Dirk Hobman’s Art of Time Travel 

An image taken by Dirk Hobman of an ice sample roughly 200,000 years old. Each ice crystal is seen individually as it’s own color with the use of cross polarization in order to identify air bubbles, which get trapped along the edges of a crystal. This image is the first in his series “The Color of Ice” which will be premiering this April. 

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Imagine stepping in an elevator to the ancient past. Press the down button and drop a few thousand meters, past the era of the first homo-sapien, to 200,000 years before present. This is where Dirk Hobman would step off to begin his work. 

“I want to take people on this journey across space and time,” he said. 

Hobman is a nature photographer who melds art and science. His most recent project takes viewers into the monochromatic world of ice and turns it into a colorful masterpiece. He is one of just a handful of artists who have been granted access to the National Science Foundation Ice Core Facility to capture images of the priceless specimens held there.

“It’s like the coldest place on the planet, and it’s right here in Denver,” he said, before calling himself a fragile flower who only skis in the Spring to avoid the chill of deep winter.

The Ice Core Facility contains a huge freezer held at minus 30 degrees which houses an incredible 19,000 meters - that’s nearly 12 miles - of ice core samples from Greenland, Antarctica and North America. Outside of the freezer is an examination room where scientists can work with the core samples in a much more hospitable minus 11 degree environment. This is where Hobman worked on his photo series “The Color of Ice.” 

“My photos go back 200,000 years and all the way to the present,” he said.

Ice cores are cylinders of ice, typically taken from Arctic and Antarctic locations, that contain all kinds of information for researchers to analyze. One thing they study is the air trapped inside the ice, which, among other things, can tell us how much Carbon was in the atmosphere at a given time. Since a new layer of ice develops each year in many of these places, the farther down you go, the farther back in time you are able to travel. Researchers have been able to drill through ice sheets up to a few thousand kilometers before hitting bedrock, retrieving ice from past eras. 

Geoffrey Hargreaves, Curator of the ice core facility, said researchers have captured ice believed to be up to 800,000 years old. The cores are butchered like a pig, with specific cuts shipped off for different types of research, much of which is used to compare climate indicators like temperature and CO2 to see what they can tell us.

“We spend a lot of time and money making squiggly lines,” Hargreaves joked about the research.

You can play with some of those lines at the site co2levels.org developed by the Two Degrees Institute. The site offers a simple interactive graph based on historical data showing how the Earth has warmed and cooled over the past 800,000 years, with the decades since 1950 beginning an ongoing ascension beyond any other past measurements.

Since these ice core samples are extremely fragile, Hobman had to work in the harsh light of the exam room. This ended up as a blessing because it’s how he learned about the way researchers examine the microscopic structure of the ice. Using the technique of cross-polarization, he would sandwich an ice sample between two polarized lenses, allowing the structure of the ice to emerge and each individual ice crystal to reflect its own color. With a macro lens, he would zoom way in on the sub-millimeter thin slice. The result is an incredible kaleidoscope of colors and shapes that’s hard to believe comes from a simple piece of ice. 

With a Masters in Ecology from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Hobman appreciates the natural world. After having been into nature photography for some time he realized he knew little about his subjects, and applied to CSU to learn more. He pitched a unique idea in his application: his thesis would not be a written research paper that poses a hypothesis about some strange organism, but a photographic art project studying the beauty of Western landscapes. 

Dan Binkley was on Hobman’s thesis  committee and the two have become friends, meeting regularly for breakfast to catch up. Of all the students who passed through his office as director of the graduate program in Ecology, Hobman stood out as the only one who made art central to a thesis project.

“His level of knowledge in science was perfectly strong, but then his thesis gave him a chance to explore beauty and art that kind of step aside from science,” said Binkley. “He’s a fascinating character.”

Binkley believes Hobman’s work can pique the curiosity of those not steeped in the science. 

“It’s one thing to show someone a graph of reconstructed temperature profiles from the past 100,000 years. But it’s quite another one to show them how crystals in the ice change from one time to another,” Binkley said. “I think [the project] could be quite important for helping people begin to be curious and interested in learning about what climate change is, what’s ice all about, and what our future may hold.” 

Hobman is a tall, slender man with a beaming smile that can’t be mistaken for anything other than sincere enthusiasm.  He makes no attempt to hide the fact that it was his mom’s adventurous sense, and her “largesse,” as he put it, that got him into this whole Arctic journey in the first place. 

Photo credit: Dirk Hobman

Photo credit: Dirk Hobman

Over the past few years, Hobman has been to the Arctic a few times, but only after he was invited on a trip to Antarctica with his mom, Gisela Hobman. Dirk references his mom often in conversation, joking that he’s “a big fan.” 

“Dirk and I have taken quite a few trips together,” Gisela said before listing a few places most only dream of seeing, from Alaska to the Galapagos. “I’m really happy that my introducing him to Antarctica was such a stimulating force for his work.” 

It was that first trip to the icy tip of the Earth with a group of tourists that made Hobman decide he had to return with a greater purpose. 

“He was just so taken by the experience,” Gisela said.

He began scheming a way to get back by way of an art grant, since visiting Antarctica is not only a huge expense for someone who recently shut down his finance business to live more passionately, but also because it’s a big logistical hurdle to get there. 

While getting close to the top of the list, Hobman said the grant committee didn’t accept his application to go to Antarctica, but questioned whether the same work could be done in the Arctic. 

“Sure! I’ll go to the Arctic! How do I go to the Arctic?” he said back. 

Enter, again, Hobman’s mom, who had a friend recommend she tour the ice core facility for fun. After their Antarctic trip she mentioned he should visit, and that’s when it all clicked for him. He would come up with a way to get access to those core samples and then use the project as a way to justify a trip to the Arctic. It was a Rube Goldberg strategy, where one thing would trigger the next and the next. 

For his most recent trip to the Arctic last summer,  Hobman spent a month on a barkentine ship sailing the Arctic Circle on a residency program with a ragtag crew of 30 creatives. He noted that the quarters on the ship were so tight that he had to sit on the bed while his roommate changed, and their shower area doubled as a bathroom. His hope for the trip was to capture an aerial image of the crack pattern in the pack ice to use as a present-day finale to his historical tour of the ice.

“You’re starting at the bottom of a glacier and you’re working your way up through these layers of the glacier, and you burst forth into the present,” Hobman said of the project vision. 

The pack ice had retreated so far that he returned instead with a dark image of rolling waves in the Arctic Ocean. 

The first time Hobman’s photos will be seen by the public is on April 23 at an event hosted by a young professionals group within the Nature Conservancy called the 13’rs, which he helped establish as an early member. 

After a stint in the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art at CSU, “The Color of Ice” will find its permanent home in the place where it all began: the NSF-ICF. 

“Pretty cool,” Hobman said, unable to resist the pun.