Exploring the Crystal Desert: Antarctica Through a Photographer’s Lens
Christopher Michel doesn’t like to sit still. Despite a career that includes gigs as a Naval flight officer, tech investor, entrepreneur, journalist, and government science advisor, Michel has managed to steady his hands long enough to also hone his skills as a photographer. His pursuit of the perfect image has taken him from Mount Everest to Papua New Guinea to the Korean Demilitarized Zone — and even, in 2010, to the edge of space (inside a U-2 spy plane). His most recent journey, however, is to a place he deems most magnificent of all: the frigid waters of Antarctica’s so-called “Crystal Desert.” On board a giant ship chartered by Harvard (his alma mater), Michel photographed icebergs as they froze, melted, and refroze. We managed to slow Michel down long enough to ask him a few questions about his polar voyage.
What kind of photography equipment do you recommend for extreme environments like Antarctica?
Antarctica and camera equipment aren’t friendly. From the inevitable Zodiac sea spray of the Southern Ocean to the battery-draining deep freeze, a smart photographer needs to come prepared with backup equipment, extra power, and protective everything.
You’ve had a number of careers — U.S. Naval flight officer, photographer, entrepreneur. How would you describe what you do?
Apparently I have a bit of wanderlust. I’d say I’m focused on spending time with interesting people on problems that matter. I’ve been fortunate to work with incredibly remarkable people in so many fields — from government to business to science and art.
What are some of the themes you try to explore in your photography?
A recurring theme is the intersection of man and nature — whether it’s struggle or symbiosis, there are incredible stories to be told in almost every corner of the globe.
How did this particular trip come about?
This is my third trip to Antarctica, this one hosted by Harvard University. We traveled aboard the Corinthian II, a 57-cabin ship accommodating up to 114 guests. It was chartered by Harvard for an expedition led by Michael McElroy, one of the nation’s leading climate scientists. Of all the trips I’ve ever taken in my life, Antarctica is, by far, the most compelling — it’s nature at its rawest, without the heavy hand of humans.
What kind of clothes does one wear for a trip to a place that cold?
Temperatures ranged from 20-40 degrees Fareinheit — positively balmy compared to points south. The right gear is essential to photograph on the continent. The key there, as well as anyplace cold, is layering … thermals, fleeces, outer layers … as well as excellent boots, gloves, and eyewear. The sun’s UV rays are particularly strong in Antarctica and require constant vigilance to protect against eye damage.
What was the most difficult shot for you to take, and how did you make it work?
There wasn’t one most difficult shot, but there was certainly a most difficult shoot, and that was a sunset that lasted hours and hours in the freezing winds of the Lemaire Passage on the deck of the ship. I probably shot 5,000 images and nearly suffered frostbite to capture one of the most incredible sunsets of my life along a graveyard of icebergs.
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