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Photographer James Balong Traces Glacial Decay In His Latest Documentary, "Chasing Ice"

(Top) Solheim Glacier, Iceland, April 2006; (Bottom) February 2009

When James Balog set out to document decaying glaciers via time-lapse photography, he first had to build a camera that could withstand hurricane winds and temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. Balog talks us through the labor-intensive project—35 cameras were placed at 18 glaciers for more than four years—the results of which can be seen in this month’s documentary Chasing Ice.

Why build your own equipment?

I entered this project thinking I'd be able to buy this equipment off the shelf, but I let my creative enthusiasm cloud my knowledge base and judgment. The whole project turned out to be immensely harder than I realized. I had no choice but to custom-design this stuff.

How long did that take?

Six months, which was an unbelievably intense pace. I really felt history breathing down my neck. I knew the glaciers I had been at the year before were already going to be substantially changed. It was like, I actually couldn't wait any longer. What was the biggest challenge? The electronics, hands down. We were working with cameras that used rechargeable batteries, but we needed them to be powered for months, even years, at a time. So we had to get them to accept power from the sun, which was not easy.

How difficult was financing?

By the standards of the photography industry, this is an astronomically expensive project. This is like going to the moon. Initially, we had money from Nikon, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and National Geographic, but now it's almost entirely supported by private donations. Does your camera system have a name? It probably should, and I probably should've patented it because it's been ripped off. I'm not complaining—imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I'm glad that digital-camera technology and big flash cards allow a lot of people to start thinking differently about the landscape.

What inspired the project?

We are at a decisive moment of really epochal geologic change right now. It's this gigantic reshaping of the biology, chemistry, and physics of this planet. These effects are primarily caused by the impact of human beings' burning fossil fuels.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.