Photographer Jonathan Kay creates icy art. Madeleine Boles de Boer asked him about his process.
Between 1977 and 2016 New Zealand glaciers lost enough ice to fill 133,000 Olympic swimming pools each year, a loss likely to be exacerbated by the 2017–18 summer becoming the hottest on record. This motivated photographer and Massey University tutor Jonathan Kay to embark on long-term photography project, Ice Field. ‘There has been a huge resurgence in photography being active in tackling critical issues on both a local and global scale. I want to highlight the fragility of our glacial landscape in relation to climate change.’
Jonathan Kay, Fox Glacier, 2018
Kay has been working on the project for the past two years, travelling to two South Island glaciers, Haupapa (Tasman) and Te Moeka o Tuawe (Fox), in January this year to create the works. Much of the time has been given to planning and research, ensuring technical equipment would survive in the extreme conditions of the glaciers.
The experimental project uses large-scale photograms, ‘a camera-less way of creating an image.’ Traditional photograms are developed in a darkroom, by placing an object on a light-sensitive material, and then exposing it to light. The scale of Ice Field means the ‘object’ is some part of the glacier itself, perhaps a crevasse, ice cave, canyon, or ice arch, captured in situ.
Kay used the same photogram process to capture each work, placing large cotton sheets painted with light-sensitive solution against the ice, and exposing them to sunlight using large frames, rigging, ‘and a lot of hands.’ Each work was then developed and washed on site using glacial water, infusing the works themselves with their subject. Kay says using this process means ‘the resulting images of Ice Field are a consequence of a reaction between the physical forces:water, ice, and light.’
Kay says photograms are a much more tactile experience than traditional photography, as the photographic paper has had physical contact with the subject, connecting the viewer more directly to the work.
Kay has been supported throughout Ice Field by his employer and alma mater, the College of Creative Arts at Massey University. Kay is a visiting senior tutor at the School of Art and School of Design, and says being able to talk about photography every day is ‘a privilege’, providing him with occasions for reflection or inspiration.’
The extremity of Ice Field in terms of location and process has meant the costs involved have been high, and have been covered by a Creative New Zealand grant. This financial support has allowed Kay to take risks on an experimental project. He says grant has been ‘instrumental in cementing a process of working that I am very excited about, and enabled me to explore an issue I feel really passionate about.’
First published ArtZone #77