South for the winter
An extraordinary new book produced in Vancouver reveals the beauty of the Antarctic. Michael Scott speaks to its authors, Saltspring Island photographers Pat and Rosemarie Keough
Michael Scott
Vancouver Sun
Saturday, December 14, 2002

Fortitude and mental toughness are qualities common to all Antarctic explorers. You feel those qualities when you first meet photographers Pat and Rosemarie Keough. Staying alive in the coldest regions of the planet long enough to plant a flag or to build a hut has challenged some of the bravest, most determined adventurers who ever lived.

Capturing the beauty of the land of rock and ice and wind, and preserving it, freezing it, in the still-frame format of a book required almost as much grit and determination. Especially because the Keoughs were determined to create a book that would, like the untouched landscape they loved, last forever.

"We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last," wrote Captain Robert Scott, the ill-fated British explorer, before he died, lost in an austral snowstorm.

When we think of the Antarctic, of course we think of Scott, and all the others who went to the end of the earth "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," as Tennyson said. We think of Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, who did so in 1911, ahead of Scott, by adapting the clothing and sled dogs of arctic peoples to his purpose; we think of Ernest Shackleton, who failed to reach the pole three times, but saw his crew to safety after a harrowing attempt in 1915, during which his ship became locked in the pack ice, was crushed and sank; we think of the few hundred scientists and military advisers who are the only permanent human inhabitants of this most empty, arid, inhospitable corner of the globe.

But the fortitude and mental toughness that made these people's endeavours possible, continue to play a crucial role in other, less death-defying explorations of the last frontier on earth.

You feel those qualities when you first meet nature photographers Pat and Rosemarie Keough. The Keoughs live on Saltspring Island in a Craftsman-style home they built themselves on 60 hillside acres overlooking Ganges Harbour. They are a mild, attractive couple in their middle years, who approach the world with the even, soft-spoken manner of school teachers. But when you shake hands with them, you notice something steely beneath their pleasantness: the directness in their clasp of your hand, the unwavering gaze that locks on to your own.

The Keoughs are adventurers, too. They spent the better part of two years in Antarctica, photographing the forbidding landscape, explorers' graves, abandoned whaling stations and the antics of seals and sea birds. They went to Antarctica in pursuit of their dream -- to create a series of books about the world's most interesting places. They have published photographic books before, best sellers about various corners of Canada. But their new book, the first in a series, is different. The Keoughs come right out with it: they want to make books that will be the best in the world. "We want our books to last for centuries," Rosemarie says.

And with this desire began a journey that required at least as much fortitude and toughness as was shown by the Antarctic explorers who went before them. The Keoughs may have enjoyed certain creature comforts in their many visits to the Southern Continent, but their journey toward publishing excellence has been arduous in its own way, their pursuit of perfection unrelenting.

Like Roald Amundsen before them, the Keoughs -- Pat, 57, and Rosemarie, 43 -- have reached their goal. Their monumental handbound book on Antarctica, published this year in a limited edition of 950 copies plus proofs, has just won the Benjamin Franklin Award for production excellence from the Printing Industry of America -- and this for a book printed in Vancouver, far from the centres of art publishing in New York, Tokyo and Milan. The Keoughs' dream of producing one of the finest books in the world has come true.

Their book Antarctica -- which sells for a whopping $4,500 a copy -- has already found its way into the libraries of such celebrated nature-lovers as the Prince of Wales, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, Queen Noor of Jordan and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.

"We knew a lot about producing commercial books from our previous work," says Rosemarie Keough. "But we were frustrated with the many quality compromises inherent in producing trade books."

Those compromises didn't seem to get in the way of sales. The Keoughs' first book, back in 1986, was a self-published photographic essay on the Ottawa Valley. It sold 20,000 copies. In 1988, the pair produced a book on the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories through the Toronto publisher Stoddart. It sold 20,000 copies. A book on the Niagara Escarpment in 1990, also through Stoddart, sold another 27,000.

That was the year that the Keoughs moved west to Saltspring Island, and the year that they began work on the Explorer Series: the set of at least eight adventure photography books that they expect will take them 20 years to complete. Antarctica is Volume One.

"We are the dreamers, the photographers, the authors, the designers, and the publishers of Antarctica," Rosemarie says. "Our experiences [in Antarctica] were rich -- and chilling."

The Keoughs spent two austral summers there, in a series of back-to-back expeditions, often with only a few days' layover. For many of the trips they took their son Glen with them. He was just seven when the Keoughs began their Antarctic field work.

Working together like military sharpshooters, one of them poised over the shutter, the other keeping lookout for shifting light or wind, the Keoughs shot literally tens of thousands of exposures -- often in equipment-threatening conditions. They refuse to take individual credit for the images, preferring to share authorship. In the end, they chose 330 photographs for full-colour reproduction, and another 15 for duotone treatment.

The images are hauntingly beautiful. They show an unexpected liveliness in the bounteous natural life of Antarctica, and a grim foreboding in the ghostly remains of abandoned explorers' huts and whaling stations. Humans come and go on the Southern Continent, animals make brief forays on to shingle beaches and ice ledges; but the eternal verities of Antarctica remain: rock and ice and wind.

In a moving forward to the book, the Keoughs describe the ghosts they met there. Entering Robert Scott's 1911 Terra Nova hut, the Keoughs recall: "Immediately we [were] hit by a strong, pungent smell of smoke, burned seal blubber, grime and unwashed bodies that permeates all. The odour is not unpleasant; it is comforting and speaks of men and life during the heroic era -- as our eyes adjusted to the dim interior, we recognized the setting so familiar from old photographs by Herbert Ponting." Antarctica has no dust or cobwebs to mark the passing of time, and much of what they found in huts like this one, and Shackleton's Nimrod base, seem freshly erected and provisioned.

But Antarctica is not only a land of ghosts. "Surprising as it may seem, the 'White Continent' is a place of magnificent colour," the Keoughs write. "It changes throughout the day at the whim of weather and with the angles of the sun. The myriad shades of pink, purple, blue, gold and even green are reality."

The book is adrift in colour: the opalescent yellow breast feathers of Emperor penguins; the intense green of beach grasses; the pale pink of snow algae, the jades and turquoises and aquamarines of ancient ice. It was, in fact, the idea of these jewel-like colours that proved one of the biggest challenges for the Keoughs. They were determined to find the best printing that money could buy. They spent a long time hunting around North America for art book printers. They made a short list and sent nominee firms four slides and four sample pages from the book and asked them for a trial run.

The astonishing result -- astonishing to anyone who has ever savoured the magnificent printing of Italian art books or high-end American and Japanese photography books -- is that the very best printing in the world for this book turned out to be right here in Vancouver.

Hemlock Printers was testing a new printing technology developed by Burnaby imaging giant Creo. This so-called stochastic screening technology (trade named Staccato) applies ink in such revolutionary small amounts, that it takes 50-power magnification to even begin to see the dot-matrix pattern.

The depth and nuance of colour is startling. Reproduced in the finished book, the Keoughs' printed images look more like photographs than the high-end lithographs that they actually are.

The journey from slide carousel to printed page was long and often exhausting. The Keoughs spent hours on each image at the pre-press stage, massaging tonalities and colour balance on a computer screen in order to match those of the original transparency. Images with large areas of grey sky and snow or ice were the hardest, with shifting mid-tones either washing out the sky or making the snow look dirty. The Keoughs projected each slide on a screen in the pre-press workroom to match the computer version to it. When it came time to print, Hemlock ran two shifts a day, from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., for five weeks.

"The pressmen, they got so that they knew all seven species of Antarctic penguin," Rosemarie says, able now to joke about the intense time when painstaking perfectionism reigned.

Every element of the book project received that same level of attention. The Keoughs may be amiable in social conversation, but their adamantine determination to see things done well is never far away. The books, shaped longer than they are tall, like giant ledgers, are hand-bound in Moroccan goat skin, two full skins per copy. The leather comes from a tannery in Scotland. Goat was chosen for its durability -- the Keoughs are serious when they say they want their books to last for a thousand years. Calf leather turns out to be too easily scuffed; sheep leather a frequent delaminator. Only goat offered the potential for centuries of use.

The paper, custom made for their use and velvety with its satin enamel finish, comes from Wisconsin. The endpapers of the book are mottled grey velvet, enough like a seal's coat to trick the eye. The books take so long to assemble that the Ontario bindery will need two years to finish its hand-stitched job. The finished books rest in large, meticulously fabricated presentation cases.

In recent weeks Antarctica has garnered another international award: the first ever Craft Art Science Award from the International Association of Printing House Craftsmen, based in the United States. In their citation, the 40 judges called the book "a towering achievement."

It is not surprising that the price for so much excellence is high. However, about $700 from each $4,500 sale goes to support BirdLife International's Save the Albatross Campaign.

"Almost a decade ago we had a dream of creating the world's highest quality books as an innovative way to leverage our personal capital and talents toward supporting conservation and social causes," the Keoughs explained in an essay for Skin Deep, a British magazine for book collectors.

They are at work now on subsequent volumes in the Explorer Series, with projects under way on Cairo, Kenya, the Dutch Caribbean, the Russian Arctic, the West Coast's Inside Passage to Alaska, and the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts of the American Southwest.

"We knew the first time that we met that we were kindred spirits," Rosemarie explains. That fateful encounter was on a whitewater canoeing trip down the South Nahanni River in 1984. "We recognized that we shared passions and a high tolerance for uncertainty."

They decided that their shared destiny was to become professional photographers, and they set about seeking the necessary publishing and marketing skills. Their determination produced results, and together their previous books have sold 90,000 copies. But the Explorer Series means all previous mercantile bets are off. "The idea of creating books of such quality, and in such small numbers, was not the kind of idea you could finance by going to the bank and saying, 'I have this dream,'" Pat observes.

The Keoughs have financed Antarctica themselves, saying simply that they do the work because they "believe in it so intensely."

Looking at the book, that intensity is unmistakable. The Keoughs have captured the stark, barren beauty of Antarctica, a region that has haunted the human imagination since ancient times, when the Greeks first speculated on a massive southern region of the world.

"Regarding our efforts to create and release [this book] we share the philosophy expressed by Norway's Liv Arnesen, the first woman to ski unsupported to the South Pole," the Keoughs have written. "To fulfill a dream, it must be converted into a goal, so that one may start planning. Hard work then follows.

"Most ambitions can be realized, so long as your motives are strong enough and genuine."

In Vancouver, Atkinson's (1501 West Sixth), has a number of copies of Pat and Rosemarie Keough's Antarctica for sale. You can also contact the Keoughs' Web site at

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