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Chasing the Ice: Julieanne Kost's Adventures in Antarctica

By Jordan Kushins

When an opportunity arose to photograph Antarctica, Julieanne Kost booked herself a spot—a full two years in advance of the expedition.

Because Kost is in demand. As the principal digital evangelist for Adobe Lightroom CC and Adobe Photoshop CC, the mega-creative woman spends many of her waking hours helping people who make photographs master the products that will help them craft their vision. She travels often for work, so her schedule is constrained.

Sure, committing so early was a way to accommodate her hectic calendar, but this particular journey was something different—something decades in the making. “I’ve always wanted to go to Antarctica, ever since I was a little kid,” Kost says. “This trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—a dream come true.”

The long lead time allowed her to equip herself for the epic adventure mentally, logistically, and creatively. “I did a little historical research, but significantly more visual research,” she says. “So much magnificent cinematography has been done in Antarctica—movies and documentaries like Antarctica: A Year on the Ice and Frozen Planet. I looked at hundreds, if not thousands, of still photographs by a variety of photographers; partly to see what was in store for me, but also to see what resonated with other photographers. I knew that there would be a good chance that I would be overwhelmed with the scenery and wanted to be sure I was prepared to make images that went deeper than my first ‘postcard’ shot.”

Though Kost began to develop a mental picture of what she wanted to capture, she made sure to go in with an open mind. “I knew I’d only see a small part of the region,” she says, noting with a small smile that it meant she could earnestly report back, “I only experienced the tip of the iceberg.” 

So she kept her expectations in check. “I tried not to be too attached to the idea of getting one particular image,” she says. Part of this was practical. The weather in Antarctica is temperamental at best—with precipitation, fog, or cloud cover rolling in within minutes—and downright aggressive at worst. Basically: You never know what you’re going to get. “I was anxious about the extreme wet and cold,” she says. “I’m okay with being miserable, but it can shift how and what you’re able to photograph, as well as derail the creative process in general. I was nervous that it would be snowing, sleeting, or raining the entire trip.”

After flying through Chile, she arrived at Frei station and boarded the Ocean Nova exhibition ship, and the reality that greeted her was mercifully manageable. “We were so, so fortunate,” she says. “It was between 20 and 30 degrees during the daytime.” While the temperature was consistent, time spent on the Zodiac boats—two ultra-durable, inflatable vessels Kost and crew used to navigate the frigid waters—offered a diverse selection of Mother Nature’s moods.

“It could be very cold, wet, and windy on the Zodiac,” she says, “and shooting conditions could change dramatically within minutes.” Because of these shifts, Kost had to be ready for anything. “I always brought two camera bodies with me—a Canon 5Ds and a Canon 5DMark III—in case one of them failed.” She also packed Canon 16-35 f2.8 and Canon 70-200 f2.8 lenses. Bringing both was a strategic move (to avoid having to change lenses while in the Zodiac) as well as a mental challenge—to push herself beyond her comfort zone. “I tend to stick to one lens,” she says. “But before I went, I put together a general shot list. I wanted to make sure that I captured a variety of images; that among all the detailed ice pictures, I didn’t forget to get wider, frame-of-reference images to give some perspective.” All of this gear went in a small waterproof bag stored at her feet in the Zodiac. (She also had an abundance of batteries—they lose power faster when it’s cold—and memory cards with her at all times.)

Out on the Zodiac, Kost experienced a mix of sensory overload and sensory deprivation. “I appreciated when it was foggy the most; and not just because on sunnier days the contrast was tough to control,” she says. “The silence of the fog was surreal—eerie and terrifying. It definitely made me feel insignificant; like I didn’t belong there.” Despite sounding like some kind of southern hemispheric nightmare, Kost embraced the vibe. “It wasn’t a bad thing, but I was completely out of my element. Any wrong move on the Zodiac is a major emergency. And the wildlife was spectacular. We saw seals waiting for penguins to make the wrong move, and killer whales feasting on seals. It’s dramatic to watch, but it’s a fundamental, natural drama.”

In fact, she was a bit surprised by what consistently caught her eye. “I thought I was going to want to spend a lot of time with the penguins,” she says, “but the ice fascinated me. I never stopped shooting.” Massive, mythic, and occasionally how-can-it-even-be-that-blue blue, these frozen formations were the major highlight. “We would quickly traverse between one iceberg and another. When the Zodiac was moving, everyone would sit inward, facing each other; once it would stop, the row of people closer to the iceberg would turn and kneel, so the others in back could stand, giving  each photographer the opportunity to make their images.”

In the evenings, everyone would download their haul and share their favorites with the rest of the group. The results were surprising, considering the photographers’ close quarters. “Everyone sees things so differently,” Kost says. “You’d look at someone’s pictures and think, ‘Where was that? Darn, I didn’t see that!’ It was educational and inspirational, and it’s why I’m never uneasy when there’s a bunch of people taking photos in the same location. Plus, seeing the way other people were shooting encouraged me to try new things.”

Apart from those pow-wows, Kost was blissfully disconnected, by necessity—there was no wi-fi—and by choice. “This trip was my little treasure. I wanted to keep it close to me while I was there before I started sharing the experience publically. Plus, time can be a great editor and I’m sure that it helped me hold back from over-sharing while I was in the moment.”

Kost is a big believer in transforming images after they’ve been taken. “There is a huge amount of power in post-processing. It’s the second half of the equation. After you capture the moment, gesture, and light, the question becomes, how do you craft that raw data to tell your story?” Kost heavily processed her images, but not to create false drama. “I want people to see these pictures and feel what I experienced while I was there. I processed the photographs to strengthen the visual narrative and reinforce my message. I believe that humans are having a very serious impact on our planet—and I can’t help but wonder how that’s going to work out for us. It’s time for us to reconnect with nature and realize the extent to which we are codependent.”

Once she made her edits, Kost synchronized a collection of the most interesting images in Lightroom so that she could use them in Adobe Spark. “I’m not a designer, and Spark allows me to quickly put together a story: I pick a theme, add images, text, even video. It helps layout photos in grids, add captions and, when I’m finished, it posts the content for me and creates a URL that I can share with anyone.” This software is also a bridge between generations. “Sending emails with multiple attachments can be cumbersome and rarely works well. With Spark, I send a single link and my friends and family can view the entire story in the sequence that I created.” For sharing with a larger audience, Kost likes the built-in network and active creative community at Behance

The 2016 trip was run by Antarctica XXI and organized by her friends and fellow photographers John Paul Caponigro and Seth Resnick, who regularly lead similar photo-centric, in-the-wild workshops around the world. 

Exactly one year after the trip, Kost is still enamored of Antarctica, but she encourages everyone to photograph the world around them “I was so fortunate to go on this trip, but there are photos to be made and stories to be told everywhere,” she says. “Sharing our experiences with others is truly a gift everyone can benefit from.”