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For 14 years, Bay Area photographer Camille Seaman has traveled to the earth's most remote expanses of ice, and in that time — through photo exhibits, through a TED talk — she has changed the way millions of people think of the Arctic and Antarctica. Her specialty is icebergs. Tall icebergs. Rocky icebergs. Blue icebergs. Seaman has photographed close to 50,000 icebergs, and all of them have profoundly affected her.
"I'm attached to each one — it's almost obsessive-compulsive disorder," jokes Seaman as she sits in her Emeryville home, which also houses her studio. "I have literally 12 terabytes of images, and I know each one. They're like my babies. That's how attuned I am to these specific creatures."
Seaman's photos are startling for their beauty and their intensity. There Is a Crack in Everything brings us face-to-face with a gigantic, cliff-strewn iceberg that hovers over the Antarctic Sound like a floating piece of the Grand Canyon. The iceberg is probably more than 5,000 years old, and it's full of turquoise-tinged layers and visible cracks that are subtle signs of change.
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"Melting Away," Seaman's new exhibit at Corden/Potts Gallery, features There Is a Crack in Everything, taken in 2010, and an assemblage of other photos that are like postcards from a disappearing ecosystem. On a recent trip to the Arctic, Seaman saw a polar bear — desperate for food amid the shrinking habitat of snow and ice — roam the rocky paths before ravaging the nests of birds that had flown thousands of miles to lay their eggs.
Seaman treats all her subjects, including the icebergs, as if they have distinct personalities — an approach informed by her Native American upbringing. Through her father, Seaman is a member of the Shinnecock tribe (on her mother's side, she's African-American and Italian), and growing up on Long Island, she learned to treat nature with reverence from her paternal grandfather. At age 43, Seaman has the photographic bona fides — she studied photography in college, then took workshops with such renowned photographers as Sebastião Salgado and Steve McCurry — but it's her practice of individuating seemingly inanimate entities, of waiting for the precise light and cloud conditions, that turns her iceberg photos into majestic portraiture.
After her 2011 TED talk was posted online, where it's been viewed more than 400,000 times, a smattering of commenters ridiculed Seaman for saying that icebergs had personalities ("disturbing," said one, while another called her approach "off the wall"). Seaman wrestles with her new role as a public figure whose work is open to volatile critiques.
"When my TED talk first went on the Internet, I made the mistake of reading the comments, and a lot of them were, 'Ice isn't alive — she needs to go smoke some more 'wacky weed,'" Seaman says. "I replied a few times, and I said, 'Well, you're made of 70 percent water. Are you not alive?' It was in those moments that I realized how different that people perceive life on this planet. And I understood there was a lot more for me to give than just the images."
Even before her embrace by TED, Seaman had accomplished a lot in her recent career. In 2008, the same year that Seaman's photos of ice formations began appearing in the New York Times, the National Academy of Sciences showcased her work in a solo exhibit ("The Last Iceberg") in Washington, D.C. In 2010, in a major photo spread about water, National Geographic magazine spotlighted what may be Seaman's best-known image: Stranded Iceberg 1, an iceberg leaning like the Tower of Pisa.
Her photographic interest in icebergs started by accident. In 1999, she was set to fly from Oakland to Los Angeles when the airline announced the flight was overbooked. Offered a free ticket that would take her anywhere Alaska Airlines flew, she gave up her seat, and that spring — curious about the state of Alaska — she traveled to Kotzebue, a coastal city 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle that, thousands of years ago, was part of the ice-and-land-bridge connecting Asia and the Americas. Walking alone on the frozen Bering Strait gave Seaman the impetus to return and begin taking pictures.
In the last few years, international concern about global warming has prompted a wave of new photographers and documentarians to visit the poles, and to urge greater action to stop global warming. Chasing Ice, Jeff Orlowski's documentary that opened late last year, is an activist project that urges viewers to "shrink their carbon footprint" and "spread the message" by tweeting President Obama and other big names.
Seaman has made her own videos about the melting ice, and though she works primarily as a fine-art photographer, she's become an activist in her way — by inviting others to feel as close to nature as she feels. Her newest images are of super-cell thunderstorms in Kansas, Nebraska, and other heartland states that — like the icebergs — are stunning, colorful evocations of a volatile planet.