Art in the rocks: Photo exhibit finds beauty in an elemental part of earth

  • “Schibutka,” a photo from the Svalbard Archipelago.  Photo by Rhea Banker

  •  “Movement in the Stillness,” a photo from the Svalbard Archipelago. Photo by Rhea Banker

  • “Approaching Pyramiden,” photo from the Svalbard Archipelago. Photo by Rhea Banker

  • Photo courtesy Rhea Banker

  •  “Shallow waters,” photo fronm the Svalbard Archipelago. Photo by Rhea Banker

  • “Pink Canyon Reflection, Valley of Fire,” Nevada. Photo by PAUL HETZEL

  • “Pink Canyon Swirls, Valley of Fire,” Nevada. Photo by PAUL HETZEL

  • Photo courtesy Paul Hetzel

Staff Writer
Published: 1/7/2022 3:05:35 PM
Modified: 1/7/2022 3:04:55 PM

Think landscape photography and you usually picture big, dramatic vistas: mountain ranges marching into the distance, the sweeping grasslands and acacia trees of the African savanna, the picturesque valleys of the Scottish Highlands.

But as a new photo exhibit in Northampton’s Forbes Library demonstrates, there’s plenty of beauty — and history — to be found in some of the smaller details of nature.

The exhibit, at the Hosmer Gallery, features the work of photographers Rhea Banker and Paul Hetzel. Banker offers an artistic look at the Svalbard Archipelago, a cluster of rocky, glacial islands just 500 miles from the North Pole, while Hetzel’s photos highlight the natural coloring and patterns in rock formations — what he calls “Nature’s Palette.”

Banker, who lives in Shelburne Falls, is also a book designer who has spent much of her photographic career exploring northern lands — Scotland, the Outer Hebrides, Greenland — as well as Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America. In an interview, she said her interest in photographing this terrain first developed during a trip to Scotland, which she says has some of the oldest rock formations on earth.

“So much of the history of the earth is written in rocks,” said Banker, whose photos have been exhibited in Scotland, Denmark, Greenland, the U.S. and other locations. “They really tell stories of the past.”

In the fall of 2019, she was invited to take part in a residency program, The Arctic Circle, that brings together artists, scientists, educators and others to examine the Svalbard Archipelago, one of the fastest-warming spots on the planet. Participants traveled around the islands in a specially outfitted sailing ship and also visited selected places on shore.

Banker’s photographs capture both the forbidding majesty of this setting, where enormous, striated walls of rock come down to the sea, and smaller details, such as colorful patterns of different rock just beneath a section of shallow water. She also found new sections of rock that have been revealed, perhaps for the first time in centuries, as glaciers on the archipelago have retreated due to climate change.

“What we were really trying to do there was bear witness,” Banker said. “Not only are glaciers retreating, the seas are rising.”

At the same time, looking at some of this change from an artistic perspective has its appeal. As she writes in exhibit notes, “I became fascinated by the textures, colors, and forms now becoming visible beneath the melting ice and snow. As glaciers recede, the Earth reveals formations of the land’s past and hints at its unknown future.”

Banker brings a certain abstraction to her photographs, which have titles such as “Blomestrandbreen Landscape” and feature impressive arrays of color and texture; some of them might pass for close-up photos of crystals.

The appeal in photographing these details of rock, she says, is documenting the way rock is transformed over time by ice, water, heat, pressure and other natural forces.

Sadly, Banker adds, climate change now has become one of those forces. She has lived and traveled in the western part of Greenland over several years, documenting small village life through her photographs and also teaching, and she says warming temperatures are disrupting life for Indigenous peoples there who have long relied on fishing, hunting and traveling over ice on wooden sleds.

Natural coloring

For his part, Paul Hetzel of Springfield notes in a statement about his part of the Hosmer exhibit: “Artists create vibrant paintings with the use of color pigments. Mother Nature creates equally vibrant color and patterns secondary to minerals and pigments found in soil and rock.”

Hetzel, a retired oncologist, took up photography seriously after hiking on trails near Mount Everest in 1994. A member of the Pioneer Valley Photographic Artists, an informal group of seasoned photographers, he has traveled extensively over the last 2½ decades, both in the U.S. and abroad, in search of landscape photo opportunities.

Some of those trips have been with organizations that cater specifically to photographers, including one on which he traveled by boat up the east coast of Greenland, visiting Scoresby Sund (or Sound), the longest fjord system in the world. Others have been with friends, especially to places in the American West and Southwest — Utah, Arizona, California, Oregon.

It was while visiting one of his favorite spots in the West — Valley of Fire, a state park in Nevada known for its dramatic red sandstone formations and ancient petroglyphs — some years back that Hetzel came across some particularly vivid colored gradations on a canyon wall.

He says it occurred to him then that “I really should go through my photos and cull these pieces that speak to this amazing coloring you get [on rock] from weathering and erosion.”

“Nature’s Palette” offers numerous views of this undulating coloring from western U.S. spots such as Valley of Fire; Capitol Reef National Park and Boulder Mountain, both in Utah; Badlands National Park in South Dakota; and the California coast and Sierra Mountains. But Hetzel notes that this kind of weathering occurs everywhere, and his exhibit includes photos from New Zealand, Iceland, and western Massachusetts.

Particularly striking are some images from the John Day Fossil Beds in north-central Oregon, a U.S. National Monument of badlands and desert that contains well-preserved layers of fossil plants and mammals. Some of Hetzel’s pictures showcase small, varied dark shapes against multicolored walls that appear as though they’ve been created by human hands — petroglyphs? — rather than by nature.

Another highlight is a section of marble wall in King’s Canyon National Park in California, where dozens of lines of multicolored, banded marble zigzag across the photo. And during a trip to Iceland last summer, Hetzel photographed fast flowing rivers that, full of glacial melt and silt — he calls them “braided rivers” — create spectacular and colorful abstract forms.

As much as he’s enjoyed traveling for his photography, Hetzel says he knows some of these landscapes are threatened. On his trip to Greenland, in 2017, he photographed the Northern Lights, crystalline icebergs, glaciers, and miles of rugged shoreline. But, he said, “You wonder how much it will change … I’m glad I got to see it when I did.”

The exhibit of Banker and Hetzel’s work is on view through Jan. 30.


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