Daniel Schwartz’s photographs of glaciers seem more like portraits than landscapes. Shot mainly in black and white, close-ups of worn bedrock and the wrinkles of crevasses almost carry facial expressions. And while the book has the moral and scientific goal of showing the ‘collapse of glaciers on four continents’, this collection of rarely photographed glaciers in Switzerland, Pakistan, Peru and Uganda are presented as a group of mysterious strangers.
Among the most striking are his photographs of ‘erratics’ – boulders carried away from their source on the ice. The Pierre Bleau, for example, is one of the largest in the Alps. He compares how it dominated the Saas Valley in 1860 with today, as it sits almost entirely submerged in a reservoir – ‘not forever’ is his ambiguous caption. The Steinhof erratic, thought to have been dropped near Bern by riding two different glaciers over 375,000 years, ‘defied demolition attempts’ and is pictured as the size of a bus.
However, the most stirring photographs are the remains of the Ebener brothers, who disappeared on the Aletsch Glacier in 1926. Schwartz maps how their bodies were moved with the flow of ice until they were rediscovered on the glacier surface in 2012. Such subjects hint at the glaciers’ immense lifespan and force.
To Schwartz, the glaciers are moving monuments. ‘As historical sites, glaciers once gone do not come back,’ he says, and much of While the Fires Burn explores the process of their retreat. At the Rhone glacier, he shows the blankets that have been draped over the ice in an attempt to preserve it, as well as scans of the predicted shape of its valley from 2000 until 2100 as it melts away – ‘under the glacier the future is taking shape,’ he writes. Throughout While the Fires Burn he asks for secrets, not answers, about their past and future.