Exploration of time scales: geologic, natural, human
posted by Dale Rio on 18 December 2023

Ever since a trip to Iceland – where geologic time was compressed and on display through volcanic activity, fields of volcanic rocks, and black sand beaches – I have been contemplating and researching time in its various forms, including how humans interact with and attempt to define and control time. Although my focus is on nature – and trying to tell the story of place through the guidance of the land itself – it is nearly impossible to examine the natural world dissociated from humanity, since our impact on the planet is so far-reaching and profound.

Kilpisjärvi was an excellent place to ponder the relationship between nature, time, and humanity. Twenty-four hours of sunlight was interesting to navigate, as the workaholic photographer in me struggled to determine when to stop shooting and call it a night. I was tempted to photograph around the clock, since the sun was also working non-stop. Human-defined time seemed particularly non-sensical, since all of the hours of the day and night were available for “use.” My pattern of waking and sleeping was initially quite erratic, which allowed me to take some breathtaking nighttime hikes. If I had stubbornly clung to time as dictated by standard human interpretation rather than letting nature guide my sleep patterns, I would have unknowingly denied myself some of my most cherished memories (and photographs) from my time spent in Kilpisjärvi.

I tried to tap into the passage of time and the flow of nature specific to the area, and in a similar way to how I perceived lava and volcanic rock in Iceland, it became clear to me that the flow of natural time in Kilpisjärvi was expressed through the flow of water; from the mountain snow and ice pack through the streams moving downward through the fells and the surrounding järvi that serve as collection units. All were active and visible simultaneously, which conveyed a similar feeling of compression of geologic and natural time. I employed several photographic techniques in an attempt to capture and visually express this confluence of the simultaneity, passage, and compression of time. The movement – both slow and rapid – of snow and water and its relationship with the sun was captured on both paper and fabric coated with cyanotype chemistry and exposed while dipped into snow pack and running water at various levels within the landscape. Pinhole photography, which requires long exposures, was used to capture the literal passage of time. And sequential photographing was employed to create individual images that could later be displayed together to form a type of reconstituted image with “glitches” in the alignment that represent the complicated nature of time.

I had some unexpected opportunities while at Kilpisjärvi… The first was being able to use the research station’s microscopes to capture some of the elements of the region on the level of minutae. I focused on aspects of key species of the local flora and fauna, such as reindeer fur and birch leaves, and used photomicroscopy to create digital images of their microscopic structures that I then made into digital negatives in order to print them using the historic platinum/palladium process. My intention with these images is to exhibit them together with sweeping landscapes and detail images of the environment in order to compose a portrait of place that simultaneously expresses multiple viewpoints, from the typically unseen to the all-encompassing.
The stations’ biology collection provided me with the opportunity to photograph skeletal remains of some of the local fauna, and, as a forensic photographer, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to create a makeshift studio in which to create images of some of the keystone species of the area. I’m not quite sure at this point how this small body of work fits into the larger whole, particularly since it’s so visually different from the rest of the images I created in Kilpisjärvi, but we’ll see what the future holds for it!

One of the most impactful “surprises” while in residence was coming across remnants from World War II in the forest across the street from the house in which I stayed. I hadn’t known about that particular history of the area, and it wasn’t until I read some signposts at Malla that I realized what had been crunching under my feet in during previous hikes... What I’d assumed to be the shallow roots of birch trees and leaf litter was actually twisted and rusted barbed wire. With a deep and long-standing interest in what humans leave in their wake, I began to document the war detritus – rusted barbed wire, tin cans, vehicle parts, bottles, etc. – that I encountered in the woods. Although not in my initial plans for my time at Kilpisjärvi, this discovery related well to my considerations on how difficult it is to separate the natural and the manmade and how the landscape can hold onto history, memory, and emotion. Having never lived in an area directly affected by war waged within living memory, encountering such objects that had been allowed to coexist – and literally become enmeshed – with the landscape had a profound impact on me. I felt if they were left as a reminder or a cautionary tale for the future generations of humanity.

My time spent at Kilpisjärvi was full of challenges and discoveries. It allowed me the space to experiment and remain flexible and to embrace opportunities that presented themselves. It provided me with time to contemplate the conceptual aspects of the new work that I’m creating and consider how best to translate those concepts into visual storytelling. Although that work is still in-progress, having spent time shooting and thinking deeply in a setting both distraction-free and compelling was pivotal in the progression of this work.