Adriana Lestido

Black Antarctic: the intense B side of the white continent

By Natalia Gelós.

The photographer came upon a surprise: the dark tones of the volcanic area. The story of a transforming experience.

When Adriana Lestido started her journey to t the Antarctic, she did it in the certainty that it was a definite landmark. On one hand; her body of work that places her as an example within Argentine contemporary photography with her portraits of women in prison, mothers and daughters, adolescent mothers and love. On the other; the need for something to truly open a “second stage ” What could be better for that than absolute, shining white?

However, she did not arrive at the snow white landscape she imagined since the day she spoke to the biologist who told her of that vast land under open sky. She was headed to Bahía Esperanza, (Hope Bay) but on February 2012 she reached Isla Decepción (Deception Island), life can play poetic jokes. She got abundant volcanic ground with splotches of dirty white. Nonetheless she did what she knows how to do, she photographed endlessly and took notes and all that now boils into two books under the same name. Black Antarctic. The book of photographs was edited by Capital Intelectual (with sponsorship from the city of Buenos Aires). The other, the Diaries are a part of the publisher Tusquet’s collection, Rara Avis, directed by Juan Forn.

The photos reveal a land with blurred edges, a territory that changes hour to hour, page to page. The diaries are atoned to it.

December 12th: “The cleanest place in the world. To cleanse in that whiteness, at the far rim. A new stage of truth, the purity of the heart. I’m happy. I feel I’m at the threshold of something beautiful”.

Now sitting in the living room of her house she chooses a photo. There were more that 500 to arrive at the final selection. She points at the last image, scans her finger over the drawing created by the fog that invades it all. “I like it because it’s an image of nothingness, she says, transformation is creation and you can feel that constantly in the Antarctic. One minute the mountain is there the next it’s disappeared.

-What’s made you feel a need for the Antarctic?

- It relates to my retrospective exhibition in 2008. I was in Madrid and I went to see and exhibition of Miquel Barceló and in a small room there were some white paintings made after spending some time in the Sahara Desert. I felt a powerful need to head towards whiteness, to go to the desert. I thought of the Sahara, but certain things came up and my idea was to go back to basics. I didn’t want to photograph people any more but to work with the four elements: water, air, earth and fire. I met a biologist who spoke to me of the Antarctic and said to myself: “That’s it! That’s our white desert! ”. So it became clear to me that I had to head down there.

- What were the days there like? In your diaries there to recurring themes: freedom and confinement.

-It was like being imprisoned. I was in a room that was like a prison cell, or worse: bunk beds, mattresses with no sheets, clothes hanging out to dry across the room. Yet as the same time I had a feeling of enormous freedom, no internet, no telephone. In Decepción we had a call through the radio a week. At first that was distressing but after it became liberating.

February 28th : “Decepción is the least white area in all the Antarctic, it’s black. It’s volcanic earth so it melts the snow right away. It’s only white in mid winter. But it has it´s attraction. It’s stange”.

- Where do you see the beauty in Decepción?

-Decepción is very moonlike. We wandered as much as we could. There were some incredible places. There are some restricted areas, it feels like another planet. You can feel the absence of human beings. That’s the most beautiful aspect of Antarctica; it’s a place without human weight, that’s what makes it to savagely beautiful.

March 3rd: “Just now when I went out to take photographs I saw a dead chinstrap penguin. A skua was pecking at it… It fled as I approached. I took photos of the penguin. It was at the water’s edge surrounded by red seaweed that looked like flowers.”.

In the diaries Lestido talks of the hours spent with the group, the dead time, the search inwards, into herself and the hunt for perfect photographs that are there one instant, gone the next. She’s like an explorer in search of a wildflower to feed on. There are also some beautiful descriptions of the wilderness, the proximity to animals and she recalls: “As the days went by I could relate better to them. When the sea lions are with their offspring, they’re fierce, so are the seals. Because I went to meditate by the water regularly they got used to me and I could get very close to them”.

- It’s impossible not to link this book to another about those who brave the cold. I’m referring to Herzog’s Of Walking on Ice, where he crossed kilometres on foot in below 0 degree temperatures under open skies to see his sick friend. Lestido read it when she was at home, months ago, with her project well under way.

- What happened when you read it?

- I could really relate to it. Being able to carry out something you set out to do against all odds is a beautiful idea and it’s bound to change something.

- How did it move you?

- I felt I had to be there, that I would find something. I gave myself in to the situation. To be able to see within myself through that remote place. Even though I meant to go one place and ended up in another. The great lesson was to understand that nothing can be foreseen. It all depends on how you handle things. What mattered was what the Antarctic had to say to me and to be able to listen. It’s slightly different or maybe not. Herzog aims to go in a straight line and all sorts of things happened on the way. That’s what it was about, his own transformation. Such a big move had to have a consequence within.

That subtle trace both inward and outward is there in Lestido’s photographs, in the diaries and in the exhibition that opens at Fundación Fortabat.