider journalists or non-professionals who impact the media sphere. New technology has enabled us to share our images with a wider public through unvetted channels. This is changing media, culture, and history. Blogs broke the news of an American president’s infidelities. The Associated Press released software applications that allow anyone to upload images from a cell phone for possible use in news media outlets. The use of the social network Twitter shifted political events in Iran. In many respects, I’ve become an outsider journalist. I’ve shared my work in Antarctica in many ways; fine art exhibitions; limited edition posters; publications featuring fine art; print on demand books; lectures at universities, trade organization meetings, and trade shows; blogs, including live posting from Antarctica; social networks; accompaniment to technical literature; and advertising for new technology to name a few.  I hope to raise awareness and stimulate constructive dialog about media issues at the same time I raise awareness of the subjects of my work.

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To one degree or another we are all involved. We all have a role to play in evolving media; at a minimum we consume, discuss, and value it; at a maximum we produce it. I encourage you to increase your awareness of and involvement in these issues. We enjoy extraordinary possibilities, freedoms, and responsibilities.

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