Arctic to Tropic: Alumni David Freese’s eye opening new photo book


Hot off the heels of a new release, photographer, professor and SOI Alumni David Freese stopped by the head office in Gatineau to deliver copies of his new photo book titled “East Coast: Arctic to Tropic”.

Images from his Students On Ice Arctic 2013 expedition in the Torngat Mountains and Greenland make a vivid appearance in the book, which paints the story of climate change along the entire length of the Atlantic Ocean. Moved to create the photo book after witnessing the impacts of Hurricane Sandy, the book then moves southward where coastlines has been forever changed by tropical super storms and intense urban development. David’s story is unique, and we caught up with him after his visit to ask him about the process and inspiration behind his work.

Share with us your most memorable Students on Ice moment.

It’s not one precise moment.  The whole experience was a total joy.  The personal highlight was to meet such wonderful, dedicated, smart people and to develop new friendships.  The photographic highlight was most certainly the Jacobshavn Ice Fjord – a true feast for the eyes and almost impossible to take in all at once. In fact, I stitched about ten images together in Photoshop to make an extreme panorama which is in the book. But there is nothing like witnessing it in person – even while dodging the pesky mosquitos.

A big theme in East Coast: Arctic to Tropic is the impact of climate change. What were some expectations vs realities that you had after embarking on this project?

Climate change has been of great interest to me for quite some time going back to Al Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance.  At that time, I remember naively thinking that here is an issue that will certainly bring everybody together across the political spectrum to find a solution.  Of course, precisely the opposite happened and resistance to climate change as fact became fierce from the right. It became very disheartening to see the prevalence and acceptance of what can now be called “alternative facts.” It has since come to light that Exxon Mobil started planning for climate change in the mid-1970s but, in public, presented false information to hamper any action that would curtail the use of fossil fuels.  This is a similar strategy to that employed by the cigarette companies during the same time period.

Having read so much about climate change, including all the false information, and having seen many superb documentaries, I was not surprised by anything that I saw. In fact, my expectations were reinforced by the realities I got to see firsthand. However, I was most certainly humbled.


Describe one of the most shocking scenes you photographed.

There is a protected beach at Botany Bay, on Edisto Island about 40 miles south of Charleston, South Carolina.  Many varieties of dead trees are seen in the surf – swallowed up by the sea.  The combination of beach erosion and increased sea level has taken its toll on this historic stretch of sand. In one of my images, pelicans fly down the beach as if on patrol over this surreal decaying seascape.

Why did you choose to use the coastline as a theme for the book?

The Atlantic Seaboard of the United States is a seacoast that is greatly threatened by climate change, rising seas, and extreme weather events. Much of the ice melt that contributes to this danger is coming from the Greenland Ice Sheet which is basically the remnant of the last Ice Age – the Laurentide Ice Sheet that covered all of Canada and extended as far south as lower Manhattan and Staten Island. In fact, Long Island and Cape Cod are the terminal moraines of those super glaciers. It is helpful to understand the connections to the Ice Age as the incredible weight of the ice sheet forced Canada’s land mass down and pushed the land below its edge at New York City upward.  We are still experiencing a phenomenon called post glacial rebound. Canada is rising now that the weight is off and there is a slow return to stasis. Conversely, land south of Manhattan is sinking.  There are profound interconnections always at work on this planet and our east coast is a prime example along its entire length.  I hope that the photographs reveal all the links in the chain as we journey north to south from the Arctic Circle to just above the Tropic of Cancer. The best-selling author Simon Winchester wrote a most engaging, informative text for the book in which he addresses many of these phenomena and ties everything together.  Jenna Butler, who lives and teaches in Alberta, is a fine writer who gives a Canadian perspective with her fine essay.


What was the creative decision behind the Sepia colour palette?

Early on, I became intrigued with the many tonal variations in the prints of the intrepid photographers who documented the American West soon after our great Civil War ended in 1865.  Many warm shades of browns and sepias can be seen.  These color variations continued into the early 1900s with an even wider color palette that is visible in the work of the Pictorialists who were a group of photographers intent on elevating photography to a fine art status in the art world. I became enamored with this wide variety of tones and could create similar effects in the computer with much greater control and consistency.  For me, it gives the image greater visual depth and emotional content. I also feel that it is an appropriate way to express an appreciation for the influence of those daring photographic pioneers that came before.

Do you have any advice for photographers both on and off expedition?

Look at as much work by other photographers as you can and take as many photographs as you can. When you think you are ready, take your work to be seen and critiqued at Portfolio Reviews given by various photography organizations and groups. And, finally,:  protect your investment and use your camera’s neck strap!


This is a significant piece of work. What’s next?

I am hoping to obtain funding to photograph the length of the Mississippi River from its source in Minnesota all the way south to the Mississippi Delta and into the Gulf of Mexico.  Such a project and book would complete a trilogy on North America’s coasts and its major waterway. The Mississippi watershed is the largest drainage system in North America.  It’s a river of great historical significance on many levels – culturally, socially, economically and geologically.  And of course, there are the effects of climate change on the river and on the Gulf which was heavily impacted by both the BP oil spill and Hurricane Katrina. I have some other closer to home projects up my sleeve too. One is a new perspective, I hope, on looking at trees. As a photographer might say – “we shall see.”


Students on Ice presenting Arctic to Tropic to the Museum of Nature archives in Ottawa, Ontario

You can learn more about David’s book on his website here.

Students on Ice is proudly supported by bv02.

This website was made possible by a generous contribution from the Leacross Foundation.