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Photographer Murray Fredericks braves Greenland's ice sheet

By Saffron Howden
Sydney, Australia

image copyrightMurray Fredericks
image captionIcesheet #2564, late sun with 22˚ halo - one of Murray Fredericks' photographs of Greenland

At some point during the blizzard, gun in one hand and shovel in the other, Murray Fredericks realised art was not worth the risk.

"I was woefully under-prepared," the Sydney photographer says of his first trip to Greenland.

"I ended up spending two weeks just staying alive."

In 2010, Fredericks - already well-known for his large body of work, Salt, capturing the vast and brittle Lake Eyre in South Australia - began tackling the landscape antithesis of Australia's arid heart, the Greenland ice sheet.

image copyrightMurray Fredericks
image captionSalt 8 - from the 'Salt' series by Fredericks that focuses on Lake Eyre in South Australia
image copyrightMurray Fredericks
image captionSalt 110, also from Fredericks' series of images from Lake Eyre
image copyrightMurray Fredericks
image captionIcesheet #2338, lenticular clouds, from the Topophilia exhibition of images of Greenland

Over a four-year period, he visited Greenland six times.

On his first trip, the 44-year-old ventured out onto the ice cap alone, with a guide available only over the phone.

He ran straight into a massive, four-day storm that nearly cost him his life.

He was informed via his guide that two nearby adventurers were being tracked by polar bears and he was told to stay in his tent with his gun at the ready.

But the father of four was forced to venture outside with a shovel into a wind chill of -50C when his tent began to collapse under the weight of the snow being dumped by the storm.

image copyrightMurray Fredericks
image captionIcesheet #0712, late sun and fog
image copyrightMurray Fredericks
image captionIcesheet #5649

Adventurers, Fredericks concludes, have a very different ethos from artists. "It's art; there's no justification for taking risks," he says.

But from this and subsequent, more fruitful, trips to Greenland's harsh and lonely expanses, Topophilia has emerged.

Currently on exhibition at Annandale Galleries in Sydney, the collection of images and time-lapse video footage seeks to describe the identity people are driven to create when confronted by empty space.

Serendipitously, Fredericks met a man crossing the ice sheet who introduced him to a long-abandoned radar station that would come to be the lynchpin of his Greenland work and the focus of the documentary he made there.

image copyrightMurray Fredericks
image captionIcesheet #4724, 22' & 46' halo, tangent arc, parry arc, cza and parhelic circle
image copyrightMurray Fredericks
image captionIcesheet #2868, sea ice with icebergs

The station was one of dozens built in the late 1950s between Iceland and Alaska to give the Americans advance warning of a Soviet attack. Together, they were known as the Distant Early Warning Line.

Fredericks says the stations were shut down in Greenland with just two hours' notice in the late 1980s, not because the Berlin Wall was crumbling, but because of a lack of insurance.

When he made his way inside the radar station a quarter of a century later, the sheets were still on the beds and a 1980s breakfast had been frozen in time.

Since then, numerous adventurers have passed through the remote building. One of the still images in Fredericks' new exhibition depicts the station's pool table, where travellers etched their names into the felt.

image copyrightMurray Fredericks
image captionInterior #3, Bar - Fredericks' eerie shot from inside a long-abandoned radar station in Greenland

Fredericks first picked up a camera at the age of 10 but he came to photography via university studies in politics and economics.

"When I left school, my parents said: 'Mate, there's no way you're becoming a photographer,'" he recalls. "It had to be a doctor or a lawyer."

But with his Francesca by his side, photography has become his vocation and his life. Having conquered the desert and the ice, he thinks bushfire could be his next muse.

And he's well on his way. He has just been named as a finalist in the prestigious Moran photographic prize for a photograph he took of raging fires at Stradbroke Island in Queensland in late 2013.

image copyrightMurray Fredericks
image captionNorth Stradbroke - the image that won Murray Fredericks a place in the finalists for a Moran Prize

Related Topics

  • Australia
  • Photography