I got back from Greenland one week ago, yet I find myself caught in the transition between fieldwork mode and the “real world”. I am still shaking the impulse to pack a fleece, hat and rain gear when I head out the door for short errands on these indisputably beautiful summer days. I am struggling to convey to friends and family all the big and small things that made my 6 weeks in the tundra absolutely wonderful — like how thrilling it feels to dig and hit flat, smooth frozen soil, or how, when isolated without internet in the tundra, Courtney and I turned to Courtne-pedia and Juli-pedia as the most reliable (and entertaining, if not credible) sources of information.
To smooth the transition I seek out the things that bridge my summer of science and adventure with the world that has gone on without me. For this reason, I found myself at an exhibit of Ruth Gruber’s photographs at the International Center of Photography in my home town of New York City.
Gruber is a photojournalist who spent time in Alaska and the Soviet Arctic during the 1930’s and 1940’s. The exhibit had amazing documentation from her travels – pictures of Juneau, AK as a small frontier town on the precipice of the Alaskan wilderness and film footage of a native Alaskan cutting a child’s hair during a boat ride.
The most stunning photos were a series of color photos which are thought to be the earliest color images of Alaska, and were developed for the first time for this particular exhibit. The series is full of vibrant red and yellow tones that convey the conundrum of how much and how little has changed in the past 60 years. The single image that struck me most was one of a native woman reading an issue of Life magazine: her face and fur hood are lite up by the Arctic sun and a famous baseball player is poised on the magazine cover.
Looking at the photo I could almost feel the Arctic air on my own cheeks; I felt the profound significance of the merging cultures that now define Alaska.
In addition to the enthralling content of her photographs, I could not help but be impressed by Gruber’s life story. In 1931, at the age of 20, she became the youngest person (male or female!) to earn a PhD. Shortly after, she became the first journalist (again, male or female!) to travel into the Soviet Arctic and later, with a letter of reference from the famous polar explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, was assigned by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to report on the conditions of the remote Arctic frontier. On display in the ICP exhibit was video footage of an interview with Gruber from earlier this year. At 100 years old, she is engaging and provides animated reflections on her own career. She did not harp on her early scholarly success and did not even mention the innumerable challenges that she surely must have faced as an intelligent and ambitious young woman working in extreme conditions. Instead, she talked about how the Arctic forced her to reevaluate her native New Yorker instinct to speed through life and showed her how to exist in the present. She spoke about how her greatest moments came out of her dedication to the greater cause of human rights; photojournalism just happens to be her tool. I am inspired to learn Gruber’s story, to see the Arctic through her lens and, most of all, to hear her reflections on a lifetime of astounding success.