The Last Igloo

I’ve just seen a wonderful film about a hunter in East Greenland.   We meet no one but him.  His daughters are there at the beginning, but we don’t meet them and they don’t look up from their smart phones. 

This hunter doesn’t live in an igloo but a multi-storey construction of wood and cinder block, seen in passing as we root around for the sledge and its tackle among clothes lines in the semi-darkness of night or endless day.  I think we glimpse two large salted fish hanging upside down, but can’t be sure.

He has told us about padded trousers he puts on to go hunting but he still seems underdressed, without any kind of coat.  There are also no dogs, though I saw a pile of harnesses as he began pushing the long skinny sled laboriously up an incline.  The village is rectilinear with wide spaces between its parallel streets.  When the sky is lightening and we are well clear of the settlement, we see the first sign of dogs, a city of them, sleeping in the snow, strung loosely on lines like streets.

They make a complicated noise in a language we don’t speak.  Hooking them up requires a big coil of pale turquoise-green nylon rope (possibly not nylon, remembering a terrible story of nylon springing back with near-fatal results when stretched).  Once hitched to the sled, they aren’t tied in tight formation but loosely, and wander as they go (‘I wonder as I wander’ flits through my head).   Soon it is full day and there are strange bird cries and aerial views of the dogs who never get tangled and form fascinating irregular patterns on the snow.  Later in the day we see the hunter’s shadow reaching fifty times his height.  Much later we notice from the movement of his lips that the hunter makes all the bird-cries himself.

We aren’t told where we are going, but it feels very far from home, through trackless wastes of snow and dark rock.  When harnessing the dogs, Julius (the hunter, not that he ever has a name in his own narration, nor is there ever a word in any language but his) says dogs are intelligent but snow-mobiles are dumb. Dogs can warn of dangers, thin ice the greatest, which you intuit from their groupings, bunched or spread more thinly.  At the time the beautiful views of the dogs’ movements seen from above didn’t make me think of helicopters, whose awful din and tell-tale shadows have been suppressed if present.   They only burst into my mind when I heard a friend’s horrified response to the film, trampling he called it, a sign of our terrible intrusion into the remotest wildness.  I wondered whether drones might have done the job, even more sinister, if quieter, some would say.

At first this friend’s response made me guilty and irritable.  Wasn’t the filmmaker’s tact something special, no flashy successes for the hunter or the spies (us), no seal-kill, no polar bears, just the anecdote of the day the hunter’s brother never came back.  It had not crossed my mind to think how much The Last Igloo cost, which is to say how many support staff, how much preparation, how many shoots, how many journeys.  My friend is a film-maker as well as a guardian of the earth, whom I rightly admire, and he knows about these ramifications that films always conceal and want you to forget.   When I think about it I am grateful to him for making me think further than I had about how this structure, meaning this film, fits in the universe, in the history of the human presence on the earth and in the sequence of works of art aiming at the kind of authenticity it aims at.

The best parts are yet to come, the stringing of the seal-net under the ice, using three holes to throw your spear under water with the net attached from each point to the next until it is secured on the surface at all three.  This procedure is carried out in such detail that you could repeat it.  From a distance it seems like magic.  After the explanation, ingenuity and skill and less of the supernatural.   This is also the single point at which a cultural comparison sprang to mind, a Hemingway fishing story from In Our Time.   Like the father in the story, the Greenlander combines in his technique both the uncanny and the everyday.

A mystery accompanies every stage of the journey – the village, the seal-trap, the catfish well, the house-building.  Every time, the dogs have entirely disappeared from the scene of the action.  We are told they are ‘family’, one of the few sentimental touches in the film, sentimental because it is clearly not true.  They are not treated with pet-style friendliness or indulgence.  I don’t think they have individual names or personalities like the favourite dogs in Jack London.  They are kept away from the hunt itself and we can only guess why. 

I have puzzled over what to do with the film’s culmination which I want to keep hidden, as the film does, only springing it at the last minute, but need to emphasise, because it includes the essential point of the whole.  The Last Igloo ends with the construction of an igloo, formerly the shape that Greenlanders’ dwellings took, in the days when they were nomadic, a stage still strong in memory and recaptured in part any time a hunter goes on a hunt.  This is a guess, of course.  The film doesn’t say this, but allows a strong feeling to arise that Julius feels he re-enacts his people’s history whenever he goes out alone to hunt.

Now igloos in Greenland are not family dwellings but temporary shelters in special conditions – when threatened by an unforeseen storm which you might not survive unprotected, or when you have ended up too far from home to get back before nightfall. 

The film’s most satisfying ingenuity lies in making us feel, at least for a moment, that this has actually happened, that a storm has sprung up or is clearly brewing in signs a native would recognise, so there is just enough time to create cover before it breaks. Or – this alternative succeeds the other one – that we are too far from home to get back at a reasonable time and must resign ourselves to spending the night where we are.   In the first period we are still scanning the sky for signs of violent weather on the way.  In the second we are hoping the hunter has left enough time to build his tent before dark.

He has already told us that in good conditions he can construct an igloo in an hour, but this is hard to believe.  He starts by looking for the right kind of hard snow, cured by wind sweeping over it.   Then he makes flat blocks of the snow like plates or crispbread which don’t look strong but easily broken.  Next he ties a rope to a shovel, a move that doesn’t make sense at first.  He ties the rope to a post, around which he walks at a constant distance.  Then he tramples the snow in the resulting circle to make a trench in which he sets thicker blocks upright, trimming off lots of snow from all sides, provoking anxiety that they are dwindling.   Successive rows slope increasingly.  He has the geometry down to a T and cuts off triangular sections from each new block to fit it onto the one before.   Finally he throws loose snow against the inner wall then packs this layer down and a matching one outside.

There are many moments when the building blends completely with its surroundings.  You have stepped back — that is the secret of this invisibility — and the igloo has disappeared.  The light changes continually without your seeing it.  The snow is blue when viewed from inside, as the last two pieces are dropped in, rough half-circles, to close the dome. 

He has brought two candles and a cooking burner which blazes away against the side wall, as if we are daring it to melt the snow, which it has turned to ice and toughened in a mysterious way.  Further applications of snow will make it even stronger.

Lit up from inside, the invisible igloo is a glowing jewel visible from far away.  We abscond into the sky, leaving the igloo far below like a planet in a black sea.  It is the last moment before that culture disappears.  But this is not absolutely the last igloo; Julius will build others.  It was a brilliant simulacrum, not a real or necessary building, for he wasn’t really trapped by time or weather, but brought us very close to thinking so.  I don’t entirely enjoy remembering how much concealed trampling is required to bring about such raptures of loneliness in a world magically emptied of the human presence.  Yet I can’t unwish the film and cling to the memory of one place in the world, inside an igloo, where melting leads to strengthening.

The Last Igloo (2019, 89 min) is available on BBC iPlayer for 21 days from the date of this posting. A drone supervisor is mentioned in the credits, Julius does wear a coat outdoors most of the time and there are other small errors of recall (the shovel is itself the post for plotting the igloo’s circle, for instance), errors common in plot summaries when reviewers have seen their films only once.

Vivian Maier, street photographer

Vivian Maier is a street photographer who died completely unknown in 2009.  She left behind an astonishing body of work.   Estimates of how many images it contains are still vague.  There may be as many as 150,000, most of them undeveloped when they came to light.

She was a hoarder, who spent much of her adult life working as a nanny and living in single rooms in other people’s houses, which she insisted should have secure locking arrangements and were found, on the rare occasions when anyone else gained entry, to be full of chest-high piles of newspapers, leaving paths between them for reaching bed, wardrobe, windows.

There is a riveting 84-minute film Finding Vivian Maier made by John Maloof, who stumbled across a few boxes of the pictures in a Chicago auction house when working on a local history topic about his neighbourhood and bid on a large box of negatives.  He thought the photos might be useful for illustrating his research.  They turned out not to be.

Maier was still alive at this point, as Maloof didn’t know.  He put the pictures aside and forgot them.  His interest was awakened again in 2010 and he began collecting further images and other remains, including audio-tapes of interviews with subjects of the pictures.   Maloof’s wonderful short film is available at the moment on MUBI and tells the story as a kind of whodunnit, looking for all the people who knew Maier – her employers, her relatives in France, one of her friends (not a numerous class) and a sociologist who met her, I forget how.   The film shrewdly delays telling the most startling and disturbing things about its subject till towards the end.

So this isn’t a subject where I have any deep familiarity.  I’ve only been looking at the photographs for about two weeks.  Of the hundred and fifty thousand, I have seen at most 200.  I haven’t had time to understand this category ‘street photographer’, a fascinating one but new to me.  So at last I have the type of subject I have been dreaming of, where I am truly in the dark.  I think my method will be to put together a larger set of images than usual and let them speak for themselves, except for a few comments about why I find them interesting.  Inevitably I am drawn to certain images and certain themes, and not others. 

Pictures of people asleep are among my favourite Maiers.  The display of magazines and newspapers makes a cosy room or a dragon’s cave, an over-communicative construction, turned inside out, and balanced between neatness and disorder.

Another homemade construction concealing a building site.  It’s a subversive architectural moment, in which buildings are forced to reveal their backsides.  The single overbearing car, oblivious strider and lamp post are a typically queasy, surreal group.

More sleepers, more obverse and reverse of a repeated motif.  I love the grittiness of this and the perversity of the geometrical consistency imposed by the bench and the fence (and its shadow).  A highly structured space, yet anything but.  The subject does not end at the side-edges.

This priest-like ten-year-old is surrounded by fragments of architectural pretension.  Is it waste ground or a graveyard?  A metal stairway to where?   The first of many impenetrable enigmas.

A father and two children walking away from us.  A low wall dividing us from a ravine.  A puddle creating a double Rorschach – a black snowflake in the centre of the picture that counteracts their forward motion, or rather multiplies the directions in which things move.

First self-portrait, first instance where we see the image being produced right this minute by her hand, in the painting which she has made of the portrait, as if the part she is responsible for can be isolated in the centre. The doll on the counter a weird touch, the light from the side another ghost.

A complex trick.  It looks as of these figures are hanging from a ceiling which is below the floor in a no-space.

Another nap, or an accident?  The house peering into the car window an uncanny touch.

Another nap, another far-away element lined up with the sleeper, an Oldsmobile across the street.  All these sleepers – are they pictures of the unconscious?

Another self-portrait with an attendant looking at something else.  The shops behind her are behind us, though in front.  Mirrors are baffling, however long you’ve had to get used to them.  Strange that the brushed metal makes their lower parts look as if we’re seeing them through a gauze curtain.

Looking down into another room below the floor.  Something wonderful about the head-on view.

More mirror tricks, though I still want to think I’m seeing him through a glass door, his legs chopped off by it, but there on the other side.  The label on the ‘door’, around which you see the sky, has less force if it’s stuck on a mirror.  The two flaps on either side of the central scene are like wings on an altarpiece.  The tiny corridor running on forever on the left is an insoluble mystery.  The building with fire escapes on the right fits perfectly until you look closely, then it doesn’t: light and shadow are in the wrong places.

Someone else building his private cave.

Emerging from the subway, a group of escaping captives.

One of the most incomprehensible, presumably made more confusing by how it is cropped.  Is there glass any more in this large opening?  The man’s foot seems to puncture it.  If not, how explain the reflections of two cars in the tarp?  Is the man, consisting entirely of shoes and sagging cuffs, just rolling up the tarp to begin selling the peaches from a stall, not a more permanent shop?  The surrealest of all.

She sprawls on her front step and deploys the torn-out page like goddesses did scraps of cloth in their modesty.

A ferry docking, uncharacteristically atmospheric.

Self-portrait on a crooked slice of mirror which chops up the building behind.

 A self-portrait which creates a circular or angular pavilion out of reflections and projections of walls and canopies.

A composite creature created by a fire hydrant.

Another car interior as a magically complex space in another stationary vehicle. 

Another seller’s hut as a dense, complex space or cave.  Colour used sparingly.

Again red/orange accents, searing here.  A scene of mythical import.

How many people?  They multiply.

It looks as if they are materialising a woman’s leg from a piece of mosquito net or spun sugar at a carnival – magic.

Depths of a sideways look, solitude in crowds, both near and far.

This one came after a series of colour pics and landed with unexpected solemnity.

Maier isn’t usually a minimalist—this one comes nearest.

What are they saying?

The most inscrutable of all.

Full of contrasts, a great composition.

Where’s Hoffa?  The violence of it, perpetrated against paper.

Apparently the piles of newspapers in Maier’s room often featured lurid crimes, a passion of hers.

Sleeping news vendor whose shoe has mysteriously migrated.

An expression that holds you.  The spare colour is gripping.

A found object.

As a way to convey movement.  A realm of ghosts.  Maier’s world is one of strange accidents which occur in the midst of life but stand apart from it.  The outsider finds outsiderdom reflected back at her wherever she looks.  She discovers loneliness in city streets, confirming in myriad ways what Baudelaire noticed all those years ago.

For my wife’s response to the Vivian Maier film, see

Roman Vishniac travelling east in 1935-38

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Vishniac was a refugee, who had moved (or fled?) from Russia to Berlin in 1920. He got married at the border, and his daughter Mara, who appears in his photos of Berlin in the 30s, must have been born there. She functions in them as a kind of decoy. Photography wasn’t an entirely safe activity for a Jew there and then, certainly not when snapping the Nazi posters and symbols that Vishniac wanted to record, so Mara posed in front or to the side of the real subject and tried to look like the reason for getting out the camera.

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I am fighting off various superstitions about this subject. I first saw Vishniac’s pictures of the Jews of Eastern Europe in a small exhibition in Camden Town which I caught on the last day. I soon found out that he set off on three years of exploring the lives of poor Jews in Poland, Ruthenia and Ukraine in the very same year that American photographers were sent into the Deep South to record the lives of sharecroppers driven into destitution by the Wall Street crash and years of drought. I am thinking especially of James Agee and Walker Evans who spent three months in the fall of 1936 living with three families in rural Alabama.

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In that case there’s a wonderful convergence between Agee’s words and Evans’ images. With Vishniac there are images and few words, at least for me, so far. I need to wait and find out more, about Vishniac’s routes and the length of his stays—did he keep returning to Berlin? And how deeply connected with his subjects did he become?

But I feel a superstitious urgency to write about Vishniac and his pictures now, in the heightened moment of first meeting, and I have found an Agee of that moment in Europe whom I can work into my account of Vishniac, or whom I can at least feel hovering overhead. My European Agee is Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who kept a remarkable diary and was deported with her family from the camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands to Poland, where she died on 30 November 1943. So the dates and places don’t quite match, but she stands as a strong arguer for catastrophe transfigured by imagination, the imagination of a 27-year-old.

I can’t stop even now to read Etty’s diaries, but have learned from first glimpses that she had the most powerful sense that the acts of the oppressor were not ultimately real, lacking the force and presence of an inner truth she felt most fervently. Maybe something like this conviction, though unconscious, contributes to the inordinate power I feel in Vishniac’s images from the East, though I want to resist the urge to read the Holocaust into every one of these pictures that so often seem directly comparable with Evans’ from the American South.

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In one of his most famous lectures Heidegger says something about nearness and farness that hit me, when I came across it, with revelatory force, and went like this: that we have lost track of what is truly near and essential to us, forsaking it for that which is far away, with which we have nothing important to do.

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Vishniac’s pictures of the furthest fringes of Europe seem at first to have the appeal of the exotic and primitive, of lives unimaginably far from ours. The exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town tried to represent all parts of his career equally, or at least not to neglect long stretches, such as the fifty-year aftermath he spent in the USA. I found I had almost no time for the American pictures, except the ones which showed the deprivations of wartime, like the image above of women waiting to buy rationed meat.

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The pictures from the East seem to get closer to the essence of things, as do the interiors of sharecroppers’ houses in the Alabama book, or the careworn faces of farmers and their underfed children who have imbibed anxiety with their mothers’ milk. We find such emotions in children from both these places so far apart.

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How does the child in the Warsaw basement flat learn his alert caution? I don’t know anywhere else except the Alabama images where you see the rudest elements of the barest lives brought so near, with such devoted attention, as here in this basement, in the infinite variety of the ragged kindling or the coarse richness of the curtain or the bleakness of the cupboard. Evans’ pictures generally look more posed, or is it composed? Vishniac’s daring in pushing the boy to the edge of the frame seems extreme, but it was probably also the way of getting him to feel that the camera wasn’t pointed at him, and thus of catching him starting to relax.

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So you have in some way lived these objects, if not these lives. If you feel you have lived the lives, they have often come to you through the faces, and it can almost be the number of lines in a not so old face that keeps you focused, deciphering it. The Ruthenian farmer above was also a tanner, the caption tells us, an economic complexity which makes a doubling in the character.

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One of my own uncanny overlaps with Etty Hillesum is that someone gives her a copy of Crime and Punishment in two volumes, thinking it the right reading for such desperate times. This has just happened to me too, and I am looking everywhere for the lopsided proportions I love in Dostoevsky and finding them in Vishniac’s portraits. In the image above, as with Marmeladov, one of the writer’s most memorable creations, who disappears when you’ve barely met him, a strongly characterised figure appears round the corner of a larger, less characterised one, and their enigmatic exchange is never explained.

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Some images have eluded me almost entirely. Rabbis in ill-fitting, food- or mud-stained robes with three books under one arm, a bookcase with three shelves of battered books, the library of one of many rabbis in the remote, semi-mythical town of Mukachevo. The only image I can find of this collection of books adds its own faintness to this precarious sight, on which much ink has been spilt by later writers.

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My nearness to these places and these people, both like and unlike the ones Agee and Evans discovered, mostly urban not rural, and thus not conforming to the usual American idea of the most rooted kind of life, my nearness comes over me in those dirty crowded rooms devoted to reading, the yeshivas and perhaps even more the cheders, where one boy looking up in a visionary way is, we learn, one of the survivors, now living in Woodstock, New York, and a Buddhist.

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I have learned since writing this that Vishniac’s explorations were much riskier than I realised, so the parallel with Agee and Evans could seem frivolous to those who know the situation better.  The Jews of Warsaw were already subject to crippling regulation, like a government-sponsored boycott of Jewish shops that forced many out of business.  Jews were eventually prohibited from practising most trades except those considered low, like portering, a group Vishniac joined and lived among, loading and pulling wagons himself, which led to some of the best, most intimate pictures (and brought him nearer to Agee and Evans’ kind of immersion than I knew).  There were streets in which Jewish bagel-sellers were not allowed.  Such restrictions and indignities are all too familiar from Victor Klemperer’s diaries recording life in Dresden in the 1930s, and Polish techniques of oppression may sometimes be copied from German precedents.

The New York Times and Trump’s first year

Another documentary, another boring subject! We’re only halfway through Trump’s second year and already we want a rehash of his first? That sounds like the quintessence of staleness—material well known, and too close to have been forgotten. On top of that nearness, the far-ness of dealing not with the primary subject himself, but a second hand view through the distancing filter of the media.

How did anyone know there’d be such a good story here? I suppose the campaign of 2016 gave warning of that. One characteristic of the Trump era is that things don’t hold still, but move at nerve-wracking speed. We have never seen anything like this before, and might thus imagine that Trump is setting the pace himself, like a reality show host manufacturing rivalries, creating bogies, throwing out childish nicknames.

But these four programmes show over and over again that ‘events’ do not sit there for the taking, clearly marked and distinct. Especially when the government is bent on keeping you from finding out, the task of recognising what will constitute a real event with important consequences often presents an intellectual challenge of a high order. The nature and significance of the famous meeting between Donald Trump Jr and Russian emissaries had to be pieced together out of scattered hints threatening to vanish under a flurry of lies.

Often stories don’t have single authors and contributions come from far afield. The cast of characters is vast and verges on confusing. These films disobey one of the basic rules for creating human interest: pick out one or two individuals and stick with them, making a person stand for an amorphous group. The filmmakers opt instead for breadth, jumping from reporter to reporter to convey the headlong plunge of this terrible period in the history of the country.

Participants in the films never allow themselves a melodramatic phrase like ‘this terrible period in the history of the country.’ They avoid heat and vehemence to a superhuman degree. Their devotion to finding out the truth is expressed in tellingly individual ways. In a quixotic quest for neutrality one reporter hasn’t voted in the last two presidential elections. A striking expression of their search for accuracy is the evolution of headlines for crucial articles, shown on screen as successive versions blotting each other out.

These are films about Trump in which he hardly appears. That seems a stroke of genius. We see him very briefly around the white supremacist episode in Charlottesville, once when he is saying there is fault ‘on both sides, on both sides,’ repeating the key claim as a fragment, drumming it in. The other clip is equally chilling, when he is blaming ‘the fake media’ for what happened at Charlottesville and sicks the crowd on reporters sitting at their desks behind flimsy barriers at the back of the hall. The scene turns nasty and the reporters pack up their gear and file out silently.

Americans will still be obsessively interested in these topics for a long time to come, however and whenever Trump’s direct influence on events ends. However it all finishes, the quiet persistence of the team of reporters and editors we meet in these films stands right now as a heroic example, inspiring hope for better days.


Reporting Trump’s First Year: The Fourth Estate, 4 hour-long episodes by Liz Garbus on BBC Storyville