Inuuteq Storch, Keepers of the Ocean

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Disko Bay (here). OTA soft cover with flap, 21.5 x 28 cm, 192 pages, with 111 color images. Preface by Martin Brandt Hansen, with translations into Greenlandic, Danish and English. Printed in 666 copies. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: For those of us who live below the Arctic Circle, which is about 99.99% of humanity, Greenland exists on the periphery of geography and popular consciousness. Misconceptions abound. The largest island in the world hardly needs exaggeration, but it’s still outsized on most maps. Mercator’s skewed projections may have sparked a certain former president’s interest in buying the island outright from Denmark. Or maybe it was Greenland’s verdant nickname, a deliberate misnomer originally intended to attract settlers. The appellation seems rather silly now describing a place buried under a mile of ice. Shades of gray and white are common here. But green? Not so much, except that here there are some along the coastal fringes. Lichens outnumber plants, both dwarfed by scattered human structures. Greenland is a literal clean slate on which we southerners can impose just about any idea. Unsurprisingly, many of those imposed to date have been rather ill-suited.

For an inhabitant like Inuuteq Storch, such cultural currents are the prelude and the water to the creation of his own image. “Due to (the country’s) high level of imports,” he writes, “we have a very open view of the rest of the world and due to the low level of exports, the world has a close knowledge of us. This leads to prioritizing foreign acceptance. The young photographer (b. 1989) is increasingly determined to portray Greenland on his own terms – not to mention his own – and to establish a local alternative to outside assessments.

In his early photographic projects, this took the form of curated archives. Some of the source documents (for example, his book porcelain souls) was recovered from his parents’ albums. Some he found in local trash heaps or anonymous dumpster dives. His project mirrored featured the historical photos of the tragically forgotten John Møller who shot and killed Greenlanders in the early 20th century. Regardless of the original source, Storch sees all of these found photos through an idealized lens, using words like “uneducated” and “honest” to address their perceived authenticity.

These were his first projects dating back to around 2007. For his final two monographs (the first pair of a planned trilogy), Storch has shifted gears to feature his own photographs. It’s a good thing because it turns out he’s a talented shooter. 2019 Flesh collected fleeting glimpses of New York, where he graduated from ICP in 2016. His latest book Ocean Guardians follows the vein truth, with snapshots of his hometown Sisimiut. Although the city has a population of just 5,500 – a mix of Inuit and Danish heritage – it is a relative metropolis by Greenlandic standards, the second largest in the country behind the capital Nuuk. Sisimiut (roughly translated: “fox burrow dwellers”) can trace its roots back 4,500 years ago, with plenty of history, culture and connections for the making of photos.

Judging by this book, Storch always has a camera ready. Guardians is a dense mine of candid moments encompassing all aspects of everyday life, with little distinction between “photo shoot” and mundane activity. It’s the graphical equivalent of field recordings, scanning content into raw visual chunks. Combine the youthful escapades of Arnis Balcus, the pallid Nordic tonality of Ola Rindal and the casual intimacy of a family album, and you’re somewhere in the neighborhood of Storch’s style. His main concern seems to be Sisimiut and what it’s like to live there. “His intuitive narrative style draws the viewer into the picture, giving us a sense of being present ourselves”, writes Martin Brandt Hansen in the foreword, “A rare sight when it comes to depictions of the Greenland – outstanding, meaty and sorely needed.”

Perhaps surprisingly, what Greenland represents in image form looks roughly similar to non-Greenland. Storch’s photos have more in common with generational cohorts than with regional predecessors. Guardian begins with shots of friends engaged in daily outings, dolling up their hair, strumming a guitar, lazing on the couch and socializing. They hug, relax and roar for the camera, some reappearing in multiple frames. The relaxed tension of everyday life runs through the entire book, gradually fleshing out a relatable hip scene for twenty-somethings anywhere. Most of the subjects are captured on the fly, absorbed in a casual moment and trapped by Storch’s direct flash, their realism heightened by hand twists and haphazard cropping. Subjects sport tattoos and wear Western clothing, and background decor, posters, and furniture can be found in Iowa, Copenhagen, or Storch’s earlier book Flesh. If the locale is hard to pin down in detail, maybe that’s the point. Storch seems determined to universalize Sisimiut and de-exoticize Greenland from historical representations. Life goes on as normal there, like any other place, although there may be a higher incidence of cabin fever.

Even though the focus is on the warm interiors, it’s still Greenland, a point highlighted by tidbits of geography and weather intertwined with the interiors. A wide shot of the Sisimiut skyline – perhaps shot midday in winter? – lends an orange sun streak to the softcover. In later photos, we see evening snowfall, fishing boats, sled dogs, and crusty ice as a constant visual mortar. These and other arctic artifacts hint at the surrounding beauty of the city, which finally spills over towards the end of the book with two glimpses of Sisimiut and its port. The snowy planes are wonderfully lit and quite large. It looks like an inviting place if you can time your visit during the day. In these sweeping landscape photos, Storch seems to viscerally connect to his vernacular roots. “The more time I spend outside,” he says of Sisimiut, “the more I understand that what we have at home is special.”

Whether photographing people or rocks, Storch’s images have an understated style that is deceptively sophisticated. His shots are so loose and spontaneous that they might initially be mistaken for amateur snapshots: the reckless deluge of an iPhone roll. But they contain more than meets the eye. Several well-balanced juxtapositions of blurred foregrounds signal an intuitive nose for composition. Storch’s application of slow-synch flash and off-kilter human frieze is deft, and he exploits mirror play, cropping, and color with a deft touch. One can sense his penchant for “uneducated” and “honest” effects, but Guardians is not an amateur compilation. Both imagery and editing are carefully considered.

The book comes against the backdrop of a contemporary Greenland that has been portrayed primarily by outsiders. “The written history of Greenland”, explains Storch, “is mainly written by foreigners and most of the photos taken at the time were by foreigners…Theoretically we get the correct information, but as in chemistry , theory and practical exercises will never yield the same information, because every situation has a way of losing or gaining information in ways that we cannot control.

The sovereignty of the island could be considered in similar terms. Claimed long ago by a distant country barely 1/50th its size, Greenland is still a province of Denmark. Its colonial history could be a metaphor for the NatGeo skydiving model that dominated 20th century documentary photography, an objectivist view with overtones of perfectionism and trophy hunting. Thankfully, those days are over, and with it a degree of emotional estrangement. Storch’s career seems calibrated to counter both colonialism and modernism in one fell swoop. He called photography “a very, very western idea”, and points out that the Greenlandic language has no word for “art”. Ocean Guardians is a kind of private diary, with deliberate errors, light leaks, and hazy undercurrents. You won’t find any glorious reporting here, any heroic metaphors of conquered territory. It is rather a personal reflection close to the oral tradition.

As with any half-remembered thread, this one holds a few mysteries. It is not known, for example, why the print run is 666 copies. Perhaps this is a stick in the eyes of missionary evangelists? The book hints at several intriguing stories – an older couple shown here and there, a naked figure, tearful faces, for example – but without captions or dates it’s hard to attach a narrative, place or context to them. . Storch explained the title Ocean Guardians as a reference to watching the city’s harbor and “keeping an eye out for every sailor”. But neither the port nor the boats feature significantly in the book, even though Sisimiut relies on fishing as an economic base. Landscape and geography make regular appearances, but as secondary visual motifs, so the title is curious. All these facets give the book a dreamy and indefinable quality. It’s good but probably not the best source for those looking for hard facts. The outline of Greenland has been filled in, but the clean slate still holds secrets. Expect some to be revealed in the final volume of the trilogy, which Storch is currently working on.

Collector’s point of view: Inuuteq Storch does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Therefore, collectors interested in following should probably connect directly with the artist via their website (linked in the sidebar).

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