Postcards of Ice: Documenting changes to Tierra del Fuego’s glaciers

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Marinelli Glacier. Photo: Cristian Donoso Christie & Alfredo PouraillyMarinelli Glacier. Photo: Cristian Donoso Christie & Alfredo Pourailly
 
 
By Zoe Baillargeon
 
The effects of a century of climate change in Patagonia originating from the lens of one of the region’s first great photographers is the focus of a brand new photography exhibition opening this week at the Fundacion Cultural de Providencia in Santiago.
 
Entitled “Postcards of Ice,” the exhibition is the culmination of a scientific exhibition led by mountaineer Cristian Donoso and documentary filmmaker Alfredo Pourailly to remote western Tierra del Fuego, specifically the areas near Monte Sarmiento and Alberto Agostini National Park, to show how the ice fields and glaciers of the Darwin Cordillera have receded and changed over the past century. To measure and observe these changes, the team used the more than 100-year-old photographs of Italian missionary, mountaineer, and photographer Alberto Agostini as a benchmark.
 
“‘Postcards of Ice’ is a present portrait of a photographic past; a past that is a vestige of the magnificent work of Italian priest and explorer Alberto de Agostini and his love for the southernmost Chile,” says Donoso. “In the exercise of comparing the photographs of Alberto de Agostini with other current photographs, which portray the same place and the same frame, there emerges a spontaneous dialogue between what remains and what has mutated within the landscape.”
 
Agostini, a legendary figure in Patagonian history, first came to Tierra del Fuego in 1910. When not attending to his flock, he was out exploring the wilds of Patagonia, summiting mountains, discovering glaciers, documenting indigenous communities, and was part of the first team to fully cross the Southern Patagonian Icefield. The images he captured - with only rudimentary mountaineering equipment supporting him and his team as they scaled peaks and traversed glaciers - carry the thrill of new discovery from days long gone; unknown worlds being mapped for the first time.
 
 
Aisnworth Bay y Marinelli fjord, 2018. Pjoto: Cristian Donoso Christie & Alfredo PouraillyAisnworth Bay y Marinelli fjord, 2018. Pjoto: Cristian Donoso Christie & Alfredo Pourailly
 
 
Ainsworth Bay and the front of the Marinelli Glacier, 1914. Photo: Museo Salesiano Maggiorino BorgatelloAinsworth Bay and the front of the Marinelli Glacier, 1914. Photo: Museo Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello
 
 
“All his work was about the importance of expanding human knowledge about Patagonia, its natural spaces, and its inhabitants,” Donoso says.
 
Agostini’s portfolio on the region, which includes more than 10,000 photographs, films, and books like “Thirty Years in Patagonia,” offer invaluable insight into the region’s culture, history, and geography, and the Alberto Agostini National Park in western Tierra del Fuego, which includes part of the Darwin Cordillera that he so often explored, was named after him.
 
Donoso and Pourailly decided to use Agostini’s prolific works as a starting point to see how the region and its glaciers have changed in the past hundred years since first being captured in grainy black and white by Agostini.
 
This new expo follows work done by the Alpine of the Americas project, which since 2011 has also been documenting climate change in the Andes mountains of Chile and Argentina and the Sierra Nevada of the western United States by comparing present state environmental conditions with old photographs. In Patagon Journal’s summer edition in 2013, the Alpine of the Americas team juxtaposed their photos taken in the same exact locations as photos taken by Agostini at Cerro Fitz Roy and Glacier Grey of Torres del Paine in 1945, exposing the stark and enormous glacial retreat in the intervening passage of time.
 
Similarly, Donoso and Pourailly began by going through the archives of the Maggiorino Borgatello Museum in Punta Arenas, where Agostini’s photographs have been preserved. From the thousands kept on file, a dozen were selected that portrayed different glaciers on the northern slopes of the Darwin Cordillera, namely the Negri and Marinelli Glaciers and Parry Fjord. But when choosing which sites they would feature, they gave preference to locations that were more remote and inaccessible and would not have seen much human contact or interference since the images were taken. To determine the exact site of each glacier and where the pictures were taken in order to perfectly replicate the image, the team studied the written archives and records of Agostini, as well as used their own personal knowledge of the area from previous mountaineering expeditions.
 
 
Lake Spegazzini and Negri Glacier, 2018. Photo: Cristian Donoso Christie & Alfredo PouraillyLake Spegazzini and Negri Glacier, 2018. Photo: Cristian Donoso Christie & Alfredo Pourailly
 
 
Lake Spegazzini and Negri Glacier, 1913. Photo: Museo Salesiano Maggiorino BorgatelloLake Spegazzini and Negri Glacier, 1913. Photo: Museo Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello 
 
 
Donoso and Pourailly then planned their expedition to follow in the footsteps of Agostini through the Cordillera, sailing to each of the glacier sites and taking the pictures from exactly the same spot as shown in the original photograph.
 
The result is a show that balances the duality of past and present, an ode to Agostini and his passion for the region, and a testament both to Patagonia’s fortitude and longevity but also its fragility and vulnerability in the age of man. The difference at some of the sites is stark; where once there was a glacier, now there is only a lake and mountains. While it would be easy to feel melancholy and hopeless at these changes, Postcards of Ice also wants viewers to look at the changes displayed in the photographs from different perspectives.
 
“[The exhibit] not only talks about the impact of climate change on nature, it also talks about human nature,” explains Donoso. “Spaces formerly occupied by glaciers were covered with forests now growing with exceptional vigor. Is that trait of optimism an aspect that we humans share with the natural world? So before our eyes was revealed a paradox: on the one hand the glaciers retreated, partly as a product of climate change, but their withdrawal left space and the necessary conditions for life to arise in the confines of the planet.”
 
The message of the show is therefore two-toned: there is sadness in change, and maybe we are too far gone to alter course, but even as her moving giants melt away, the Earth continues building up and recreating in their wake. There is growth in decay, and Patagonia endures.
 
“Postcards of Ice” opens on Thursday, July 5, at the Fundacion Cultural de Providencia in Santiago. For more information, go to www.postalesdehielo.com.