Polar Night | by Mark Mahaney
71.2906° N, 156.7886° W
Top of the world they call it. Don’t feel that way. Feels like the bottom. So dark there’s no end. So cold there’s no feel. If I took ten steps into the night, I wouldn’t even know where I’d be when I’d look up. It’s all the same. What do you call a night that never ends?
Northernmost town in the United States. 320 miles above the Arctic Circle. The name translates to ‘place where snowy owls are hunted.’ No roads lead in, no roads lead out. Flat as a board. No plants, no trees, no fresh food aside from what’s hunted: bowhead whale, seal, caribou, walrus, polar bear. Milk is ten bucks a gallon. An avocado, five. Polar Night. 65 days without the sun. Darkness brings darkness. Crime, substance abuse, and depression spike. Highest suicide rate in the country. Solastalgia is real. Police Department receives calls from disoriented citizens, not knowing the day or the time. Never have I heard snow like this.
No moisture to it. Sounds like a shriek under the weight of the foot. And the wind. It’s so there, you forget it’s there. Nearly 40 below. Ten seconds and the bare skin hurts. ‘Three-dog-night’— a bygone arctic metric to define the intensity of temperature. The colder it is, the more dogs are needed surrounding you for warmth to survive the night. Freezing, but warming. Thinning ice can no longer protect the land from coastal storms. Disappearance of landmass. The town is washing away. This place is no joke. When midnight sun is replaced by polar night, everything’s different. Eyes to the horizon and it’s nothing. And then more nothing, in every direction. Just waiting for the sun to rise above it, so time can exist again.
Mark Mahaney’s Polar Night is a passage through a rapidly changing landscape in Alaska’s northernmost town of Utqiagvik. It’s an exploration of prolonged darkness, told through the strange beauty of a snowscape cast in a two month shadow. The unnatural lights that flare in the sun’s absence and the shapes that emerge from the landscape are unexpectedly beautiful in their softness and harshness. It’s hard to see past the heavy gaze of climate change in an arctic town, though Polar Night is a visual poem about endurance, isolation and survival.
Mark Mahaney (born 1979, Chicago) is an American photographer living in California and New York. His clients range from Nike, AirBNB and IBM to The New Yorker, M Le Monde and Time Magazine. Commercially, Mahaney is represented by Claxton Projects in New York and he works with Kominek Gallery in Berlin. In late 2019, Trespasser Books published Mahaney’s first book, Polar Night.
Photo Essay curated by Alejandra Martínez Moreno.