I discovered Birthe Piontek’s work through one of her more recent projects, but it was her series The Idea of North that made me fall in love with the way the artist photographs. In 2008, Piontek spent three months in a small community in Canada’s Yukon, where she “experienced first hand the mystery and fascination of life above the 60th parallel, and met people who came here as part of their quest for the idea of North.” Each image in the series, whether depicting a human or a structure or a scene in nature, is a portrait of a place that clearly holds some magic and inexplicable intrigue. Even after looking at all 50+ of the photographs that make up the project, most of them portraits of a distinct and fascinating diversity of people, the viewer walks away with the sense that they were only given a taste of what this world is truly like.
From the artist’s statement: Individuation is a recurring theme in my photographic work: the ways people struggle to belong yet be different at the same time. Sometimes, people’s quests for identity lead them to leave the beaten path, and take the road less travelled. And for them, the quest for self-discovery becomes a journey in every sense of the word. The fast-paced, anonymous life of the urban environment sometimes offers neither the time nor space for individualization, nor the comforting place needed for belonging. So, for some, the sense of freedom and interdependence intrinsic to a remote, Northern community makes it an idealized symbol of the Promised Land.
The idealization of the North has been nourished by stories by Jack London and Robert Service; by numerous movies about the area’s wild and pristine tapestry; and even by images of the Northern lights, which to this day, although certainly explicable by science, have lost none of their spiritual fascination or magical appeal. I’m not the first observer to be simultaneously intrigued, yet remain a visitor. Glenn Gould, whose work inspired the title, wrote after visiting the North briefly, “I’ve read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. Yet like all but a few Canadians I’ve had no real experience of the North. I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tales about,” and in the end, return South.
Visit artist's site: birthepiontek.com