DORNITH DOHERTY: Svalbard Seed Vault

Dornith Doherty and her view camera, Svalbard

Door, Svalbard Global Seed Vault, 2010
Photograph © Dornith Doherty/ All rights reserved

Boxes Outside, Svalbard Global Seed Vault, 2010
Photograph © Dornith Doherty/ All rights reserved

Interior, Svalbard Global Seed Vault, 2010
Photograph © Dornith Doherty/ All rights reserved

Nordic Genetic Resource Center Seed Vials
Photograph © Dornith Doherty/ All rights reserved
Bag of Seeds, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 2009
Photograph © Dornith Doherty/ All rights reserved

Cryogenic Racks, National Center for Genetic Preservation, 2009
Photograph © Dornith Doherty/ All rights reserved

Seed Head 1, 2010 from the series Archiving Eden
Photograph © Dornith Doherty/ All rights reserved
Whip It, 2009 from the series Archiving Eden

Arctic Svalbard
Photograph © Dornith Doherty/ All rights reserved

Photographer Dornith Doherty traveled close to the North Pole to photograph the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (also known as the Doomsday Vault, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the most diverse assembly of the world's food crops). "Seed banks conserve clones or seeds at a certain point of perfection and then “stop time” to try and prevent the botanical materials from changing further," photographer Dornith Doherty explained to me last year when viewing her series Archiving Eden. "Since perfect stasis is not possible, I have used the lenticular process to create powerful images that show the tension between stillness and change. This technology allows for the appearance or disappearance of parts of the image as well as refractive color changes." I spoke with Dornith recently about her expedition to photograph the world's largest seed bank in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago.

EA: What is the background for your series Archiving Eden?

DD: In the process of photographing at the National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation (NCGRP), in Fort Collins, Colorado, I noticed they were using a tabletop x-ray machine to test the viability of accessioned seeds. I was fascinated by the images I saw and this led to my using the x-ray equipment to make images of seeds and tissue samples from their seed and clone collections. Later, I was able to work at the Millennium Seed Bank in England in much the same way. The collaboration with the scientists has been fruitful, and the scientist at the NCGRP grows samples for me to photograph. Upon return to my studio in Texas, I make the collages that are part of "Archiving Eden".

EA: The images in Archiving Eden have a sacred quality to them.

DD: The photographs pose questions about life and time on a micro and macro scale for me. I am struck by the visual connections – some look like astronomical bodies or microscopic cells. When I work with x-rays, you are literally gazing into the plantlets and seeds- things you cannot see with an unaided eye. Tiny (many are the size of a grain of sand or smaller) seeds that generate life remain simultaneously delicate and powerful. The scale of time that is ingrained in the process of seed banking, which seeks to make these sparks last for two hundred years or more, makes the life cycle very much on my mind while I work. I also contemplate the elusive goal of stopping time in relation to living materials, which at some moment, we would all like to do.

EA: What inspired you to travel to the remote archipelago near the North Pole to photograph the Svalbard Global Seed Vault?

DD: Archiving Eden and Vault were inspired by an article I read about the Vault in the New Yorker Magazine two years before I went to photograph there. When I encountered John Seabrook’s article (Annals of Agriculture, Sowing for the Apocalypse) I was inspired by the dichotomous hopeful/pessimistic nature of the project; on one hand volunteers and governments from around the world were collaborating to create a global botanical back-up system, and on the other hand the gravity of climate change and political instability created the need for an inaccessible ark.

I immediately wanted to photograph it.

It was not until two years later; after I had initiated Archiving Eden and had traveled and photographed at other large and comprehensive seed banks, that I received an invitation to photograph the Vault from Cary Fowler, the Director of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. You can't imagine the thrill it was to open that e-mail.

EA: How difficult was it to travel there?

DD: The Vault is only open a few days a year when new seeds are placed in the vault. It took two days to fly there, and although the airport has one scheduled flight each day, it’s the type of place where a small metal staircase is rolled across the tarmac to the airplane door. I arrived on the same plane as the Director Cary Fowler and Ola Westengen, the operation manager for the Vault. Time was short, so I changed into warm clothes in the airport washroom, and we drove directly to the Vault to begin work.

When you travel outside populated areas on Svalbard, polar bears can be a problem, and many people carry guns. As I traveled to photograph the landscape, helpful people I meet would explain how to tell if there might be a polar bear nearby, since they are completely camouflaged. One of the best ways to detect a polar bear, I was told, is that if you are near a place that is frequented by seals, and there are no seals, that means there is a polar bear watching you. I never saw any seals; only reindeer, so apparently I was in constant danger of polar bear attack.

EA: How did you feel when you first faced the actual door of the Vault before going in and on entering the tunnel leading to the storage area?

DD: It was a very memorable moment. I was filled with awe. Standing in front of the vault in the bitter cold was the culmination of two years of work and planning, and surprisingly, the experience of traveling to someplace remote with cumbersome equipment to take photographs of a significant place brought to mind the photographic practice of some of my favorite photographers, for example; Timothy O’Sullivan or E.O. Goldbeck.

The Vault itself looks elegantly minimal; you see the rough rock walls of the mountain fitted with concrete floors and metal doors. I was surprised to see that Ola and Cary unloaded the shipment themselves and rolled the boxes down the long tunnel to a space outside of the vault in a simple wagon.

The tunnel was dark and had thin ribbons of ice flowing towards the base. As you can see from the photograph, the Vault door is covered with ice crystals and has a closed-circuit TV monitor mounted outside. I was captivated by looking at a mediated image of the vault as I photographed it. The door is not on axis with the tunnel, and Cary explained there is a small curved wall in line with the tunnel engineered to disperse a blast radius in case of terrorist attack. Originally, no outsider was allowed into the actual vault, so the TV monitor was installed so that a visitor could see inside without entering the vault. When I entered, the roar of the compressors, the extreme cold, and the systematic organization were in striking contrast to the organic nature of the seeds.

The vault is kept at a very specific low temperature and humidity to ensure the longevity and viability of the collection. However, since the vault is below the permafrost line, if electricity fails, the archive should be okay.

A background note-Since much of my work has to do with landscape, my equipment is optimized for the extreme heat you encounter in the American Southwest. I had to research and purchase almost everything, from boots and gloves to batteries. At the suggestion of several fellow-photographers, I brought a digital slr camera as a back up to my view camera. Surprisingly, because of the twelve hour days working at below freezing temperatures, the digital slr would freeze after 8 hours but my point and shoot and view camera never failed. Since we live in the digital post-film era, I liked how the failure of the digital slr camera and the success of the 19th century technology of the view camera mirrored the operations philosophy of the vault- trying to keep things simple and fail-safe.

EA: The Director, Cary Fowler, has said "This is a Library of Life". Is there a sense of The History of the World' while inside the world's food archive?

DD: Yes, you feel the importance of the place, although it seems more cultural than historical. Some countries do not have an infrastructure that can support their efforts very effectively. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports the cost of shipping their collections, and it was very moving to see humble paper boxes of seeds that were sent from poor nations, compared to the relatively high-tech shipments of industrialized, wealthy nations.

2015 UPDATE! 

Dornith Doherty: Exchange
Dallas, Texas
February 21 - May 9, 2015 

+  +  +
VAULT: Photographs by Dornith Doherty
Exhibition to February 8, 2011
The Institute for the Advancement of the Arts, Denton, Texas

Gallery Talk With Dornith Doherty
Jan 19, 2011 7pm


Dallas Arts Salon said...

I have seen this work as well as her "Archiving Eden II" show at Holly Johnson Gallery (link below) and you really must see these photographs in person.

Not that you shouldn't see as many photographs in person as possible but they are incredible.

It is interesting also to see people react to them who do not know what they are.

I have been a fan of Dornith's work for years and am blown away by her dedication and tenacity in addition to her creative vision and technical prowess.

And she is a really really nice person!

Thanks for posting one of our local treasures to the photographic community at large.


Meera Rao said...

What a fascinating story! Thanks for the interview and the links.

Susan May Tell said...

Surprising and wonderful images!

Caio Fern said...

everything about this project is fantastic !
what a great post ! it really makes my day !

Emile de Bruijn said...

Fantastic images, both of the seeds and of the places where they are stored.

This kind of 'domesday' storage of plant material has interesting analogies with museums and historic houses, where we are similarly trying to preserve things so that future generations can profit from them in ways that we may not be able to imagine yet.

Karen Desnick said...

I appreciate this post on so many different levels. I always appreciate when the process is explained. Her path is very special but not out of the realm of reality for others. And, of course, the project itself is very important. It is good for all of us to be aware of this kind of work and who is supporting it. I will help you share the information.

JL Cancio said...

Great story Eli. Very good post. ;)