Inuuteq Storch, Keepers of the Ocean

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Disko Bay (here). Softbound OTA cover with flap, 21.5 x 28 cm, 192 pages, with 111 color images. Preface by Martin Brandt Hansen, with translations in Greenlandic, Danish, and English. In an edition of 666 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For those of us living below the Arctic Circle—roughly 99.99% of humanity, that is—Greenland exists on the periphery of geography and popular consciousness. Misconceptions abound. The world’s largest island hardly needs no exaggeration, but it is outsized anyway on most maps. Skewed Mercator projections may have sparked a certain former president’s interest in purchasing the island outright from Denmark. Or perhaps it was Greenland’s verdant moniker, a deliberate misnomer initially intended to attract settlers. The appellation seems rather silly now describing a place buried under a mile of ice. Shades of grey and white are common there. But green? Not so much, except here are there along the coastal fringes. Lichens outnumbers plants, both dwarfed by scattered human structures. Greenland is a literal tabula rasa upon which we southerners can foist just about any idea. Unsurprisingly, many of those foisted to date have been a rather poor fit.

For a local like Inuuteq Storch, such cultural currents are prelude and grist for his own image-making. “Because of the (country’s) high level of import,” he writes, “we have a very open view for the rest of the world and because of the little amount of export, the world has a narrow knowledge about us. That leads to prioritizing of foreign acceptance.” The young photographer (b. 1989) is increasingly determined to portray Greenland on its own terms—not to mention his own—and establish a homegrown alternative to outside assessments.

In his initial photo projects, this took the form of curated archives. Some of the source material (e.g., his book Porcelain Souls) was scavenged from his parents’ scrapbooks. Some he found in local discard piles or anonymous dumpster dives. His project Mirrored featured the historic photos of the tragically overlooked John Møller, who shot Greenlanders in the early 20th century. Regardless of original source, Storch views all such found photos through an idealized lens, using words like “uneducated” and “honest” to address their perceived authenticity.

These were his earlier projects dating back to about 2007. For his last two monographs (the initial pair of a planned trilogy), Storch has shifted gears to feature his own photographs. That’s a good thing as it turns out, for he’s a talented shooter. 2019’s Flesh collected fleeting glimpses of New York City, where he graduated from the ICP in 2016. His latest book Keepers of the Ocean follows the vérité vein, with snapshots of his hometown Sisimiut. Although the town has only 5,500 residents—a blend of Inuit and Danish heritage—it’s a relative metropolis by Greenland’s standards, the second largest in the country behind the capital Nuuk. Sisimiut (roughly translated: “the residents at the foxholes”) can trace its roots back 4,500 years, with plenty of history, culture, and relationships for photomaking. 

Judging by this book, Storch always has a camera ready. Keepers is a dense trove of candid moments encompassing all aspects of daily life, with scant distinction between “photo op” and mundane activity. It’s the graphic equivalent of field recordings, sweeping up content in raw visual chunks. Combine the youthful escapades of Arnis Balcus, the wan 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 primary concern seems to be Sisimiut and what it’s like to live there. “His intuitive narrative style draws the viewer into the image, giving us the feeling of being present ourselves,” writes Martin Brandt Hansen in the foreword, “A rare sight when it comes to portrayals of Greenland—exceptional, meaty, and sorely needed.”

Perhaps surprisingly, what Greenland amounts to in picture form appears roughly similar to non-Greenland. Storch’s photos have more in common with generational cohorts than regional predecessors. Keeper starts in with snaps of friends engaged in everyday outings, primping hair, plucking a guitar, lazing on the couch, and socializing. They hug, relax, and mug for the camera, some reappearing in multiple frames. The relaxed strain of everyday life runs throughout the book, gradually fleshing out a hip scene relatable for twenty-somethings anywhere. Most subjects are caught on the fly, engrossed in an offhand moment and snared by Storch’s direct flash, their realism enhanced with handheld twists and haphazard croppings. Subjects sport tattoos and wear Western clothes, and the background decor, posters, and furnishings might be found in Iowa, Copenhagen, or Storch’s previous book Flesh. If the locale is hard to pin down through details, that might be just the point. Storch seems intent on universalizing Sisimiut, and de-exoticizing Greenland from historic portrayals. Life goes on there as normal just like any other place, although perhaps with a higher incidence of cabin fever.

Even if the focus is warm interiors, this is still Greenland, a point driven home by snippets of geography and weather interlaced with the interiors. An establishing shot of the Sisimiut horizon—perhaps shot at high noon in winter?—lends a streak of orange sun to the softbound cover. 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 town’s surrounding beauty, which finally spills over late in the book with two overviews of Sisimiut and its harbor. The snowy shots are wonderfully lit and quite expansive. It looks like an inviting place if you can time your visit during daylight. In these sweeping landscape photos, Storch seems to connect viscerally with his vernacular roots. “The more I spend time away,” he says of Sisimiut, “the more I understand what we have at home is special.”

Whether shooting people or rocks, Storch’s images have an understated style which is deceptively sophisticated. His pictures are so loose and spontaneous that they might be mistaken initially for amateur snapshots: the unconsidered deluge of an iPhone roll. But they hold more than meets the eye. Several nicely balanced juxtapositions of unfocused foregrounds signal an intuitive nose for composition. Storch’s application of slow-synch flash and off-kilter human frieze are skilled, and he harnesses mirror-play, cropping, and color with a deft touch. One can sense his leaning toward ““uneducated” and “honest” effects, but Keepers is no amateur compilation. The imagery and editing are both carefully considered. 

The book arrives in the context of a contemporary Greenland which has been primarily depicted by outsiders. “The written history of Greenland,” explains Storch, “is mostly written by foreigners and most of the photos taken back then were by foreigners…Theoretically we are receiving the correct information, but like in chemistry, theory and practical exercises will never give the same information, because every situation has a way to lose or gain information in a way that we cannot control.”

The sovereignty of the island might be viewed 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 might be a metaphor for the parachuting NatGeo model which dominated 20th documentary photography, an objectivist outlook with strains of perfectionism and trophy-hunting. Thankfully that era has passed, and with it some degree of emotional remove. Storch’s career seems calibrated to counter both colonialism and modernism in one fell swoop. He has called photography “a very very Western idea”, and points out that Greenlandic language has no word for “art”. Keepers of the Ocean is a private journal of sorts, with deliberate mistones, light leaks, and blurred undercurrents. You’ll find no glorious reporting here, no heroic metaphors of vanquished territory. Instead, it’s a personal reflection verging on oral tradition.  

As with any half-remembered yarn, this one contains a few mysteries. It’s not clear, for example, why the edition run is 666 copies. Perhaps it’s meant as a stick in the eye to evangelist missionaries? The book hints at several intriguing backstories —an older couple shown here and there, a nude figure, tearstreaked faces, e.g.—but with no captions or dates, it’s hard to attach them any narrative, location, or context. Storch has explained the title Keepers of the Ocean as a reference to watching the town harbor, and “keeping an eye on every sailor.” But neither the harbor nor boat craft features 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 of these facets lend the book a dreamy, nondescript quality. It is fine but probably not the best source for those seeking hard facts. Greenland’s outline has been filled in, but the tabula rasa still holds secrets. Expect some to be revealed in the trilogy’s final volume, which Storch is working on now.   

Collector’s POV: Inuuteq Storch does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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