11 July 2014

Iceland, revisited… Part 1

There are some places that keep calling you back. Places that you can never get your fill of. For me, Iceland is one of those places. I’ve been visiting its shores since 1999, long before it became a fashionable destination for landscape photographers. It was immediately apparent to me that I would need to come back, again and again.

HafrafellOn that first visit, I made this image of Hafrafell – one of many Icelandic mountains so named – near Hólar in the north of the country. In those days, I was only just beginning to develop my abstract images and I predominantly shot wider views of the landscape, albeit with a strong bias towards the graphic. I was already working with the notions of beauty and simplicity, but hadn’t yet realised the power of mystery.

I’ve returned to Iceland around fifteen times since ’99. Each time I travel as widely as I can, eager to see as much of this island’s broad diversity of landscapes – from black sand deserts to volcanoes to sea cliffs to jagged mountains to enormous waterfalls to icecaps… and more! In recent years, the southern coastline (between the small town of Vík í Mýrdal and the glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón around 200km to the east) has become the area most visited by landscape photographers. I can see the reason for its enormous popularity: this stretch contains at least three of the most iconic landscape features in Iceland; the sea stacks of Reynisdrangar near Vík, the moss covered Laki lava field and the icebergs of Jökulsárlón. But in my mind, and despite these wonders, people are turning their back on the best Iceland has to offer.

For the last three years I’ve been running my Icelandic trips in the company of accomplished photographer Daniel Bergmann. A native Icelander, he has a profound knowledge of the island’s landscapes which I can draw upon to enrich both my and our clients experiences.

 Geothermal LROn our recent trip he led us to places that I’d never visited, places – in fact – that I had never before seen pictures of. Perhaps the greatest joy was that we had these amazing places to ourselves; for much of our ten days we hardly saw another photographer. Not something that those photographers clustered around a few bergs on the shore at Breiðamerkursandur would recognise as a typical Icelandic experience. The feeling of being alone in a wild landscape was one of the true delights of my early trips. And losing that sense of solitude, amidst a crowd jostling for an image, is an almost unbearable consequence of Iceland’s current popularity.

A few days into our journey, Daniel took us to an abandoned farmstead. Passing through a gate at the end of a rough track we came upon a range of buildings, straggling along the edge of a seemingly endless heath (aptly a word we inherited from the Norse). This was somewhere that might be described as modest, yet I found it one of the most emotionally fulfilling locations of the trip.

Farm and moor LR

There was little to indicate how long it had been since the last tenant departed. The windows were still intact, curtains veiled the interior, the door stood firmly locked and the sods on the roof, lushly carpeted with sward, still held back the worst of the wet. Perhaps the occupant had just popped out and they would be back soon to boil the kettle for tea. A saddle hung from a rafter in the barn, its empty stirrups waiting… but there was no sign of a horse to feel the worn leather upon its back. Faced with an abandoned house, I’m frequently struck by the domestic tragedy that it represents. This place was once both someone’s home and their livelihood. When we visited, on a warm day in early summer, it seemed idyllic. Beneath scudding clouds, whimbrels flew urgently about their business. We heard the haunting sound of snipe drumming and skylarks fell through the pellucid air, their joyful song crystal clear. Such tranquility is deceptive. This can rarely have been an easy place.

Imagine the farm in winter, with a scant few hours of daylight and temperatures 20ºC below zero. The landscape is often scoured by a cutting wind from the Greenland icecap, a few hundred kilometers northwest. It sculpts the snow into the graceful shapes of sastrugi, although the farmer would likely have little time to appreciate the aesthetics of such things. For southern softies, such a day would be one for sitting indoors with the central heating up full… if only there were some central heating. In the real world, chores need to be done, the sheep must be watered and fed, cows milked, fuel brought in for the fire, water has to be drawn from the stream or well. No, this was not an easy place; but nor was it a place easily given up. No doubt, beloved by the farmer, this place was only relinquished in death.

Closer inspection of the farmhouse reveals the patina of decay – a residue born of neglect covering walls blasted by the subarctic weather.  It would be a shame to see the character of this wall as merely aesthetically pleasing. For me, the tones echo the rise and fall of light, the passing of the days. The patterns of deterioration are a melancholic reminder of lives past, a sign of a way of life lost, almost an admonishment; where is the farmer who once cherished these walls? Who will care for this place now? This is far from the whole story though. One man’s rectilinear obsessions will one day crumble to dust and be replaced by a fractal order. Life’s motifs are already threading their way across the surface; what once was sterile is now dotted with the brilliant blooms of lichens and a darker, broken skin of mould. The wall is a reminder of how small the timescale of individual human tragedy is compared to the slowly unfolding rhythms of the landscape.

Walls LR

More thoughts on Iceland to follow…

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10 Responses to “Iceland, revisited… Part 1”

  1. On July 12, 2014 at 4:43 pm