Photojournalist Michael Kienitz discusses his show at the Chazen Museum of Art, “Iceland’s Vanishing Beauty.” (Photo: “Ice Cave Entrance at Sunrise, South East Iceland, Dec. 2017,” by Michael Kienitz. All photos courtesy Chazen Museum of Art.)
“The sounds are like the loudest thunder, like [the glaciers] are talking to each other,” photographer Michael Kienitz told me and some members of a local book club during a recent group tour of his exhibit Iceland’s Vanishing Beauty, up through February 3 at the Chazen Museum of Art. Hearing Kienitz, a UW-Madison graduate and current Madison resident who has spent more than 40 years working as a photojournalist around the globe, discuss the Icelandic glaciers he captures in the show is like listening to a scientist tell a campfire story or a folklorist give a lecture. He at once anthropomorphizes and demystifies these ancient expanses of ice. Weaving together the geological knowledge he gained in five years’ worth of visits to Iceland—the longest he’s ever spent on one project—with the emotions the experience stirred in him, Kienitz frames the images he’s selected out of 14,000 in ways both precise and abstract.
To a layperson, these photos, some large and some small, are hyperreal to the point of appearing illusionary. Is that water or ice? Is that big or small? Is that still here, or is it gone?
These questions dart around the surface as one views the exhibit, but no matter the answers, Kienitz takes a restrained approach that leaves undeniable resplendence of the glaciers almost completely unaltered. Kienitz also set out to make these photographs resonate politically. Climate change is making the glaciers recede. Kienitz intends for the their beauty is to serve as a call to action. Kienitz spoke with me recently about what he hopes people walk away with from the exhibit, balancing one’s political opposition with one’s inherent complicity, and the interconnectivity of all the world’s ills.
Tone Madison: Given that I got to see you give a tour personally, what do you hope people take away from the exhibit when you aren’t there to guide them through it?
Michael Kienitz: I’ve got to tell you, the response is that most people see what I’m trying to do here. That’s really gratifying that I was able to illustrate the beauty with the caveat of, hey, this is all vanishing, and in some degree because of the way we live, including myself and what I had to do to get [to Iceland] and what I contributed to the destruction.
Tone Madison: Aside from the name of the exhibit, how do people get the notion that these glaciers are, in fact, vanishing? In other words, is there anything like that inherent in the photos?
Michael Kienitz: Inherent in the photos? I’m not sure. I really did want to do these little photos of, here’s how it is now, underneath the main photos, but that didn’t go over with [the Chazen] at all for whatever reason.` But I do think just with people’s experience this summer in Madison, they know there’s some pretty major problems going on.
It’s ironic. I almost didn’t get the prints because there were those massive forest fires right outside Yosemite, where this photo reproduction place was. It’s ironic to me, that there’s all this stuff going on that would prohibit me from talking about how all this stuff is going on [laughs].
Tone Madison: For you, then, it seems like the capturing the beauty of these glaciers wasn’t just for the sake of aesthetics but also to get people moving. If people see how beautiful they are, then they’ll be more likely to try and save them.
Michael Kienitz: Exactly. All my previous is work is very political, and it shows the dire situation people are in. Here it’s the dire situation that people have put the earth in and people are tangential to the story.
Tone Madison: And why did you prize authenticity in the editing process so highly in this exhibit?
Michael Kienitz: I just find it abhorrent and a symptom of why nature is disappearing or why wild areas are disappearing that people feel the need to manipulate their photos. Hey, isn’t nature beautiful enough? Why does it have to be something you created? It’s already been created. Appreciate it for what it is. Other people might recognize me as an artist, but I wouldn’t recognize myself as an artist.
Tone Madison: Why is the title of “photojournalist” important for you?
Michael Kienitz: Because it shows that I’m trying, and some people object to this, but I’m trying to document what exists—not fabricate it or put my stamp on it. The only stamp on it is trying as dynamically as possible to relate what it is I’m trying to relate to people. And by people’s reactions to it, I think I’m succeeding at least a little bit.
Tone Madison: Do you view this exhibit as different from your past ones or assignments, such as documenting war-torn regions?
Michael Kienitz: Only because I spent the most time on this one and because I’ve been doing this for 46 years. It’s unique in that way and unique in that people don’t play a central role. On my website, you’ll see stories about the plight of people in these horrible political stations.
Tone Madison: It is interesting though, because broadly it seems like the people in your previous exhibits are victims of the same forces the glaciers are in this one.
Michael Kienitz: Greed. The bottom line is greed. It’s destroying the world. And why these people need more than millions of dollars is a mystery to me. It’s like the accumulation of money is the sole reason for their existence. It’s just ruining it in so many ways. The greed seeps into everything. It’s just very sad.
Tone Madison: As you mentioned earlier, obviously you and I both play a part in these systems as consumers. How do you reconcile that with your opposition to these systems?
Michael Kienitz: We can’t be outside of it, and that’s why on the one hand I see so little hope that things will somehow change. But on the other hand, I must see enough hope to take the time and effort to document this stuff in the hope it’ll act as a catalyst for at least some people to change the way they live or what is significant in their lives.
Tone Madison: But do you ever get bogged down in the hypocrisy of being opposed to something while also being complicit?
Michael Kienitz: People would be foolish not to recognize that, and that’s the gist of the predicament we’re in. Imagine how many times I had to fly over to do this, all these things that are contributing to this. But I don’t know what else I could’ve done.
Tone Madison: No, that’s fair—I didn’t expect a black-and-white answer. These are almost riddles we’re dealing with here.
Michael Kienitz: They are. And I guess you have to wade between the damage you’ve done environmentally and hopefully the enlightenment you might bring to people about what’s being damaged.
I’ve got to tell you, though, with these rain storms in Madison, these forest fires in California this summer, and now this North Carolina flooding and the lack of environmental safeguards with these companies calling the shots, that’s bringing it all home. The chickens are coming home to roost.