National Post

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Rosemarie and Pat Keough met on a canoe trip almost 20 years ago and since then they have photographed some of the world's most dangerous and beautiful places.
Their latest achievement is ‘Antarctica

Explorers at heart
Elizabeth Nickson

Some marriages stay a romance. This is Rosemarie Keough, 44, talking about her husband of almost 20 years; “My lover was on the other side of the continent, and you have to understand, Antarctica is one and a half times the width of North America. We had been camping with the emperor penguins for weeks, and then finally, the blizzard comes that I had really wanted to photograph. So I went out with three cameras, following my pole line with the red flags placed every 50 feet. But each day the rookery moves a quarter mile and my pole line was, by now, quite long. Then, suddenly the sea ice, the glacier, the sky blended together in a seamless white and the pole line vanished. There was just me and this one emperor penguin lying on his belly. So I curled up beside the last warm-blooded body in creation for five hours, and all I could think was, “There are some good shots on these three rolls of film, Pat, I hope you find them.’”

Antarctica, the book Rosemarie was shooting with her husband, Pat, 58, was launched last year at a reception hosted by Prince Charles at St. James’s Palace in London. The photograph she took that day is the first photograph among 345, which provide an astonishing record of the continent’s many moods and moments of heartbreaking beauty. Each photograph is gallery work. And Antarctica is only the first in what the Keoughs are rightly calling “The Explorer Series.”

Antarctica took 10 years to plan and shoot. The expedition cost about US$300,000. Each book costs $1,800 to produce, not counting marketing and distribution. At US $2,900, with 950 printed, it is easily the most expensive new book in the world. Each volume is signed by Queen Noor of Jordan, in her capacity as Honorary President of BirdLife International. BirdLife International, specifically the campaign to save endangered albatrosses, gets the profit. The Keoughs get nothing.

But it was all worth it. Last month, the Keoughs received their 14th international award, the 2003 Gold Ink Award in the fine editions category. Their book also won a Benjamin Franklin Award for being the world’s best book at the 2002 Premier Print Award competition. The Benny is the Oscar of the international printing and graphics arts communities. The International Association of Printing House Craftsmen honoured Antarctica in 2002, with the Gold for fine books, and then at its Best of the Best Awards Ceremony with the Craft, Art, Science Award. It has won more than five Canadian awards so far. “More to come,” Pat Keough says.

His confidence is well-placed. The Keoughs, who live on Salt Spring Island, B.C., high on a hill overlooking a vast sweep of ocean and mountain, do their research and put in the time to create excellence. It took them 10 years of meticulous work to build their extraordinary house; much of it was done by the couple, by hand, on their knees, working for months on end. The floor, a soft uneven, rolling parquet, was sanded by Rosemarie with a palm sander for four months straight. “You can’t pay someone to do this work,” she says. “You get white finger, you go numb. You think, ‘Oh, I can do this for another half hour and then I must stop.’”

The floor is made from reclaimed yew that was taken from the clear cuts on Vancouver Island. “Yew is an endangered species, but it is cut down in a clear cut and thrown away,” Pat says. “We went into the clear cuts and pulled it out. We’d seen parquet floors in Africa, where workers had tried to make it smooth with handtools, so the floor is rippled and unusual, it undulates and caresses your bare feet. So we tried to emulate it. We cut the parquet in three thicknesses, I evened it out, and Rosemarie sanded it. We’ve worked together 24 hours a day for almost 20 years, and we still would rather be with each other than anyone else.”

The couple met a little less than 20 years ago on a canoe trip on the South Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories, and have been sharing tents, igloos, canopies, yurts and shacks in some of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the world ever since. “You really get to know someone if you paddle whitewater with them for a month,” Pat says. “We ended up sharing a tent; it was our first date. Six weeks after we got home, we were engaged,” Both were in the corporate world at the time. Pat worked for Consumers Gas in Ottawa and Rosemarie was at Procter and Gamble as a finance manager. Passionate amateur photographers, they started winning awards at photo competitions, and piece by piece, they began to build their careers. They often cannot tell who took which photograph. “My two favourite photos in Antarctica are Pat’s,” says Rosemarie, “and his two favourites are mine.”

Their two children, Glen, 10, and Rebekka Dawn, 17, travelled with them until their schooling made it impossible. Glen was with his parents throughout the shooting of Antarctica. “He was the only child on the continent,” Pat says. “The scientists love him. They’d send him off into the penguin colony to find freshly dead birds for them to autopsy. He loved it.”

Danger accompanied them always. “Glen summitted some peaks in Antarctica,” says Rosemarie. “We were all roped together in a line. The woman in front of him slipped and Glen was so light he was pulled right off the rock. He was safe because he was roped into the line, but he swung out and looked down that icy slope into the ocean, put his ice axe out to arrest his fall and was fine. He came back, however, rather shaken by his own mortality, which was a wonderful experience for him to have,” says Rosemarie, not exactly an over-protective mother.

Their other children are their books. The couple started with a best-selling book called The Ottawa Valley Portfolio, in 1986, and have made three small books about such favourite places as Renfrew, Ontario and Sable Island, Nova Scotia, as well as 3 large volumes including The Nahanni Portfolio. But 10 yeas ago, with a profit from a land sale, they began their life’s work. They will do the Explorer series, they say, until they can no longer work. They are working on a book about Coastal Cascadia from Washington State to Alaska, one about the desert landscapes and eco-systems outside of Palm Springs, the Dutch Caribbean, East Africa and Venice. They generally shoot in two- or three-month clutches, return home to regroup, look at their work and plan the next trip.

Pat says, “There are many issues with Antarctica: major land claims, albatross and petrel mortality, for instance. But with our books, what we’re trying to do, we think that there’s a place for beauty in the world, and sometimes you don’t have to put this in words. In the text section, we’re not making a political statement. We’d like this to be something that is beautiful and collectible and raise awareness and money for a good cause.”

The book weighs in at 27.6 pounds, including its linen and velvet box. Yet it is so strong it can be pitched form table to floor without suffering even a dent. Pat likes to pick the book up by the covers and shake it vigorously to demonstrate its strength. On the floor of their sitting room lies Sumo, Helmut Newton’s $3,000 book, which needed its own table to be shown on. The binding is wearing thin; it is ripping. It won’t last, says Rosemarie, who points out it hasn’t won a single award, except for being Guinness’s most expensive new book.

In order to create a book that would last, Pat and Rosemarie wen on a meticulous search through the printing and binding industries to find the best ways to make the best possible books. “We asked question after question,” she says. “We visited experts all over the world. We researched every aspect of binding and making books. And everywhere we turned, we were told it couldn’t be done. You can’t have a book that weights 19 pounds and have it last. The binding hasn’t been created that would be both utilitarian and beautiful.”

You can’t say that to a woman who sanded her own floor for four months straight. The couple’s research ranged from 15th-century Venice to eighth-century Sinai to the binding of modern accounting ledgers. Antarctica is the first book to successfully combine the hollow-back split board and European classic full-leather binding styles. “We kept asking questions, one after another, we made lists of the best binders in the world, and finally, without being nationalist, settled on Felton Bookbinding in Ontario because they simply were the best. Two hundred and eighty-eight stitches and knots, using Irish linen thread, keep the book together. One woman who sewed the book hadn’t handstitched a book for 30 years.”

Most of their work is deliberately environmentally sensitive. “Take the cover,” Rosemarie says. “We found that southern goatskin was tougher because there aren’t so many hair follicles. We looked at leather covers that used garment leather, but that is too soft and stretchy. It wouldn’t last. So finally we chose semi-wild Moroccan goats that have been trashing the local ecology. Two goatskins make up one cover. And Queen Noor has been working to persuade tribesmen to keep their herds small, in order to save the local plant life. Adding value like this to goatskins helps that effort.”

Hemlock Printing in Burnaby, B.C., was chosen from the short list of the world’s top 20 printers. The 10-micron stochastic dot printing technology, a new technology from Canada’s Creo Inc., simply dwarves the industry standard of photo reproduction. “Again, we weren’t being nationalist,” Pat says, “A firm in Texas kept telling us, ‘Go look somewhere else, you’ll come back to us, we’re the best.’ But they weren’t, Hemlock was.”

Excellence is the grail of the modern world. A Canadian couple has reached it, without funding or dependence or even a breath of complaint. Just old-fashioned application, a lot of love and commitment, and a passion for the most beautiful and fragile places in the world.

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