The Explorer’s Club
Seven or eight years ago, I was watching a show on a young Australian photographer who planned to fly over the North Pole and take aerial photographs of the frozen landscape. At the time, he was an unknown quantity, hardly fit for news reels or knighthood. His idea was simple enough and one that many photographers before him have attempted: get the first photographs of an unknown landscape as a path to recognition. This young Australian was named Hubert Wilkins, later Sir Hubert Wilkins. In the course of his life he would hold a number of professions from soldier, pilot, photographer, to ornithologist, explorer, and geographer.
A Polar Knight
The photographs he took of the North Pole were obviously an exploration feat, but by no means a visual treasure. His next attempt to outdo his polar flight was to determine once and for all if the North Pole was pure ice or if there was land under the frozen expanse that blocked the Northwest passage from Europe to the Orient. How does one go about probing the North Pole? Well in Wilkins’s mind it was quite simple. You buy a World War I submarine and outfit it with a huge drill bit. Then you can poke a hole through the ice from the bottom to prove there was no land. If all of this is starting to sound like an excerpt from a Wes Anderson film, don’t worry…it only gets weirder from here.
Wilkins did secure a decommissioned submarine from the US Navy (renamed as the Nautilus) and with the help of the Brooklyn Navy yard, wealthy friend Lincoln Ellsworth, and William Randolph Hearst’s publishing funds, he set off from Brooklyn to cross the Atlantic. The plan was to sail to England, then head up to Spitsbergen (Norway), and attempt to penetrate the North Pole from underneath the ice. What transpired was nothing short of glorious failure.
The sub nearly sunk en route to England and was towed into a British harbor. Its interior kept a balmy 40 degrees and 100% humidity, kind of like a nearly frozen tropical rainforest. This left everyone cold, wet, and most likely cranky the entire time. I’m sure that if our mother’s warnings about catching a cold had any shred of truth, two hours in Wilkins’ sub would have led to certain death.
The uncomfortable conditions did not deter the young explorer, who was only to be paid if successful. After repeated efforts to penetrate the Arctic Circle were thwarted by technical difficulty, Wilkins returned unsuccessful. The composition of the North Pole was still a mystery. It would not be until the middle of the Cold War that someone would drive a nuclear submarine right through the magnetic pole of the Arctic. This accomplishment would be my introduction to The Explorer’s Club, the Club of First.
Vice Admiral James Calvert
Halfway through the program on Wilkins, retired Vice Admiral James Calvert presented himself on camera. Calvert was the type of military gentleman who spoke with an authority that could convince an atheist that God existed. His presence, confidence, and ability to string together thoughts without using, “um…uh…or like,” caught my attention. He was a well-informed, fancifully decorated officer with a certain charisma that intrigued me. It was then revealed that he was a member of The Explorer’s Club. “What was that?” I wondered. Ever an inquisitive person, I looked it up. Turned out, there was a place where explorers of space, the ocean’s depths, and the far reaches of the globe gathered…and it was only seven blocks from my apartment on east 78th street. But as many great treasures of New York, it was a private affair and they were not looking for photographers.
As the years passed, I started going to their open lectures. The cast of mountaineers, scientists, treasure hunters, authors and explorers were as exciting as they sounded. Here was a group of people, from completely different backgrounds, unified in the pursuit of Curiosity. Imagine if college kids were able to major curiosity in a subject? It might be a good incentive for not showing up to class blisteringly hung over from experiments on how many gallons of beer you can drink before the things you swore you’d never do sounded like good ideas. Schools might actually be an engaging place. Alas, we will save the reconstruction of the American education system for another day.
NASA’s Artist in Residence
You have heard me say this in other articles, but New York City is a strange place. Like nowhere else in the world have chance encounters actually affected the path of my life. To detour for a short second, a college professor of mine, Roselee Goldberg, wrote a book on a performance artist name Laurie Anderson. Not to worry if you have never heard of either of them. They are quite famous in art circles, but neither of them are headline news. Never the less, Anderson gave a talk at the Guggenheim shortly after I watched the program on Wilkins. She had been awarded the first “Artist in Residence at NASA.” Her concluding piece, much to the disappointment of NASA, was a poem. But if you tell an artist to do whatever they want, don’t be surprised if they come up with something like a poem after spending a year with engineers and astronauts.
All of that aside, Anderson does have an incredible gift for storytelling. She recounted that while poking her way through the laboratories of NASA, she discovered that the studio practices of artists and the laboratory practices of scientists were not too dissimilar. Remember that GPS was invented by NASA engineers in their free time.
In discussions with NASA, she found that they would get an idea, put some numbers together with some mechanics and see if it worked. Half guess, part hunch, and a mixture of success and failure. Something clicked for me. The world of space exploration and art shared a common approach. Neither of them knew what they were looking for, they did not know how to get there, but they were gonna try their damnedest to figure out what was on the other end of their mystery, which leads us back to the North Pole.
Punching the North Pole
In 1959 Vice Admiral James Calvert succeeded in punching through the North Pole from the bottom. There is in fact no land at the North Pole. The nuclear submarine he captained “The Skate” was the first successful approach to the pole from the underside, which was a poetic follow up to Matthew Peary’s sledge from the top side. (Perry was also a member of the Explorer’s Club and his sledge sits above the doorway on the second floor in the Clark Room.)
One of the Explorer’s Club’s early requirements for membership was that if you were the first person to set foot on a previously untouched piece of land, you were awarded membership. Or in Calvert’s case, if you could prove there was no land to set foot on, they would let you in too.
Years after Wilkins, Calvert, and Anderson, I found myself accepted as a member of the Explorer’s Club. It’s a piece of paper I was more excited to get than my university diploma or honors certificate. In recognition, new members are also awarded a small pin. A simple mark of membership. So why is an artist at a club filled with mostly scientists? I believe that we do share a passionate pursuit of curiosity. Whether you want to probe the ocean floor, push the limits of space, or explore the way we sense the world around us…the Explorer’s Club offers an environment of like-minded people who share that pursuit of curiosity.
As an artist, the most immediate role I could serve is as the role famously outlined in an exchange between Ernest Shackleton and his photographer, Frank Hurley. When they were ready to leave the ice shelf of the Ross Sea and head on small cairns (boats) to Elephant Island, Shackleton said that Hurley could not bring all of his exposed film, to which Hurley responded, “Boss, if I don’t take this, none of this ever happened.”
Hurley was right, those images proved instrumental to bringing back the incredible journey they were about to embark on, as they sailed almost 800 nautical miles in a boat hardly fit to run vegetables through the lagoon in Venice. Shackleton let Hurley keep some of that film, to which we owe both of them a great debt of gratitude, not just for the factual evidence that they went, but because it carries with them a spirit of curiosity that launched the likes of Edmond Hillary, Jacques Cousteau, and Buzz Aldrin (with whom I had the distinct pleasure of sharing the Explorer’s Club Gala with last weekend, but more on that in the next article.)
Young photographers often ask me, “Do you need an assistant?” Most of the time I ask them why they want to be my assistant? They always respond, “Because I want to travel around and make pictures.” To which I advise them, you don’t need me for that. You can do that all on your own.
Exploration can be a lonely endeavor. Even if my stints away from home are nothing near the three and a half years someone like Shackleton might have spent away from England, there is a certain constitution required for venturing into the unknown. It can be a landscape, a seascape or uncharted conceptual territory, but whichever path you choose, it’s nice to know that when you return dusty and battered, the doors of the Explorer’s Club will be there to welcome you. What I advise the photographers who want to go and do something different: seek out people in whom you are interested and immerse yourselves in the world in which you want to be a part. We are the authors of our own stories, so we might as well pack the tales with fantastical adventures and interesting characters. Otherwise we will live nothing but a predictable rat race until we drop dead from a fate worse than freezing to death in the Arctic…by that I mean the slow and tedious death of boredom.
If you would like to follow the activity of the Explorer’s Club or come to an event, follow them at:
- The Explorer’s Club Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Explorers-Club/691604090855340
- The Explorer’s Club Instagram: http://instagram.com/the_explorers_club
From here we move forward!