Frozen History: Josef Hoflehner

by Arthur H. Bleich

Josef Hoflehner

January 01, 2010 — The penguin had been resting peacefully, face up, on the table for nearly a hundred years—a sleeping beauty never to be awakened by a kiss, frozen in time by the sub-zero Antarctic chill in an abandoned, soot-filled explorer’s hut.

Josef Hoflehner, 54, one of the world’s renowned fine arts photographers and his daughter, Katharina, would eventually journey thousands of miles from their native Austria to photograph that penguin—and more—on desolate Ross Island where British adventurers of another age had erected pre-fabricated buildings to serve as base camps and shelters from 1901–1917.

The huts, some of which provided quarters for as many as 25 men for several years at a time, were well equipped and provisioned. One even had a fully functional darkroom. When the expeditions ended, the explorers left everything in place—even their toothbrushes. The penguin was about to be stuffed when the orders were given to move out.
Today, the huts are still crammed with crates of butter and boxes of bullets, canned foods, preserved hams, medicines, bottles of spirits, sleds, skis, pony harnesses, tools, snowshoes for mules and more. A pan of chopped seal meat rests on a stove that will never again be lit.

Hoflehner’s journey began when he became a professional photographer at 20, after winning a Nikon award for one of his landscapes. He then went on to photograph extensively on eight continents and his images became eagerly sought after by private and corporate clients alike; they grace the collections of Polo, Ralph Lauren, Fidelity Investments, Sprint, Nextel and Lane Crawford. International Photography Awards named him Landscape Photographer of the Year in 2007—just one of his many achievements during the past three years that have included more than a dozen solo exhibitions at major galleries and five self-published books.  

It was in 2001 that Hoflehner began to produce coffee-table books of his work. He sailed on a cruise from New Zealand to Antarctica and gathered a collection of images that would later become the critically acclaimed Southern Ocean. “When we visited Ross Island we had only a few minutes to have a look around inside two of the explorers’ huts,” he recalls, “but even this short period of time was long enough for me to become addicted to the idea of doing another book.”

Back on the ship, he methodically searched its extensive Antarctic library for information about the huts. “There was nothing on these fascinating places,” he recalls. “Unbelievable! I remember I was so overwhelmed that I could not sleep that night and I planned to do something.”

When he returned to New Zealand, Hoflehner swung into action to get clearance for himself and Katharina, then 21, to visit and shoot at three sites: Hut Point, Cape Evans and Cape Royds. “The whole process of bureaucracy took several months,” he remembers, “but finally the permission was granted to go back to Antarctica the following year for the project.”

Then doubts began to set in. First, it would be expensive because he’d have to fund the entire project himself—costs of flights to and from Antarctica, accommodation, provisions, helicopter hours, a guide for two weeks and more. In retrospect, he says he is grateful it was possible at all. “I must say that I’m not one who asks for money. Every cent was fully financed by myself and if I can afford it, I do it. If not—not.”

There were other concerns. The proposed book—Frozen History, The Legacy of Scott and Shackleton—would present huge technical and commercial challenges he wasn’t all that comfortable with. “I don’t need a new challenge each day but gradually I began to see this as an opportunity. Even though the commercial risk was 100%, the artistic risk was zero.”

“Zero” because these three photographically unexplored huts had played major roles in the heroic age of British Antarctic exploration, and all were virtually inaccessible to the camera’s eye due to their remoteness and deteriorating condition. Whoever documented them first would bring a treasure trove of images to a world that had mostly forgotten the superhuman endeavors of those early explorers and the extreme environmental conditions under which they labored.

So in 2002, Hoflehner and Katharina again jetted to New Zealand, where they stayed a few days at Scott Base to take safety-training instruction before taking a U.S. Air Force
Hercules propjet to Ross Island. Then they started photographing the first hut nearby. Later, they had to helicopter to the other two huts taking along tents, sleeping bags and supplies. “It was a very special experience in itself to camp within a short distance from the huts in the midst of breathtaking landscape,” Hoflehner recalls.

The interiors of the huts were dark and very cold with soot-blackened walls and ceilings that sucked up most of the light that filtered in from small windows. For many of the shots, Hoflehner needed a flashlight to find focus. He had decided beforehand to use only natural light, which required a tripod and long exposure times (most were about 30 seconds at f/2.8 to f/5.6). “We wanted to produce photographs as pristine as possible that captured the atmosphere and the mood within these magic places,” he explains.

Their guide, Dr. David Harrowfield, an Antarctic conservationist, spent a week with Hoflehner and Katharina. Having assisted professional photographers on the icy continent for many years, he remembers Hoflehner as “particularly special.” He points out that on Scott’s second expedition in 1911 the official photographer, Herbert Ponting, described himself as a “camera artist.” “I often wondered about this,” Harrowfield says, “and it was not until I observed Josef at work that I realized how appropriate the term was. A shaft of sunlight entering the hut would be used to [his] advantage and the artifact then assumed a significance of its own. Even a piece of frayed rope became a work of art.”
Hoflehner had first planned to use 4 x 5 film as he had done on his previous projects, but soon realized that this shoot called for an exception because “it was something special.”

Digital had begun to prove itself and so for their interior images, he and Katharina used a Phase One H20 digital camera back on a TrueWide Digital sliding-back camera with Nikkor 17–35mm, 50mm and 85mm lenses. Film, though, was still his choice for exteriors—120 Kodak EPP (Ektachrome Plus Professional) and a Pentax 67II with 45mm and 105mm lenses, a Horseman 612 with a Rodenstock 45mm lens and a Fuji GX617 with 90mm and 180mm lenses.

“Using digital was a tough decision,” he remembers, “but I still think it was the only way to go because in that kind of darkness, no light meter would give usable results and Polaroid wasn’t an option at temperatures of –10°C. Shooting the interiors was a once-in-a-lifetime project. There were a lot of images to take and time was limited. I would have no chance to re-shoot or check results by developing on-site.” In retrospect, he says he was pleased with the digital images’ wide dynamic range and lack of grain. It turns out that Hoflehner had captured an otherworldly series of timeless still-lifes that spoke to both the eye and the soul.

Once back in Austria the real work began for, as Hoflehner says wryly, “Photography was only one part of the project and for me the simplest one.” He began to gather information to flesh out the book so the pictures could be viewed in context with the times. That meant combing libraries for quotes from the men who had lived in the huts and getting permission to use them. Then came the layout and prepress and finally, Hoflehner says proudly, “the first and only detailed documentation on the three historic huts on Ross Island, about a hundred years after their construction.”

Hoflehner had 3000 copies of the 288-page book printed at Stamperia Valdonega in Verona, Italy, for about $65,000. He says he’s not “an accountant guy” but he’s “sure there was even quite some profit at the end.” Since Frozen History was published—and copies are still available for $90 (US)—he has gone on to publish a total of nine books with a tenth on the way. He says it turned out to be a good idea to start self-publishing his work: “I make a good living at it and it gives me a chance to travel and control my own destiny.”

He points out that “self-publishing can be very financially successful but it takes time and planning. In the beginning there is research and the concept is still pretty raw. Usually I make a first, short journey to try to get an overview and do more research on site. I also take some
first photographs.”

Sometimes he even goes back to places during different seasons and, as he takes more images, the concept begins to evolve further and become clearer. “I must say that I don’t take it easy and I really try to produce strong images during these stages. At the end, I’m pretty demanding and I don’t accept average work. If I feel it’s not strong enough, I’d better leave it.”

It takes about 18 months to two years from the concept of the idea to the actual publishing of the book. The press run is usually between 1000 and 3000 copies at a cost of $26,000 to $65,000. “Some sell out within a few months while others do not,” he explains. “If you can sell 50% of the print run, you are out of the woods financially. After all expenses, you can usually make a 200% profit.”

His books are promoted with reviews in major newspapers and magazines and at online sites and he also has a mailing list of many previous buyers waiting for new publications. He says: “Some say producing photography books is a wonderful way to burn money. Granted, it is a tiny market and they are expensive to produce but it is interesting work and a nice marketing tool because the book is more or less a byproduct of the images, which are sold at galleries and elsewhere.” Hoflehner’s images are available in limited editions ranging in price from $1000 to over $15,000 and are printed under his supervision on Ilford FB paper, developed and toned by hand.

Hoflehner says he has a lot of new projects planned for the future. “Shortly after I came in touch with photography, it became my passion and still is. Photography is my life and even after 30-plus years I’m not tired or bored. I cannot imagine working at anything else.”

Josef Hoflehner’s website is www.josefhoflehner.com. He is represented in the U.S. by the Stephen Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles, the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York City, and in Canada by the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto. He can be emailed at hoflehner@me.com.

Arthur H. Bleich (arthur@dpcorner.com) is a photographer, writer and educator who lives in Miami. He does assignments for major publications both in the United States and abroad, and conducts digital photography workshop cruises. Visit his Digital PhotoCorner at www.dpcorner.com and his workshop cruise site at www.dpcorner.com/cruise.

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