On exhibit in Aspen: Ice by Daniel Beltra | AspenTimes.com

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On exhibit in Aspen: Ice by Daniel Beltra

Daniel Beltrá on assignment shooting a commission for the Prince Charles Rainforest Project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2009. Photo by Daniel Beltrá.

ASPEN – The last time Daniel Beltra showed his work in Aspen, the audience reaction was mixed. It was the summer of 2010, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf Coast, and Beltra’s exhibition of photographs, Spill, captured both the eye-catching colors and compositions that had been created around the Gulf, and the repulsive reality of the situation.

“They’d say, ‘Oh, the photo is beautiful,” Beltra, a 47-year-old who was raised in Madrid and has lived for 11 years in Seattle, said. “Then they read the caption and say, ‘Oh, an oil spill. Ewww. But at least I’ve got their attention.”

Beltra’s latest series tilts that balance more toward the side of beauty. The exhibition, Ice, comprises images of ice, icebergs and ocean. Most of the photographs were made in the Arctic Ocean; others were taken in Antarctica and near British Columbia. The pieces are almost inarguably gorgeous reminders of the art that nature can produce on her own, and they are untainted by unnatural-looking slicks and patches of oil burning on the water’s surface.

In the Ice series, the ugly truth is located well outside the frame. Beltra took the Arctic images late this past summer – just as it was announced that there was the lowest summer sea-ice coverage of the Arctic Ocean that had even been recorded. The coverage was just 24 percent, eclipsing the last record – 29 percent, measured in 2007 – by a comfortable margin. Beltra was part of a Greenpeace expedition that sailed to 83 degrees north, some 500 miles south of the North Pole, to document the situation.

“We were there when the new record was announced. So this depicts that day and the days around it,” Beltra said Wednesday morning at Quintenz and Company Fine Art (in The Residences at The Little Nell), where the exhibition opens with a reception Friday at 6 p.m. (Barbara Bloemink, executive director of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, will introduce Beltra and give a talk about his work.) “Just imagine – pretty soon, if you extrapolate these figures, we won’t have any more summer ice. Ice will disappear. And there are the implications for animals: polar bears – their future is pretty uncertain.”

As appealing as the images might be, they still hint on a visual level at the more disturbing picture of warming temperatures and the disappearance of sea ice (and, of local concern, the truly alarming vanishing of snow). Beltra, who doesn’t strike the gloomy figure of a climate alarmist, points to spots in the photographs where the ice is melting, where pools of water have formed on the ice.

But for me, the images worked best on a metaphoric level. In most of the Arctic photographs, the ice has broken into bits, and reminded me, in some part of the brain, of something coming apart, of unsteady footing, of things being beyond our control.

“It’s fragility,” Beltra observed. “It’s breaking up in front of you.”

Beltra pointed out another visual feature of the exhibition. The images are taken from an assortment of perspectives – sometimes close in, sometimes from farther away; some are from directly overhead, others are taken from the side of the ship. Visually, it made the exhibition more varied, and forces the viewer to think about distances and points of view. But this also worked as metaphor: With the images, as with the issue of climate, we don’t know exactly what we’re looking at, how big it is. Even when we do see what’s in front of our eyes, it’s hard to know just what to make of it, how to fit it in with our experiences and beliefs.

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Beltra’s college studies, all in Madrid, consisted of four years of biology and two years of forest engineering. Before he finished either course, he got a job as a photojournalist with Spain’s national news agency, and he used his camera to take him into the natural world. By the late ’90s, he had established a specialty in documenting changes and tragedies in the environment: He has done series on wildlife and the Amazon, frequently working in conjunction with Greenpeace.

In 2009, Beltra worked with Prince Charles’ Rainforest Project, making a limited-edition book focusing on the danger of deforestation. Beltra had exhibitions of the images in London, Paris, Berlin and New York, and Prince Charles himself presented the book to world leaders who gathered for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. “It was to create a clear link between deforestation and climate change, because 20 percent of carbon emissions comes from deforestation,” Beltra said.

Beltra has developed a particular affection for sea ice as a subject. “There’s something very specific about photographing ice: You have a glimpse into something that existed only at that moment in time,” he said. “It breaks; it melts or it freezes. It’s never going to be the same. And it’s breaking up in front of you, like a landscape that’s evolving.”

In the balance between making beautiful pictures and documenting what is happening in the world, Beltra believes he leans toward the latter. “I wasn’t trying to create beautiful images. I just wanted reality,” he said of the work in Ice. But he also understands why some viewers – and probably a gallery – would want him to emphasize the sublime. “It’s easy to get tired when you see a lot of negativity, harsh objects. It’s like war photography – it’s important, it’s a must to keep your eyes open. But you want to look away from it too.

“The beauty – these are the images, when I go through them, that were most powerful, that caught my attention.”

Beltra says that the biggest weapon against climate change is education, and he sees himself as part of the education effort. Images from Spill were exhibited at the Seattle Aquarium, in the area where children play with animals. (Beltra will donate a portion of the proceeds from the current exhibition to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.)

“It’s humbling to think you take a few photographs and people pay so much attention,” he said, noting that many thousands of aquarium visitors saw his work. “It’s not only, This is beautiful and this is cool. It’s also, This is what’s happening, so be aware.”

Spending so much time chasing indicators of environmental degradation, getting so close up to the evidence, has not left Beltra discouraged. On the contrary, his work – especially when he is able to shoot from an airplane, thousands of feet up – has broadened his perspective.

“Doing it from the air, you take yourself away from the micro problems,” he said. “You take a breath and look at the big picture. That scale, that detachment lets you get a bigger perspective. It makes you wonder: That’s what I want to convey.

“Definitely I am concerned. But we put a man on the moon, we can do this.”

stewart@aspentimes.com