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UNT Insider | March 2010 Issue | UNT professor photographed "doomsday" seed vault near North Pole

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UNT professor photographed "doomsday" seed vault near North Pole

From a UNT News Service press release

Dornith Doherty

Dornith Doherty

Dornith Doherty, professor of photography in the College of Visual Arts and Design, traveled to a remote Norwegian island to photograph the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which secures the world's seed collections from natural disaster or catastrophe.

Doherty took documentary-style photographs of the vault as part of her faculty fellowship this semester with UNT's Institute for the Advancement of the Arts. The fellowship allows her to continue work on her project, Archiving Eden.

Dubbed the "Doomsday Vault" by media, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is built into a frozen mountainside near the North Pole, where the Arctic permafrost can keep the seeds cold and safe if equipment fails. The vault is opened only a few times a year for seed accession.

Doherty was one of only a few who got to see the secure facility, which takes two days to reach by plane from the United States.

"Archiving Eden was inspired by an article about the Global Seed Vault's opening in February of 2008, and this invitation to record the space and technology of one of the most important seed banks in the world significantly augments my project," Doherty says.

"I am interested in the vault from a philosophical and cultural standpoint, and the collaborative effort of all nations to preserve the genetic diversity of the world's flora is a logistically complicated and optimistic endeavor," she says. "One thing I find intriguing about the seed banks is that although their mission is crucial and they employ state-of-the-art research to ensure the survival of the world's botanical life, for security reasons, they are relatively inaccessible.

Doherty says taking documentary-style photographs of the vault will "follow the tradition of 19th-century photographers, when they went west and showed people what the continent looked like, using photography as an expeditionary tool."

Doherty prepared for the extreme cold of Svalbard ó using the recent Texas snow to test her snow boots and stocking up on camera batteries, which tend to fail in the cold.

"There will only be one chance to make a great picture while I'm there, with no possibility of a re-shoot due to technical failures," she said before the trip. "This, combined with the extreme conditions of the island and the vault, make for quite a technical challenge."

For Archiving Eden, Doherty has used on-site X-ray machines to photograph seeds and cloned plants from storage vaults at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Col., and the Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex, England. At her Texas studio, Doherty incorporates the X-ray images into digital collages. The Svalbard vault does not have X-ray machines for her use, but she plans to use her documentary-style photos in a future book about the project.

About Dornith Doherty

Also as part of her faculty fellowship with UNT's Institute for the Advancement of the Arts, Doherty will travel again to England's Millennium Seed Bank to continue photographing seeds. She also plans to photograph the seed bank in Argentina and has been invited to photograph the new Genetic Resources Center for Mexico this fall.

Doherty, who joined the UNT faculty in 1996, is professor of photography in the College of Visual Arts and Design. She has received grants from the Fulbright Foundation, the Japan Foundation, the United States Department of the Interior, the Indiana Arts Commission and the Society for Contemporary Photography. Doherty received a bachelor of arts degree in Spanish and French language and literature at Rice University and a master of fine arts degree in photography from Yale University. Her work is represented by McMurtrey Gallery in Houston and Holly Johnson Gallery in Dallas.

In 2010, Doherty's work will be featured in solo exhibitions at the Encuentros Abiertos Photography Biennial in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Martin Museum of Art at Baylor University, and the Galveston Arts Center in conjunction with FotoFest 2010 International Photography Biennial. Her work is in numerous permanent collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts in Milwaukee, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Yale University Library, the Museet Fotokunst in Odense, Denmark, Goldman-Sachs in New York, Sprint Corporation in Kansas and the Federal Reserve Bank in Houston.

About the Institute for the Advancement of the Arts

Designed to support accomplished professionals in the visual, performing and creative literary arts, the Institute for the Advancement of the Arts provides recognition for artistic contributions and an opportunity to share those contributions with the public. Each year, two to four faculty fellows are selected by a review of projects. In addition, the institute hosts an artist-in-residence — the first of whom is acclaimed screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga.

The Institute for the Advancement of the Arts began operations in Fall 2009 under the oversight of a steering committee composed of the dean of the College of Music, the dean of the College of Visual Arts and Design and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The institute is jointly supported by the offices of the provost and vice president for academic affairs and the vice president for research and economic development.

Ellen Rossetti with UNT News Service can be reached at

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March 2010

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