pangnirtung/robert frank

The last photographs in rf’s autobiographical Lines of My Hand are of a bay in Nova Scotia accompanied by the words: “Isn’t it wonderful just to be alive.” Nova Scotia has remained one of rf’s most important photographic subjects ever since. Combining the rough immediacy of polaroid with a willingness to dissemble the integrity of individual frames, rf created a new photographic language for himself based in autobiography and mediated by land and sea.

Photographed 20 years after Lines of My Hand and published 16 years after it had been photographed, Pangnirtung is comprised of 27 polaroids made on a trip to an Inuit town on Baffin Island. The book is laid out as a simple travelogue complete with captions: “Pangnirtung Harbor,” “Approach to Pangnirtung Airport,” “Community Meeting Place,” “Community Oil Storage on Left.” But the captions don’t explain the utter desolation of the place, why rf photographed so many stones, so many grave markers, why there are no people in any of the photographs.

The questions find their way to the final photograph of the book, a road dead-ending into the ocean complete with stones and grave markers. Captioned “End of the Pangnirtung Road System,” it brings the travel narrative to an abrupt conclusion, as if the entire trip were a one-way pilgrimage to this single spot. This is where the road ends, where fossil-fuel culture ends, where everything ends. This is where rf sees the shapes of his own mortality and refuses to look away. This is where the prosaic description of travelogue and the expanded awareness of metaphor suddenly occupy the same space without either becoming the other. 

As the conflagration of endings in the last photograph twists itself back up the narrative, the travel narrative becomes a tightly edited story of human progress. Pre-human world of sea and cloud moves to primitive piles of stones, community dwellings, individual homes, oil storage, cemeteries. The injustice visited upon the Inuit becomes a figure for every manner of exploitation. And then—once again—there is the end, this time the end of humanity, the rise and fall of civilization in 27 photographs.

But there is a third story in Pangnirtung. In this version, the world has already ended. There is only one human being left alive and it is rf. He makes a record of what remains of a world without humans, a world in which stones have regained their rightful place in creation. The apocalypse according to rf has no aliens or earthquakes, no fire or ice, just gray silence, a place of eternal solitude that has somehow found balance and peace again. It’s a vision in which the sin against first peoples is memorialized and the idea of human progress mourned, But it is also the vision of one man looking beyond the present into a future that his own desire has made inescapable, a vision in which the trajectory of being and the moment of awareness have left a single trace. The end times have never seemed so seductive. In many ways, they look a lot like that view, made 36 years earlier, of a bay in Nova Scotia, a view that promised a new and more joyful life.