Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Vladimir Donkov devotes several months each year to documenting the North Polar wilderness

For each of the past few years, 24-year-old Bulgarian photographer Vladimir Donkov has spent months in absolute solitude deep within the North Polar wilderness taking photographs for a book and an open-air exhibition. "Working in the most rapidly changing environments on earth, my goal is to offer the public an up-to-date graphic account of how our arctic landscapes are changing and to point out the many pristine natural habitats we are losing so rapidly. My photography project is called North, and its aim is to produce a book that will raise public awareness of the serious threats now facing the last untouched areas around the North Polar Circle.

“During most of my field work for the North project, I travel on foot and camp alone in the wilderness, far from electricity and phone coverage. I carry separately 2 backpacks with a total weight of 130 pounds -- that includes the expedition gear, photography equipment and provisions for half of the travel time. The rest of my food consists of polar berries, mussels and lots of trout and arctic chars that I catch along the way -- otherwise I couldn’t carry the entire load necessary to survive each of my 2-month field trips. I recharge my camera batteries with a solar panel. Perhaps the most important stuff in the gear sack is the toilet paper! It helps me make a fire out of some wet polar birches while waiting for hours to shoot the Northern Lights! Last but not the least of my gear are my Singh-Ray ND Grads. They are priceless, and I take great care to protect them no matter how deep the rivers I’m crossing or how steep the rocks I’m climbing at the moment may be. The photographs I am including with this story were taken during the past 11 months in Greenland, Swedish Lapland, and the polar areas of Norway.

"Sometimes when shooting ice and snow in canyons and river gorges I must give special attention to balancing the wide range of light levels in the scene. The photo above, for example, called for me to turn my trusty 2-stop hard-step ND Grad upside-down to properly balance the exposure level of the bright white ice in the foreground with the greater exposure required for the dark rocks in the background. Images like this one are always a challenge to accurately manage the light conditions. Last February, the temperature remained around minus 40 degrees Celsius for weeks. There, in the Abisko wilderness of Swedish Lapland, the river froze solid and then the water level under the ice receded. Being in the steep gorge, I had no other choice but to walk with snowshoes on the last remains of the old ice that would sometimes break through perilously under my steps.

“This image was taken in the Lofoten Islands in the Norwegian Sea last March, just 5 minutes before a massive snowstorm hid the mountain for several days. It was my third trip to Lofoten and after seeing this green bay more than a hundred times without ever taking a photograph, I felt this was the moment. The moving jetty caught my sight instantly, so I set the sensitivity of my Canon 5D to ISO 50 and used my 3-stop Solid ND to slow down the exposure enough to blur the jetty's motion. The sky was quite dynamic and I couldn’t do this shot without the 3-stop soft-step ND Grad.

"Every photographer who is serious about shooting landscapes has had this experience: after days of waiting, I finally get to see the right clouds for the scene, but then discover I don't have have the right filter in my bag. I badly wanted to capture the scenery of this frozen lake in Lapland as I saw it, but the dynamic range of my camera couldn’t make it without the help of a 3 or 4-stop ND Grad. So I stacked in front of the lens both my 2-stop hard and soft-step ND Grads to keep the frosty mood I felt would be right for this image. When shooting at minus 35 degrees Celsius, I need to remember not to close the lids of my soft-skin filter cases, as the cold stiffens them so much I won't be able to get my filters out of them.

"These 2 shots from the Greenlandic fjord Tasermiut are the strangest examples of changing light I’ve ever seen. I had trained hard for 2 years for this expedition in the wilds of Greenland. Five weeks of this trip was spent in absolute solitude at places where nobody goes. Perhaps the terrain and the climate are a bit harsh for most people. I was accidentally stuck at this very place for 10 days, my knee was injured and the rain lasted for a week. I was blocked in between the fjord, a big river, slippery rocks and a swamp stretching out in all directions. So I was trying to get a shot at this same place for 10 evenings and 10 mornings. However, on 19 of these 20 occasions weather conditions did not work out, but then on this one morning my luck changed. The alarm woke me up in my tent at 4 am and I saw crazy clouds with a bit of reddish color already appearing an hour before sunrise. So I skipped breakfast and set up my tripod well in advance with 2 of the legs in the river and composed for a vertical shot. The red clouds changed to a dark blue and violet, I could smell the storm coming soon and took an excellent image right before the rain started falling on my 3-stop hard-step ND grad. We all know that good luck almost never remains on the scene both before and after a great sunrise. If the light is any good at all in the morning, it’s either before or after sunrise, but almost never at both times. Well, never say never -- I decided to stay under the rain with a rain-cover over the camera and waited. And then the magic happened again just 10 minutes after I made the first shot: the sky went orange as if to explode at any moment! I have been a photographer for several years already, and I have never seen such a case -- having two quite different appearances of great light occur both before and after sunrise; I was shaking with excitement as I pressed the shutter button.

"Capturing this last shot was by far the toughest job I’ve ever done -- 16 days of work and, during that time, it nearly took my life a couple of times. To get such a unique view of the peak of Mount Ketil in Greenland (2003m) and its mountain chain, I needed to reach a rocky ridge, which is passed by a few climbers about once every year or two. First, after walking for a month to get to the starting point, I set a base camp on the fjord’s coast and waited a few days for the rain to pass. Then, after a hard trek in the swamp, I needed to cross a deadly river. This took me one more week and 4 attempts. On one of the attempts, I nearly drowned before getting back on shore. This was followed by 2 hypothermia shocks caused by spending too much time in the deep glacial river. After the successful crossing on the 10th day, I went through a tricky hike over a stone avalanche field up to the ridge. So, there I was -- up on the spot I had dreamed of reaching for more than 2 years -- where a photographer had never set foot before. And guess what: there was not a single cloud for 5 days and I only had enough food for 5 days. Since there were no fish to catch up there, I decided to stay hungry and wait one more day and then to run down no matter what the weather was like. During the sixth day up on the ridge I saw the same boring blue sky and felt really bad after all the effort and all the risks I had taken to follow my dream. Then it was early morning on the seventh day. I was packing my tent, feeling quite hungry when a massive front of gray clouds covered the whole sky in just a few minutes! I had my tripod set and a 3-stop ND Grad on the lens. I was ready for action. The magic moment occurred right at sunrise when the red rays of the sun gently touched the clouds for a couple of minutes, then it all went back to gray. Being patient is a good thing after all."

When not traveling, Vladimir lives in Sofia, Bulgaria and works on completing the 'North' project. Upcoming photo shoots later this year will take him back to Greenland, Lapland’s wildest areas and the Norwegian Sea. You can see more photographs by Vladimir on his website and his Facebook page.


Rob said...

hardcore...hardcore man.

Eric said...

What an amazing photographer. Suddenly I feel so lazy in comparison with my landscape photos :)