Credit: Ragnar Axelsson

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Of the Arctic’s plentiful natural wonders, from the mountains to the fjords to the Northern Lights in the heavens, the glacier stands as one of the region’s most marvelous formations.

The Embassy of Iceland presents Glacier, a one-room photography exhibition showcasing just how special these natural treasures are, at the House of Sweden. In this display, the glacier—a thick, slow-flowing mass of ice—is grand.

Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson flew all over the region to create the images, capturing northern glaciers in stunning detail from aerial views. For many years, Axelsson has focused his lens on Arctic life and nature. This exhibition, which accompanies his new photo book of the same name, is the culmination of his work chronicling the ice. The exhibition room also features a projector screen that plays a short film chronicling Axeslsson at work, as he flies over the ice masses.

It’s hard to fathom that the subject of each of the 21 ethereal black-and-white photos in the show is actually a glacier. In one snapshot, a glacier’s lines look like a bird taking flight. In another, you’d swear you could see the shape of a human face in the ice. In every photo, the ice takes on unique geometry, a breathtaking variety of patterns and textures and surfaces that inspires visions of animals, people, and water in an endless array of shapes. You can see anything and everything in the assorted structures of the ice if you look hard enough. By documenting them in their many forms, Axelsson has turned glaciers into art.

“The thrill of discovering the glaciers has made a deep and lasting impression,” he writes in the book. “The ice falls, ice caves, and gigantic icebergs floating in the lagoons, fascinating from the start, are fascinating still. Walking across a glacier’s cracked surface, climbing a mountain wrapped in thousand-year-old ice, and riding bareback over a raging glacial river, are extraordinary adventures; but, exploring the glaciers from above changes one’s very understanding of a glacier itself.”

When contemplating the state of the natural world, Glacier is both beautiful and bittersweet. Earth’s glaciers are melting quickly, and scientists, environmentalists, and leaders across the globe have been vocal about protecting them. The Guardian reports that Iceland is now marking the site of Okjökull—the country’s first glacier lost to a warming planet—with a plaque. It reads, “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Ice will continue to melt and shrink. But exhibitions like Glacier thrust Earth’s magnificence in front of our eyes and force us to reckon with the possibility of losing its essential parts. Axelsson’s standout ode to the glacier makes one consider the nature that we’ve already lost and the fragile nature we have left. These glaciers are gargantuan and gorgeous, but still melting all the while.

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