Travelogue: Winter Voyage to Finland aka extreme cold weather photography – Jacopo Brancati
I am an ethnologist and a photographer specialised in maritime matters based in France; and for many years I have been focused on the seafarers’ community across Europe: Italy, France and Scandinavia.
In 2006 I was commissioned by the Maritime Museum of Finland to make a long reportage on the “Winter Navigation” as seen from the maritime pilots’ point of view.
The access to Finland’s harbours, through rocky coasts and islands of every size, is not easy; pilotage is vital, in addition to being compulsory – as in all Europe – for commercial vessels. In winter (a normal winter), the Northern Baltic Sea is frozen, a remarkable ice pack covers the sea from the Southern coast to the North. Because of the ice, navigation in the fairways is difficult. Pilots are essential to the safety of the ships and to reduce the risk of environmental accidents at sea. This service is provided by the State owned company Finnpilot.
The idea was to follow those men during their working time, night and day. That implied that I would have to follow them aboard the ships needing their assistance and to stay at different pilot stations situated all along the Finnish coasts.
The photos were to become part of the Museum’s collection, so the curator asked me to take into account the preservation requirements for the final art prints.
In 2006 Europeans were all crazy about new digital gear, digital prints, digital life…but digital longevity for prints was (and still is) a mathematical projection. Just numbers. No evidence is able to validate those numbers! While this new technology wanted to make its way, the “classic” world of photography had to fight back to keep its position.
The choice of the cameras I should use was easy: I knew I needed something I could rely on without asking myself all the time “what is the camera doing?”, or worse being stopped by a hypothetical “Electronic Failure”.
I started my photographic career in the “old” world, the one ruled by Leica, Hasselblad, Nikon, just to mention a few, and I was (and still am) a “medium format” guy, so I decided to use a Nikon F4e and a Mamiya 7II. The F4e offered me legendary Nikon toughness, and a very easy to mount and dismount battery pack. All I had to do was keep the charger warm in my pocket and mount it before I went into action.
With my F4e I could use my complete set of prime AF lenses: 20mm f/2.8 (my favourite), 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4, 80mm f/1.8. I would not need any long-focus lens, as my experience during other maritime photographic campaigns had demonstrated.
My choice of prime lenses was based not only on habit, but also on the need to be in the middle of the action, framing the picture “before”, instead of framing “after” in the viewfinder, and then re-framing once more with the zoom.
The use of prime lenses implies understanding and knowing where to stand with regards to both light and subject.
The Mamiya 7II, a range finder camera, is a wonderful reportage tool, light, compact, silent, its lenses are luminous and extremely compact for their class.
My set included two objectives: an 80mm f/4 (standard lens for the 6×7 format) and a 43mm f/4.5. I will not linger here telling how magnificent the 43mm is; despite an external finder and the necessity to have a good practice with wide angles, this lens is just perfect and gives you absolutely exciting perspectives.
Film Choice: Colour or Black & White?
Another important point directly related with the creative process: the choice of the medium. Colour photography or black & white?
Once in Finland, after trying out slides, colour negative and black & white films for a short while to study the light and my subject, I was able to decide what to tell in my story and how – that was the turning point. I wanted the pictures to go straight to the heart of the viewer, so what better than black and white to tell the viewer about the soul of a country, its men and to sublimate the winter landscape?
In the heart of Winter up there in the Great North, light is dim, the sky is charged with a thick canopy of clouds and mist; clear days are rare.
I knew that for the exhibition I would need photos of different formats, and working with the medium format would allow me to obtain very large prints.
Choosing the films was rather easy. For the smaller format I’ve always loved Kodak Tri-X 400, an all-round classic film, rich in tones that never fails. For the medium format I used Kodak T-Max because of its particularly thin tabular grain, which is perfect for very large prints. I also took with me several rolls of Kodak 125 in case of extremely bright light. Everything considered, I carried around 100 rolls in total…
Out on the Field
The pilot job is a difficult one. He has to jump from the pilot boat onto the wobbling ladder hanging from the ship’s side and climb up to the bridge quickly; besides, temperatures are quite rough; average February temperatures are around -17° Celsius, they can rise a bit or drop down to -24°C on the Southern Coast or -30°C, -40°c in the North.
In this line of work I had several problems to solve. First one: “one hand for the camera and the other for me”, or: “my safety comes first, next comes my work”.
Right? Well, jumping on and off ships at night-time or with rough sea is a dangerous game. And you cannot fail!
Second problem: “if the camera breaks, game over”. Waiting on the ice pack or in the snow at -17°C is a problem for the camera too. And what will happen once on board, where temperature is about +25°C in a short while?
The first missions run smoothly; my Mamiya 7 is perfect and does not seem to fear the severe cold. Its lenses are sealed and their central shutter works well. I use the 6×7 mainly for exteriors but also in very low light conditions with a tripod.
The F4’s versatility turns out to be crucial to being at the heart of the picture. Its metering is far easier and sharper than the manual light meter that I use to check or adjust the Mamiya 7’s own reading. There’s no need to say that when you are in extreme conditions, you’d better to make things easy…when you can.
At -30°C or -37°c objects change state, everything becomes slower, harder: movements such as changing a lens, or handling a tripod – as your fingers get frozen stuck on it – are not like when you are shooting at “normal” temperatures. Just pressing with my thumb on the release cable and it breaks like a piece of small wood…
Nikon dies, Nikon rises again!
Many of my colleagues thought that using a Nikon F4 in 2006 was pure folly, due to its age. Built at the beginning of the 1990s, my F4 probably had at least a dozen years of hard work on it’s counter. During my first two missions – both at 60° North with temperatures below -10°C – there was nothing to report. During the third mission – for the first time at 65° North – I decided to take some colour pictures at night on the ice pack.
So, one night at -17°C, I set several flashes in the snow plus a master on the camera. The idea was to create an open flash image, with the ship gliding on the ice. But it was a damp night and we were wrapped in a quite thick fog. Something went wrong.
Maybe it was the combination of severe cold and high dampness, or the use of an external flash…either way, the shutter released…and got shut stuck. Sadly, this was something I wasn’t aware of at the time. It was only once back in Paris, at the professional lab where I get my films developed, that I was told all of my films were completely unexposed.
All my work gone. All except that last photo…a colour photo no less!
I desperately checked my transparent rolls over and over again.
Not a single image.
A photographer’s worst nightmare had come true.
From the lab to Nikon’s repair centre…I am told very phlegmatically that they will send the shutter to Japan to have it analysed. I will never have any news of that shutter again, but my F4 gets a new one after some time.
It is early summer, such a damp and rainy summer is hardly seen in Paris. To test my new shutter I work on a personal project that I will call “Human Remains” a title as obscure as my thoughts.
The shutter works perfectly, it is damp-proof and F4 is again “The Stone”, as I had nicknamed it because of its weight around my neck.
The fourth mission will be the crucial one and the longest too. Two entire months in the heart of winter. Winter 2008 began badly, there is little snow, little ice and high temperatures, (only) -8°C.
In March I move to 65° North, towards Kemi, and things change.
There I will have all the snow and cold I was looking for.
The result of a winter photographic campaign of several months over three years left some marks on the gear. My Nikon F4 was resurrected, I was left with a damaged but still working 20mm, whereas the 50mm crashed in a collision with the side of a ship.
The Mamiya 7 passed the test with no damage; ok, she worked…less, but suffered no damage. The F4 with her heavy charger is now fit for retirement. As her substitute I chose the F6; she is far lighter and more compact but I will later regret not having a real battery pack.
I created numbered and signed fine art prints for the museum, which were printed in Paris by Andrès Romero of Atelier Label Image. The exhibition started in October 2008 and in 2016 I published a book of my work called Jäinen matka Suomeen – Winter Voyage to Finland.
In 2011, three years after the exhibition started, I must tackle a similar photographic mission. Being asked for colour work; I enter the era of fully grown-up digital photography thanks to a Nikon D3.
But that’s another story.
~ Jacopo Brancati
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