Times Saturday Magazine, November 11 2006
– Ginny Dougary

Francis Latreille’s photographs are a tribute to the North Pole’s majestic, glacial beauty – and a chilling reminder of man’s careless destruction of the natural world

ice castles

These unique sculptures, each one fashioned by the elements, seem to be living proof that there is no artistry more entrancing than that which is created by nature. They are so dreamlike in their beauty that it is hard to look at them without falling silent, and in that small space of time you step out of the humdrum everyday and into an icy place of the imagination. But flicking through the pages, you also rec­ognise majestic echoes of ancient cathedrals, blades soaring into the sky which resemble the creations of our best modern architects, an iceberg whose profile amusingly mirrors the questing form of a polar bear on the hunt.

You may enjoy these natural art works without pausing to consider their ephemerality. They endure as a sort of trick of visual fiction – their permanence achieved only because they attracted the attention of Francis Latreille, who happened to be there, in a remote place that few people get to visit, and chose to transform something fleetingly spectacular into a lasting pleasure. When he lined up his camera in that chance moment, he knew that the glorious sight that filled his lens was a one-off that could never be recaptured by himself or anyone else.

ice castles

The experience of gazing at these images – stunning as they are – cannot compare with the exhilaration of witnessing for yourself the treasures of the Arctic gallery in their full monumental glory, the chill of the air on your cheeks, your heart soaring at the sight of the turquoise glowing under the white transformed by a shaft of sunlight into an iridescent gem-like blue. The satisfying crunch of the icy sea-floor under your booted foot, which opens up here and there to reveal: intricate patches of lacework, curious fibre-optic networks, bubbles of air trapped and frozen. You stop to marvel and move on to the next breathtaking vision. The rubble-yards of snow whipped up by the wind, then caught at precarious, tilting angles – as though nature were a mischievous faery child who had waved a wand. A day later, another windstorm, and that frozen Giacometti or Hepworth will have gone. So being there not only gives you the weirdly omniscient sense that each sculpture has been made for your eyes only, but is a constant reminder of change and fluctuation.

ice castles

It took a man, inspired by the treasures of the Arctic gallery, to bring this evidence back home to share with us – and it is man who is destroying the environment in which these wonders are found. Our first thoughts on looking at these chilly beauties is not of warming and hothouse effects, but the stark facts in the text that accompany these photographs make it clear that Latreille’s book comes with a message.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The ice floe or ice sea has lost more than 8 per cent of its surface area and 40 per cent of its thickness over the past three decades – which is why Pen Hadow, the explorer, found himself swimming as much as skiing to the North Pole on his last historic expedition. The Greenland ice cap – containing 90 per cent of the northern hemisphere’s reserve of fresh water – has begun to melt away. The glaciers are retreating. The layer of perma frost, made up of earth, vegetable matter and ice, which covers some four million square miles in Siberia, Canada and Alaska, is thawing on a scale that has not been seen in the past 11,000 years. Fresh water is pouring into the Atlantic Ocean, affecting its salinity, which is already having devastating consequences on the food chain. The tundra has begun to transform into a swamp, releasing incalculable quantities of methane gas – compared to a “sleeping dragon” – presently fossilised in the ice.

ice castles

What do these bleak bullet points mean? To the Inuit people, it is the destruction of their homes and their livelihoods. The ice shelf is forming much later in the year and is infinitely more fragile than it was before, which means the hunters and fishermen who dare to move across it run a much higher risk of drowning. They are having to dismantle their houses and move them to less vulnerable areas – but as the sea encroaches inland, how far will the Inuit be forced to retreat?

The hunting season has shortened significantly. Reindeer are no longer able to feed themselves because the constant melting and freezing has created a new crust which their hooves have not been adapted to penetrate to get to the lichen below. The caribou population around Peary in Ellesmere Island declined from 26,000 in 1961 to 1,000 in 1997. The most abiding symbol of the North Pole, the polar bear, is fighting for survival because the ice shelf – its food store and playground – is shrinking. There are also disturbing signs that they are being dramatically affected by the pesticides and chemical wastes spilled into the environment, especially into the water, as the pollutants ride the ocean currents that flow into the cold zones… into algae eaten by fish which go into the bellies of the seals which end up powerfully concentrated in the polar bears at the top of the food chain, affecting their ability to reproduce and leading to congenital malformations.

And what do these inconvenient truths mean for us? Do they take the shine off our enjoyment of the photographs, or do they make us more concerned about what happens in these imperilled places of remote and mysterious loveliness? Will we only care when we start to suffer the consequences of such carelessness ourselves – and will that be too late to remedy the effects? In May 2005, in Brussels, representatives of the Arctic Circle, an intergovernmental forum created to promote circumpolar co-operation, issued an alarm declaring that what happens in the Arctic is a barometer for the rest of the world. And that is Francis Latreille’s wake-up call behind the beauty of his book.

Photographs from White Paradise by Francis Latreille, published by Abrams and available from BooksFirst priced £22.46 (RRP £24.95), free p&p, on 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy