How the New York Public Library Put Together a Visual History of the Arctic

The New York Public Library explores centuries of visual depictions of the polar North
Courtesy The New York Public Library

A chromolithograph of William Henry Browne’s “Noon in Midwinter,” from Ten Coloured Views Taken During the Arctic Expedition of Her Majesty’s ships “Enterprise” and “Investigator” (1850). 

Years ago, when I was researching the history of Arctic photography for an article I co-wrote, I started to look at 19th-century Arctic expedition narratives. I was immediately struck by the kinds of illustrations found within these stories and how they were altered and amended to conform to certain ideas about the landscape and people. Many of these depictions were also quite enticing or dramatic, and so I began to think about the relationship between the Arctic imaginary and the imagery that was found in these books.

Courtesy The New York Public Library

A chromolithograph of William Henry Browne’s “The Bivouac,” from Ten Coloured Views Taken During the Arctic Expedition of Her Majesty’s ships “Enterprise” and “Investigator” (1850).

Using the New York Public Library’s rich collections, The Awe of the Arctic: A Visual Historyopen March 15 to July 13, 2024—surveys how the Arctic has been visually depicted, defined, and imagined throughout history, and it encourages us to think about our current understanding of the polar North. The first room of the exhibition, presented in the Wachenheim Gallery of the Schwarzman Building, focuses on early descriptions of the Arctic and expedition chronicles. Often, these illustrations, which range from the fantastical and extraordinary to the serene and picturesque, present the Arctic landscape as one open to conquest. 

Among the many objects on display is Gerrit de Veer’s first-hand account of Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz’s 1596–7 overwintering on the island of Novaya Zemlya. Like other explorers before him, Barentsz was searching for the Northeast Passage but ended up trapped in the thick Arctic pack ice. While Barentsz did not survive the long retreat journey toward the mainland, the officer de Veer did, and he published VVaerachtighe Beschryvinghe Uan drie seylagien, which became the first expedition bestseller. It is not only remarkable for its harrowing story, but also its inclusion of 32 illustrative woodcuts. Another highlight is Kaladlit assilialiait: Grønlandske træsnit (1860), the first publication of exclusively Greenlandic authorship. Aalut Kangermiu (Aron of Kangeq) made the woodcuts in the book from his own drawings and from art by five other Indigenous artists. In addition to the many images of the Arctic, a newly rediscovered letter by the surgeon on the HMS Erebus is displayed next to several portfolio volumes associated with the searches for the failed 1845–8 Franklin expedition. 

The second section of the exhibition, which inaugurates the Ispahani-Bartos Gallery, reflects on popular culture and the Arctic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through a broad range of media - from a piece of “Arctic scenery” earthen transferware to tiny cigarette cards and interactive stereographs - the display emphasizes the public’s constant appetite for all things Arctic. 

The Arctic Regions
Courtesy The New York Public Library

William Bradford’s The Arctic Regions (1873) features albumen silver prints by photographers John Lapham Dunmore and George P. Critcherson. The book’s 140 photographs follow their journey to the Arctic in the summer of 1869, a trip planned solely for artistic purposes.

Chum and Tankers
© Charles Xelot, Courtesy Galerie Sit Down

French photographer Charles Xelot’s “Chum and Tankers” (2017) captures a contrasting scene on the Yamal Peninsula in the Russian Arctic. Now holding one of the world’s largest gas fields, it is also the longtime home of the Nenet people. The photograph is one of the contemporary images featured in The Awe of the Arctic: A Visual History.

Kaladlit assilialiait: Grønlandske træsnit
Courtesy The New York Public Library

Kaladlit assilialiait: Grønlandske træsnit (1860) by Aalut Kangermiu (Aron of Kangeq) was the first publication of solely Greenlandic authorship, with its woodcuts depicting Inuit culture and history. 

A fold-out engraving conveys the colossal scale of whales
Courtesy The New York Public Library

A fold-out engraving conveys the colossal scale of whales in Sir John Narborough’s An Account of Several Late Voyages & Discoveries to the South and North (1694). 

In the summer of 1869, the American painter William Bradford embarked on an expedition into Baffin Bay, the purpose of which was solely artistic. For the trip, Bradford hired two professional photographers who made hundreds of glass plate negatives. Bradford then published an immense and luxurious tome titled The Arctic Regions, which, alongside the trip’s narrative, included an unheard-of 141 photographs—all of which had to be inserted by hand on each page. The book is on view alongside twelve individually framed photographs from the journey, which were made as promotional material. The popularity of the Arctic increased when disaster struck, and the public’s fascination with Arctic exploits was perfectly matched with the explorers’ desire for fame. Inexpensive and popular items, such as postcards, stereographs, games, and children’s books, encouraged the celebrity status of explorers and further deepened the relationship between spectacle and perilous adventure in popular culture. 

The final part of the exhibition, displayed in the Prints & Rayner Wing Galleries that run across the third floor, reflects on what the Arctic is today and how 21st-century photographers and printmakers view the region. In light of the ever-changing climate and technological advances, more artists are traveling north in search of inspiration and to understand the region’s fragility, history, and beauty. While the Arctic may appear foreign to most of the world, it is also home to many people and a distinct, increasingly vulnerable ecosystem. The range of conceptual and documentary works on view, made by both native and foreign artists, emphasizes the complexity of this international region. For example, photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva, who was born in Tiksi, Siberia, conveys the sublime beauty of the Arctic from a place of intimate knowledge, while German photographer Olaf Otto Becker reveals the danger of its crumbling ecological systems in the melting permafrost. Their work, alongside that of 38 other artists, reinforces that the Arctic is far more diverse than most of us who live south of its borders imagine it to be. 

Against the backdrop of climate change, The Awe of the Arctic encourages us to think about the Arctic as a real place and not just a far-off imaginary. With works on display that range from historic illustrations to contemporary artists’ books, photographs, and prints, the exhibition aims to enhance visitors’ knowledge of this multifaceted region so that they have a more informed and empathetic view of the Arctic, its fascinating history, and its continued importance for our world.