North By Nuuk

The environmentally sweeping landscape of Greenland seems to overwhelm the human figure. It is the soul of the country, dangerous yet inviting at the same time. This pristine backdrop lured Rockwell Kent and later photographer Denis Defibaugh to Illorsuit with its unrelenting and challenging winter weather. Kent’s goal, “to experience the Far North at its spectacular ‘worst’.” Inspired by Kent, Defibaugh followed eighty-five years later to experience this extreme environment and show its beauty and the Inuit’s relation with the land. Illorsuit, the remote settlement of 70 people of no cars or roads can be very quiet at times, but it provides a perfect background for a comparative exploration which follows the long history of Arctic photography. 

North by Nuuk provides an engaging and revealing view of change and continuity in Greenland. The future of Greenland is unclear. As climate change continues to dramatically affect the ice cap, settlements are slowly being abandoned, and population continues to decline. Separated by eighty-five years of evolution North by Nuuk documents the modernity of Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, the primal and social landscape, traditions, culture, and people of relatively untouched remote arctic communities.

In 1929 Rockwell Kent sailed to Nuuk, Greenland in a small 33-foot cutter named Direction to continue his exploration and fascination with remote places of the far north. Kent spent considerable time in Greenland between mid-1929 and early 1935. This project is inspired by the adventures and photography of Rockwell Kent, the American artist and writer, who resided in Greenland and produced an extensive collection of photographs, art, and literature describing and illustrating his time in the country. Kent’s photographic works, include his rare historic lanternslides of Greenland. Kent loved Greenland and tried for many years to return until World War II ended that dream.

His writings, photographs, lithographs and paintings describe the Uummannaq district as it was 85 years ago. I returned to these communities in Greenland where Kent lived to experience the remote far north and create photographs of contemporary Greenland. I travelled to the distant communities of Illorsuit and Uummannaq located over 300 miles north of the arctic circle. Both settlements are located on small islands about 50 miles apart and separated by the Uummannaq fjord which hugs the west-central Greenland coast.

With climate change, the winter weather in Greenland has become unpredictable. In the 1930’s when Kent lived in Greenland the fjords froze solid by late November and stayed that way until June. My first winter in Greenland saw the fjords open to boat travel by March. My second winter visit was described as “like the old days” with the fjords freezing in December and thawing during May. 

These documentary photographs provide evidence of contemporary Greenland’s society, culture, and environment during the long Greenlandic winter and the midnight sun of the arctic summer. While concentrating on photography of the primal landscape, the cultural landscape, and the local people, a visual anthropology was created based on exchange, collaboration, and cooperation with indigenous communities. The Inuit of the Uummannaq district shared their local knowledge and understanding of memory and identity. In addition, the project questioned Inuit social values, livelihood, and government influence on the sustainability of small remote Inuit settlements.

This project sponsored by a National Science Foundation award looks at the social, cultural and environmental change and continuity that is experienced in Greenland. My experience in the Uummannaq district was not like Kent’s, but I experienced the same feeling of nirvana as Kent during my time in the remote settlements of Illorsuit and Uummannaq. The combination of Kent’s photographs, my photographs and video interviews present a contemporary view of Greenland as compared to Kent’s photographs and writing of the early 1930’s.


Photographs by Denis Defibaugh

It has been almost 90 years since Kent travelled to Greenland in his quest for northern adventure and artistic opportunities. While Kent’s Greenlandic paintings, graphic art printmaking, and writing is well known, his photographs of Greenland have been reclusive since being featured during his 40 plus USA city lecture tour following his return from Greenland. This NSF sponsored project plans to reintroduce these photographs as part of the multi-faceted comparative study.

Kent’s photographs have an unbalanced yet honest esthetic that runs the gamut from revealing portrait, ethnographic study, documentary inquiry, poorly executed landscape, and the informal snapshot. His negatives would be transformed into 2x3 inch hand colored lantern slides that were used to support his story telling about Greenland. He never used his photographs to illustrate his books or articles. That was reserved for his graphic arts printmaking/illustrations. It is obvious that the photograph was at best secondary art for Kent, who’s primary concern was his plain air paintings as art and his printmaking as illustration.

My photographic approach to this comparative study project explores change and continuity in Greenland while continuing Kent’s fundamental exploration of the primal landscape, social landscape, and the people of the Greenland communities of Nuuk, Sisimiut, Uummannaq and Illorsuit. Kent took this same approach depicted with paintings, printmaking, and photography. The landscape is virtually unchanged since the early 1930’s, but the communities have changed dramatically.  I am not interested in producing a re-photographic survey, although Kent’s circa 1932 photographs of the Sisimiut community and harbor lend themselves to a photographic diptych comparison revealing growth and change. The view of past and present Sisimiut from the same vantage point provides a dramatic and informative comparison.



This project was supported by an award from the US National Science Foundation for the project:
Rockwell Kent and Early 1930’s Greenland: A Comparative View of Environmental, Social and Cultural Change in Contemporary Greenland. (Award 154176)

The project team consisted of:
Denis Defibaugh (PI), Rochester Institute of Technology
Jette Rygaard (Co-PI), Ilisimatusarfik
Axel Ingemann-Jeremiassen (Co-PI), Ilisimatusarfik
Susan B. Vanek (Co-PI), Binghamton University (SUNY)

Additional support was provided from Polar Field Services, Rochester Institute of Technology, Ilisimatusarfik (University of Greenland), Sony Electronics Inc., Nikon Professional, Sisimiut Museum (Sisimiut Katersugaasiviat), Greenland Schools: Qaauitsup Kommunia in Uummannaq, Greenland, Minngortuunnguup Atuarfia, School #1 and Nalunnguarfiup Atuarfia School #2 in Sisimiut, Greenland, Atuarfik Aaralik-mi Atuartut in Illorsuit, Greenland, The Children’s Home, Uummannaq, KNR, Nuuk Ungavis, and Sisimiut Radio Station.

Special Thanks to the communities of Illorsuit, Uummannaq, Sisimiut, and Nuuk, Greenland and all of the individuals that aided in the project-this work would not have been possible without their shared knowledge, support, and patience.

Rockwell Kent Photographs are Courtesy Plattsburgh State Art Museum, SUNY Plattsburgh, USA, Rockwell Kent Collection, Bequest of Sally Kent Gorton. All rights reserved.