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Max Rive’s The Ice Prison: Photo-critique of Epson 2015 International Pano Award-winner

In Spanish

Recently I’ve been thinking it’s time to do another photo-critique.  Strangely, as I mused on the possibility of doing the critique on a recent Epson Pano award-winning photograph taken in the Himalayan mountains (which appealed to my appreciation of ‘effortful’ photography), a reader of my blog sent me a query asking what I thought of that very photo.  That was the added incentive I needed to spur my thoughts into action. In undertaking my photo-critique, I am using the steps I arrived at in my post Critiquing photography: A different perspective. Based on this approach, here is my review of Max Rive’s The Ice Prison.

The Ice Prison The Himalayas, Nepal 2015 Epson International Pano Award Winner

The Ice Prison [1]
The Himalayas, Nepal
2015 Epson International Pano Award Winner

The Ice Prison by photographer Max Rive

The photograph – artistic elements and impressions

Max Rive’s award-winning panoramic image of the interior of a Himalayan ice-cave with a view to the Ama Dablam mountain is exquisitely beautiful. Sinuous folds of sheet ice sweep in a wave up the right side of the cave egress, drawing the eye from the soft ice curves to the wickedly sharp icycles depending from the cave mouth. To the center right, an ice formation resembles a seated, cowled woman gazing through the aperture of the cavern out to Ama Dablam, whose peaks thrust proud of the clouds in sunlit shades of white and ochre. Her almost subliminal presence lends a sense of human scale and warmth to an otherwise gelid landscape.  To the left and right, the fenestrated walls of translucent ice allow soft light to inflitrate the cave. The scene is balanced, serene, majestic.

Content and meaning

There is a genius in the way Rive engages with us, the viewers, by figuratively placing us inside the cave, looking out through the icycle fringed cave mouth towards the sunlit peaks of the distant mountain range. Immediately, we are connected to the image because to understand it we almost compulsorily must place ourselves inside the grotto, surrounded by ice walls, looking out. And it is in this placement that the meaning behind the title of the image becomes intelligible – we are the prisoners, in a cold cell, whose enclosure is completed by the long, dangerous looking icycles that bar our way. Mutably, it could also be that the ice figure of the woman is the prisoner, forever entombed and immobile in her ice prison. In the best artistic tradition, it is probably both. Yet according to Rive’s comments on the photo, the grotto from which we look out is actually quite small. He says that “The camera was almost put inside a small hole in the wall. Using a tripod was not possible.”[2] So clearly, we can be inside it only through our imagination facilitated by Rive’s photographic imagery. Effectively, Rive has taken us where no-one has gone or ever could go.

Technical components

Technically, the image is almost perfect. All elements of the image are in balance and harmony but not predictably so. There is an energy in the balance, a range of forces that move our vision around the image, from side to side and from inside to outside. In Rive’s image the tiny becomes vast, and the vast becomes tiny. There is a play of proximity and distance, light and dark, smooth and sharp. The colour is deft; the image is almost monochromatic shades of blue-gray, with just those crucial touches of yellow and orange ochres in the Ama Dablam mountain peak to draw the eye from the almost overwhelming foreground ice landscape out and into the far distance.  There is one element in the image that slightly jars my immersion in the scene and that is the far left trapezoidal gap in the ice wall whose margins do not seem completely integrated into their surrounds and this could be usefully reviewed.

In his short description of the photo, Mr Rive comments that he hiked up a snow covered mountain with crampons to a small opening that he thought might have a view of one of the prominent mountains in the Himalayas, Ama Dablam. His subsequent extensive work in his digital darkroom to bring this image to us was done with a masterful hand. For me, this is certainly an example of the ‘effortful photography’ that I have commented on and admired in the past.

Photograph or PhotoART

Is the photograph real?  From researching photos by Max Rive online,[5] I found that many of the photos attributed to him appear highly post-processed.  They are beautiful atmospheric images featuring long exposure water shots, and panoramic landscapes, water reflections, star strewn night skies. They have lovely balance and composition, and many are a visual feast for the eyes. Many are no doubt evocative of real locations, but difficult for me to fully believe. The Ice Prison has many of the supernal characteristics of his other works. Rive comments that “The Ice Prison” is a stiched panorama made largely from his fourth and last try at taking the multiple photographs needed: “After shooting the right part with my face just outside the frame I had to switch sides to do the same with the center and the left part.”[3] And he also notes that the various photographs were blended in Photoshop: “Without the blending this shot was technically not possible.”[4] So, as a researcher in photograph authenticity, I have to say that for me this image is an admixture of photograph and photoART (as I have defined in previous posts).

However, the Epson Pano awards do not require entries in the Open Award category to be fully photographic.  In fact, the rules state “Manipulation is allowed but excessive manipulation may be scored down by the judges if not well executed.”[6] Further, I believe that something like this exists, based on Rive’s assertions and description of method, despite his (for me) heavy hand with post-processing techniques. His body of work as I found online seemed to be rooted in the main in the real world, especially those parts that he has special access to by virtue of his mountain-climbing lifestyle.

However, would I expect that this is exactly what I would see were I capable of Rive’s mountain adventures, were I to find the right spot under the right weather and light conditions, and were I to be a miniature person who could stand within the small grotto and look out?  I suspect not.


Although it’s other-worldly qualities are a bit too glamourised and ethereal for me to whole-heartedly embrace this image as a representative photograph, I like it very much as a brilliant photographically-based artistic image. The Ice Prison is masterful, and a gift from Max Rive to us, enabling us to not only see parts of the planet both great and small that we would otherwise never have seen, but to almost experience them for ourselves.

[1] Image sourced from Max Rive’s Facebook page at Also available at the Facebook Epson International Pano Awards page at  Copyright Max Rive. Used in accordance with Fair Use provisions of copyright law. Accessed 22 October 2015
[2-4]:  Title and description from Max Rive on the Facebook page for the Epson International Pan Awards:
“This 6 shot panorama was taken in the Himalayas during spring. It was a small distant gape in a snow covered mountain which caused my attention. I mainly wanted to check it out because this ice or snow cave had a view on the 6812 meter high Ama Dablam. Finding a cave is one difficult thing but find one with a great view is much more difficult. After a hike up the mountain with crampons I entered this Ice cave. It was frozen water finding a way through the rocks.
    The composition you see with a view both on the left and the right chamber was very difficult to achieve. The camera was almost put inside a small hole in the wall. Using a tripod was not possible. After shooting the right part with my face just outside the frame I had to switch sides to do the same with the center and the left part. It was a matter of trial and error to get the composition I wanted. The required use of photo stitching made everything even more difficult. It was later that night I discovered that a lot of individual shots were out of focus or unsharp because of camera movement. During both the 2nd and 3rd try the mountain Ama Dablam was totally covered in clouds. My 4th attempt was successful even though I still had to do a lot of blending in photoshop. Without the blending this shot was technically not possible.”
[5]To see 44 of his photos, you can visit his site Accessed 22 October 2015
[6] Pano awards rules sourced from Accessed 22 October 2015

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