Ice Blink by Anne Noble review

by Peter Ireland / 21 April, 2012
Anne Noble’s photographs show the Great White Continent – both real and pretend.
The 63 photographs in Anne Noble’s Ice Blink aren’t so much a record of a place called Antarctica as a dozen conundrums about what “Antarctica” means. The pictorial sequence zigzags between images of the actual location and constructed representations of it in museums as globally diverse as Christchurch, Auckland, Sydney, Hobart, Japan, Argentina, England and Scotland; and in naturerelated entertainment centres in Norway, Japan, Singapore and Auckland (at Kelly Tarlton’s).

There’s a rough equivalence with the iceberg cliché: one-third above the water, two-thirds below. The actual geographic location is largely an irrelevance in Noble’s narrative. What binds it together is perception, not place. Noble’s images of the Great White Continent are not all that much different from Jane Ussher’s in Still Life: Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton (2010) – though Noble shows a greater awareness of more current photographic style – but the “pretend-Antarctic” photographs are generally more compelling because they’re weirder, more mysterious.

They also more convincingly illustrate the thesis Noble advances. In a cautionary endnote, she writes that photography “becomes the pre-text for travel and loads a geographic imaginary that renders the traveller blind”. Until now? Further, Noble is quoted as stating: “Heroic age photography is a colonising with the eye.”

A case could be made that some contemporary photography is a colonising by the career. Superior judgments are nearly always improved by a degree of self-reflection. Ice Blink’s complex relationship between perception, representation and place is embedded in the book’s sequence, and finds its apogee in Wilhelmina Bay (2005), which depicts the continent’s coastline from the deck of a ship, white plastic tables and chairs tidily lined up against the solid steel railing. Even when you know it’s “real”, it’s almost impossible to dismiss the conviction that the landscape is a restaurant mural.

Noble’s skill in orchestrating moments like this suffuse the book, suggesting that the idea of Antarctica could be the perfect project for her. She’s seldom shied away from exploring the extremes of human experience, physically and emotionally, and her depictions of the icy wastes of the real continent and its representations show an environment that Gareth Morgan recently described in this magazine as the nearest he’d “ever get to being on another planet”.

In his able supporting essay, In the blink of an eye, Ian Wedde ranges as widely across history as the images do the globe: the Antarctic photographic tradition, Moby-Dick, John Cleves Symmes and his Hollow Earth Theory, the origin of various environmentalisms – both material and imaginary – the cult of the Sublime, fast food, global warming and so on. All this could be a very messy Caesar salad but Wedde cooks up a tasty pizza out of these ingredients, giving the images a framework connecting the photographs and amplifying elegantly what they’re collectively aiming at.

This synergy tends to be sabotaged by the book’s design – unless the matter of scrambled perception spilling over into the physical structure of the book was seen to be an advantage. Design never stays still, of course, and recently in picture books such as this there’s been a drift towards inserting a sequence of images at the front, sometimes even before the half-title page.

There’s a kind of half-title page here, followed by 54 full-page images, after which the actual title page appears, on page 91, which could be a world first. It’s followed by a biblio page, another image, then 12 pages of essay, a six-page listing of thumbnail works and their titles (the layout absolutely maddening), tailing out with a further eight full-page reproductions.

Forget about Arthur and Martha, by then you don’t know whether you’re in Nagoya or Norway. Letting the images “speak for themselves” can be a cute strategy. In a project such as this, partially about precise locations, this coyness about titling may be playful, but for anyone over 12 it’s just tiresome.

ICE BLINK, by Anne Noble, with an essay by Ian Wedde (Clouds, $69.95).

Peter Ireland is a painter and art writer specialising in photography.
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