My bookshelves currently feature 16 books of Icelandic photography. I guess one way of describing that is “enough”. Another might be “obsession”. So much, that I decided that on my most recent trip to Iceland that I would not be buying any more. Absolutely none. That didn’t turn out so well…
I could claim that “Last Days of the Arctic” by Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson doesn’t count, because (a) it isn’t about Iceland as such, and (b) I bought it from Amazon because it was too heavy to carry. Not to mention costing half the price. Then again I did order it whilst in Iceland. Let’s say it’s a borderline case.
However, for “Rauðisandur”, by Rut Hallgrímsdóttir, I have no such excuse. I was snagged by it at the deadly trap of the Eymundsson bookstore at Keflavik airport, and with a few thousand kronur left in my pocket it was a foregone conclusion.
So why did I fall for it ? Well, “Rauðisandur” is different. So far, a very large majority of Iceland landscape photo books are generic. Basically they take the wide view, and take you all around the island. Different photographers have different approaches, but by and large they’re still working in the first generation of “serious” icelandic landscape photography books, which as far as I can tell only really got going around the start of the century. It’s a young market, and although it is beginning to mature, I’d say it isn’t saturated - yet. But it’s edging that way. So, it was interesting to see what could be a precursor of the next stage, a book with taking a deeper approach to a (much) smaller area.
This has been done before, in a way, but more as hybrid trail guide / photo books, such as Daniel Bergmann’s “Skaftafell National Park”, and even that seems to be a rare exception.
As far as I can tell, Rut Hallgrímsdóttir is a professional photographer living and working in Reykjavik, specialising in formal portraiture, so this is not a typical project from her. Rauðisandur, an area in the extreme West of Iceland, on the South-Western edge of the Westfjords, is an area she discovered through her husband. It’s an area well known for its vast, sweeping sandy beaches, a bit reminiscent of the Irish northwest coast, but little visited due to being really well off the beaten track.
Although it has a rich and fascinating past, Rauðisandur is largely deserted these days. The (relatively) rich farming lands are not much of an attraction compared to the (ahem) riches of Reykjavik, and the old farms are derelict and fading. This is the natural and human landscape that Rut sets out to capture, and in my opinion she does it very well.
To be clear, this is not classic landscape photography. While there are some decent shots in the book, and some of the seascapes are excellent, they’re not really in tune with the modern landscape ethos. Indeed, I get the feeling that more than a few were shot quite some time ago ... on film!! There are no technical details in the book, not that I care at all, so I’m just guessing. What the photography does do very well though is to convey an intimate connection with this small, faraway - but still quite awe-inspiring - corner of Iceland. The commentary is full of fascinating anecdotes, and spent ages getting drawn into the stories about the farm at Vellir, and the photos of the surrounding landscape.
The book also include a nice section at the end on the area’s history by local expert Ari Ívarsson.
The photography is largely split between wide angle landscape vistas and semi-abstract close-up rock, wave and beach details. Again, it’s a combination that works well in conveying a sense of closeness to the land, and the more abstract work adds a considerable touch of artistic weight to the book, which otherwise might end feeling a bit bland. It’s through these abstractions that I feel we get a glimpse of Rut’s true skill as a photographer. It would be interesting to see more of these.
I guess “Rauðisandur” isn’t going to win any major prizes: it’s not that kind of book. But in its own quiet way it’s a very interesting and worthwhile book, which might leave a more lasting impression than just getting Lost in Iceland.
APOLOGY: The following shots are, I’m afraid, very poor quality. I’m not really set up for product shots (i.e too lazy too bother…). But they should give a rough idea of the book’s direction.
According to Páll Stefánsson
The combination of good film and medium format is still the best way to capture the Icelandic landscape.
Bugger. I’m doing it wrong.
Well after 8 days in Iceland I have maintained my perfect record of Aurora Borealis dodging. It has rained, snowed, and in between there has even been the odd patch of light illuminating iconic photo opportunities to which we have been delivered by our tireless guide, Daníel Bergmann. This has been my second ever group photo tour. I don’t usually find that I can really photograph in a group, especially with people I don’t know, but this time Marissa, Leslie, Ed, Patrick, Shane and Peter have made it a real pleasure.
I don’t know yet if I got any good photos, but my first experience with the Olympus E-5 has been pretty positive. There are a few things that I think the E-3 does better, but that might just be down to familiarity.
We have a few more hours of potential photographing around the Reykjanes peninsula, but anyway, I think there already a few shots in the tin.
Of all the times I’ve been to Iceland, I’ve never really had much time to spend in Reykjavik. So this time I’ve given myself a weekend to explore. Downtown Reykjavik seems to cater for drunks and tourists. And drunk tourists. Even better, rich drunk tourists. As far as tourists are concerned, Reykjavik has been mostly about shopping for quite a while. Sweater and knick-knack shops abound, and there’s always a good few photography books on sale, ranging from the excellent to kitsch (putting it politely). Of the “regulars”, Ragnar Alexsson has a fairly new book out, “Last Days of the Arctic”, which looks good but is way to heavy to carry home. As for the Icelandic Landscape stuff, well the old classics are still around - getting Lost in Iceland is still no problem, but I’ve gone into overload on this stuff. In fact I’m begining to wonder if there is anything much new to say or discover about Icelandic landscape. The heavy, relentless exposure through books, magazines and endless online galleries is casting a bit of a tired light on the whole thing, and it’s becoming a bit demotivating. That sounds pretty selfish and small-minded, I realise, but it’s still how I’m coming to feel. Maybe the coming week will reinvigorate me. In the meantime at least I’ve ticked off a few touristy snapshots I’ve never seen before, spent a very interesting and enjoyable afternoon at the National Museum, and scoffed some very good organic gourmet Icelandic fish and chips. I still like Iceland. Maybe it’s me who’s jaded?
I haven’t had much time or indeed inclination to blog recently, but since I’m currently about one third of the way through the Stopover From Hell in Copenhagen airport on my way to Iceland, I thought I might as well use the time for something other than warching Father Ted videos. This is also the first time I’ve tried posting from the iPad which I got as a surprise early birthday present last week.
I may well be here considerably longer, as Icelandair, which in my experience offers the worst landside customer service of any airline I’ve ever travelled with (I could go on but it would get ugly very quickly) have got me on standby, after I not only booked well over 2 months ago, but even forked out for Premium Economy hoping it would cushion the pain. The first leg, by SAS from Milan, was an absolute pleasure, as SAS usually is.
UPDATE Icelandair have upgraded me to Business. Best. Airline. Ever.