“Orange/Rust/Blue/White,” Iceland, 2018. (All photographs by Roger Fishman, @rogerfishman)

Think You Know What Water Looks Like? Take a Look at This.

Photographer Roger Fishman goes airborne to capture a unique perspective on rapidly changing Arctic landscapes.

December 05, 2019

For Roger Fishman, remembering to buckle up is no trivial matter; it’s the difference between life and death. At least that’s the case when the photographer is hanging out the open doorway of a helicopter, suspended in midair while shooting straight down to capture stunning aerial images of Greenland and Iceland.

Fishman, who is based in California, has made multiple monthlong trips to the two islands in the far north to photograph icebergs, ice sheets, glaciers, rivers, and oceans for his ongoing project, Transformation: Water as Art. Viewers perusing the resulting ethereal, abstract images, currently on exhibit at the Post Gallery in Big Sur, California, could be excused for not knowing exactly what they’re looking at—in fact, that’s what Fishman is aiming for. Aside from the images of icebergs, which are labeled with their proper names, he titles each photo only with colors. “By eliminating any familiar context, you have to respond first to the artwork in a very emotional, visceral way,” he says, and this forces people to use their imaginations in puzzling out what’s before them. “By sort of swimming in the image and flowing with the image,” he says, “it becomes theirs.”

“Blue/White #1,” Iceland, 2017

Central to the work is Fishman’s view of water as a symbol of transformation—not only the element itself, shifting between solid and liquid states, but also its power in sculpting terrain. He hopes the photographs will spur viewers to think of water as something more than a commodity, that they will spark a connection between our bodies, 60 percent composed of water, and the planet, 70 percent covered in water. “You treat water differently when it’s something you value and you feel is important and core to your existence,” Fishman says. “You see it both as a need and as something to cherish. And what we cherish, we protect.”

Fishman has long created intimate portraits of the natural world, often going to extremes to get those shots. He has endured frigid whiteout conditions in Antarctica in search of Emperor penguins and close encounters with polar bears in the Arctic. In Africa, hoping to capture the perfect shot of an elephant on a nearly 100-degree day, he scooted under his guide’s vehicle and waited for the behemoths to pass by. One came so close that all Fishman could see was part of its leg and part of its trunk. When it sidestepped the vehicle, he slid around and looked up, camera at the ready. The 6,000-pound creature, a mere six feet away, stopped and looked directly at him. “All I could visualize was myself becoming a shish kebab,” Fishman says. The elephant shook its trunk and its ears, moved its head slowly from side to side, then turned and walked away. “I believe it told me, ‘I see you. I could turn you into a shish kebab, but I know that you are not here to harm me,’ ” Fishman says.

He credits Melissa Shoemaker, his creative and project coordinator, for suggesting that he try aerial photography. “It literally was one of those moments, a sort of inflection point where your life changes in a way that you couldn't imagine,” he says. “All of a sudden, I started to feel and see the planet differently.”

From Left: “Ocean Blue/Green/Bronze Brown/Yellow Gold,” Iceland, 2018; “Blue/Cyan/White #2​,” Greenland, 2018

Capturing his transformational images in vast, remote reaches is no easy feat. “We plan with extreme detail because once you’re there, there’s no camera shops, no Amazon.com,” Fishman says. He and his crew map out where they’ll fly, where they’ll stay, what dangers they might encounter (polar bears, for example). They bring two camera setups (he shoots with a Hasselblad H6D medium format camera) and two drone setups. They also try to be flexible. While staying at an abandoned mining camp in Greenland this year, they found nine-year-old freeze-dried food. The team had grown tired of the spaghetti they’d packed. “We were like, well, it’s a different flavor than what we’ve got, and it’s only four years out of date. Let’s try it,” he recalls. “It was fantastic.”

Each day on his expeditions, Fishman wanders, scanning the landscape for promising compositions. Sometimes he’ll direct his pilot to drop him on the ground, and he will hop out and launch a drone. When he’s shooting, says Shoemaker, he is entirely focused. “Whether it's in the helicopter taking pictures or using the drone, he literally just kind of shuts everything else off, including how cold he is,” she says, “or if there are mosquitoes literally getting stuck in his eyelids.”

For weeks Fishman subsists on freeze-dried meals and candy bars, pushing to cover as much ground as possible. “When you get back, your body breaks down,” he says. “But for that month, I feel glorious.”

While he revels in the sheer beauty of the far north, he is also intimately aware of the changes underway, as rising temperatures spur melting and hamper sea-ice formation. He has stripped down to a T-shirt and shorts when the mercury climbs 15 or more degrees Fahrenheit above the average temperature in the Arctic, as it has in recent summers. He has heard the cry of icebergs calving and documented diminishing glaciers.

“Heart and Soul,” Greenland, 2018

In his efforts to capture these icy environs, Fishman has made connections in the scientific world. He works with a range of scientists, including glaciologists and geologists, for whom he captures images and videos that deepen their understanding of, say, how ice sheet meltwater is contributing to global sea level rise.

Fishman is also considering how to put more of his photographs into the public domain, exposing a larger number of people to the splendor—and vulnerability—of the far north, of lands sculpted by hydrogen and oxygen and the dire implications of the ice there transitioning to water. “Ultimately it’s about getting people back to this notion of personal transformation and owning your consequences of your behavior,” says Fishman, “not just for yourself but for your children, your community, and the planet.”

As for Fishman, he continues to wander. He has a three-week trip to Australia coming up and is planning an expedition to Africa in late winter. He also continues to feel the pull of the Arctic and will be returning to Greenland in July. “I know there's so much more to see,” he says.

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