Gravitas documentary Meltdown exclusive: Lynn Davis on her career capturing Greenland’s glaciers

Lynn Davis
Lynn Davis in Greenland on her last trip for Meltdown. Pic credit: Mike Tollin

In the new documentary, Meltdown, not since The Cove has an environmentally-focused film captured the immediacy of a worldwide concern.

The ice floes and glaciers of Greenland are disappearing at a rate that has the scientific world on edge.

Not just scientists, but one woman, a photographer named Lynn Davis, drawn to the area after experiencing the sheer beauty of it, only to observe the alarming rate of retraction in the glacier footprint.

Ms. Davis is renowned, in the sphere of Annie Leibovitz, Ansel Adams and Richard Avedon. Her work is currently shown in galleries across the globe, and the last thirty years and in six trips she has captured the stark beauty of the North American region in her distinct minimalist style.

The images are breathtaking and a reminder of what we stand to lose in this global crisis.

Her esthetic is one that was honed by her arresting nudes made famous back in the 1970s and 1980s. It was then in New York City where she connected with other famous artists like the late Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar; both men were dear friends of Ms. Davis.

A concurrent story to the sobering facts of Meltdown is Lynn’s own personal trajectory of loss.

Not only her friends dying from AIDS and being in New York during that time when so many people fell to the virus but her own crushingly personal tragedy of losing her only son in a car accident was another gut punch. As grief works in the human experience, it can either consume a person or it can propel them into action and refocus their lives.

Lynn chose the latter after being told of the majesty of this remote Greenland area from a friend who saw her nude compositions in the forms of the ice glaciers. Once there and experiencing up close traveling within the ice, a love affair was born that continues today.

Her work captures the accelerated fleeting lives of glaciers. Meltdown enlisted climate change expert and academic Tony Leiserowitz from Yale to work alongside Ms. Davis, the two meeting and working for the first time.

In this film which captures the disastrous meltdown of the polar ice caps like never before, also explores the far-reaching implications for our planet.

The film is layered with themes of survival, friendship, and reinvention along with sounding a huge alarm for the inhabitants of this fragile blue sphere.

Meltdown comes to the screen on February 12 and is from director Frederic Golding and Mike Tollin, the Emmy Award-winning producer of The Last Dance.

Golding and Tollin last collaborated on Hank Aaron: Chasing The Dream, which won a Peabody Award and was nominated for an Academy Award. They won an audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival for On the Mat.

Monsters & Critics had a conversation with photographer Lynn Davis, about Meltdown documentary and its impact, and her stunning career now carved in ice.

Monsters & Critics: What was it specifically about going to Greenland that drew you?

Lynn Davis: In the eighties, when AIDS came and the two friends of mine, Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar, and thousands of other people got AIDS, it was like the whole tenor of New York change completely.

It seemed ridiculous [to continue], all the vanity of portraits and nudes, it just ended for me very abruptly. Now, they had not died when I took the first trip, but in a way, when they became ill, everything changed.

I didn’t know what I was going to do. And, and my then-boyfriend, Rudy Wurlitzer, who’s now my husband, he had been on a trip with Robert Frank, the photographer, up the coast of Newfoundland.

He had seen an iceberg and he called me and he said, ‘I saw this iceberg and it reminded me of one of your nudes,’ and just like something clicks in your head. And I thought… iceberg.

I don’t think I’d ever even thought of an iceberg, and something clicked. I started doing research and there was almost no research. There weren’t even really pictures other than from the 19th century on icebergs.

There really was very little information and I kept doing crazy things. I would call someplace in Greenland and I’d say, ‘are there icebergs in your town?’

I usually got somebody like an Inuit and they would start talking and then they’d hang up on me. I know it was really crazy. I read about this town Ilulissat, which was where the Jakobshavn Glacier was. I thought I’m going to go there. I mean, it was very crazy, right?

And it was such a crazy idea, I was sitting in my apartment in New York. I started reading this Barry Lopez book, who by the way, just died recently. He had a chapter in his book called Arctic dreams, cold and ice and light.

When he talked about the ice, the colors of the ice and the shapes of the ice and the light on ice, that just further my goal to get there. I got a little money to go up there and that started the journey.

M&C: One of my favorite aspects of the film is the friendship affair between Silver, the Italian man who first took you around and yourself. He’s so happy to be part of your journey…

Lynn Davis: Yes, well, he was a big part of the whole trip and I met him as I say, in the documentary the very first night that I arrived in Greenland and I was at dinner. He came over and he was—as I say, in the film—I thought it was kind of a come on or something.

And then he said, ‘no, you, you, you better go now because you don’t know when the sun is going to come out again.’

We went out that first night and that’s when everything started, the amazing journey with the icebergs and with Silver, who became part of my journey on all six trips that I went. I mean, it takes a lot [of effort] just to get pulled up to that place.

But it was the ice. It was Silver. It was us floating all night and shooting in that midnight sun.

The last trip was later, in September. And so there wasn’t the midnight sun, but all the other trips, we usually went out at 10 at night, till three, four in the morning and Silver and I would just drive around in the ice, looking and we would drink espresso and laugh. And it formed a very deep bond, which is still here today.

M&C: I love that.

Lynn Davis: I’m glad because I loved him too. He was so he’s so full of life and he’s so much fun. And also driving a boat, shooting iceberg, it’s in a way similar when I do shots from helicopters.

You have to have the right driver because it’s a very fine-tuned thing. If you’re too far away, because I don’t use digital cameras and I didn’t use different lenses, you have to be in the right spot exactly at the right moment.

You have to be on the downside of the wave… So the driver has to be able to cut and then as he says, ‘go around and around and around.’

And, it was that also because a couple of times he couldn’t drive me and other people did, and it was a much different experience. Although I still of course loved the ice and did the trips, but it was not like going out with Silver.

M&C: The only thing that we can count on in life is constant change. We all have losses. Everybody does. Some losses hurt more than others. You certainly were put through the the ringer on that. The iceberg called you, like the universe called you to chronicle them in a visual artistic format…

Lynn Davis: Well, yes. This is a strange thing because there’s a calling, there’s all those words you can use. You can use synchronicity, you can use fate, you can use attraction. But in the end it was such a strange accident.

The accident became the deep part of my life in the relationship to all the losses and the ice, what was so amazing as opposed to other places is you go out one night and the ice is there. Then the next morning, or a half hour later, it’s tipped over and it’s gone.

I think that lesson of the impermanence of everything, and also the relationship to all the loss I felt over the years, I don’t know, they just matched up. I don’t know what you call it, but another person could go there and it would just look at and think, Oh, well, these things are nice.

And, so it it’s some calling from inside me that I needed. It was such a challenge. It was so beautiful that it kept bringing me back to see how things had changed and what I could do there, because it was never the same. Whereas most sites that I’ve photographed, they’re still in the so-called lane of permanence.

But it isn’t that way there. So you never know what you’re going to find and that for somebody who’s kind of a picture hunter, treasure hunter, like me not knowing what’s there is exciting. Then trying to put together something from what I find.

M&C: How did you and Tony Leiserowitz, the Yale professor for climate sciences, connect?

Lynn Davis: So a short but interesting story. They were going to do the documentary on me, just on my work and the ice, and we’re going to go…and a few weeks before I went into a panic, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know enough about the landforms. I don’t know… In terms of numbers and science about glacial ice and about icebergs.’

I know quite a lot, but I can’t start putting out numbers. It’ll be a nightmare, you know? And it would seem that I knew nothing because really what I’ve focused, even though I know some of the numbers, I’ve focused so much on the visuals.

And I thought I need an expert. I need somebody who I can talk to, who I can listen to. And who knows as much about these things as I do about the visual parts. I called (director) Frederic Golding and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do the film. I can not do it. ‘

He got really upset. I said, I need somebody else in there. He called off the whole trip that had all been planned. He’d got the plane tickets, everything…And then Michael Tollin, the producer, who was a really wonderful guy, said, “Let me come and see you. Let’s talk about this.” He’s a very calm guy. And so he came up here and he said, “Well, what if we got an expert?”

I said, well, then we can maybe start talking about it. And so Frederic found Tony. I think he saw some videos. He went to see him and that’s how it all happened. So I had never met him prior.

M&C: This documentary almost wasn’t.

Lynn Davis: Correct. Yes. It was within the hairsbreadth because I really panicked. I thought I don’t have that much to say that could be helpful to anybody. I didn’t want it to be a documentary just about Lynn in her work.

My favorite things are when there’s a little story wrapped in a big story and to have the big story, it had to have more than me. Just to be suddenly thrust in… You’re up there in the Arctic with somebody you haven’t ever met, you know what I mean?

But it just was easy, and why it was easy is because my love of the place and Tony’s history and his devotion to his subject climate change. And also that he isn’t a fanatic, he’s a social scientist, so he isn’t like dogged or nasty, you know what I mean?

We just got along. I think one thing about the film, I mean, it’s hard ever to judge anything that you’re in, but it’s authentic and our feelings for each other and the place were authentic. So that was really lucky.

M&C: A little geek talk. I know not taking digital images for the big prints…

Lynn Davis: Okay. Well, that’s interesting. If you notice in the zone, I am shooting at one point with an iPad. What I do now, that there is digital, I use my iPhone and iPad sometimes just as we’re moving around the water or something, just to sort of feel it out.

Or if I was shooting something real after I finished, I’d take a digital picture, just I’d be able to send something to my husband that night, just as daily things.

In 1974, when I was doing more documentary work in the early days in New York, I was using a Leica. And then I decided that I wanted something a little more formal, and I wanted a bigger negative because I wanted to make larger photographs. And that’s when I switched to the Rolleiflex, the twin lens. And, and I never went back. I never went back.

I sold the Leica some years later and I just love this format. There’s something about it that matches what I see as the end result of my work, which is a print and it’s challenging to get a thing in a perfect square. I prefer a square to a rectangle because it has for me a more modernist, geometric, simple ascetic.

That’s how I really see. It also produces a beautiful print and this I’ve never been able, and I’ve tried to print some of my negatives from the Rolleiflex digitally, and it, it just doesn’t work as well. It’s in the silver print, in the quality, there’s this kind of silken quality.

All I can say is that it just, the whole process from the shooting, the framing, the development and the printing and the final product.

That’s what I feel I have to offer. All those steps that makes the final print and makes me feel satisfied with what I have. I’ve done a lot digitally and I’ve never shown those pictures. They’re mainly my snapshots.

M&C: If someone wants to come and see your work, where would you tell them to go? Where can people see your real work?

Lynn Davis: At the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York, that’s my main dealer in this country. And then I have representation in Europe with Galerie Karsten Greve, and in Italy, I’m represented by Studio la Città .

Gravitas Ventures release date for iTunes and VOD nationwide starting Friday, February 12. Pre-order on iTunes/Apple TV

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