I haven’t really wanted to get to this point, as finishing this series on Iceland would feel like the experience was finally lived and digested, truly over. But all things must pass, no? These are the remaining pictures I wanted to share, in no particular order. Mouse over each shot for additional commentary.
The remaining shots of Iceland’s capital are a grab bag of whatever I thought was interesting. First, and most striking in my opinion, is the sculpture of a stylized Viking ship on the oceanfront.
Many buildings are made from corrugated steel, though that is not as sad and crappy as it sounds. They are uniformly well-tended and clean, and often painted in bright colors.
An homage to mariners further up the coast.
Finally, a panorama of the city from The Pearl, a striking building atop a hill that has a terrace which offers 360° views of Reykjavik.
Reykjavik, far and away Iceland’s largest city, is home to a third of the island’s population. Pretty as it can be, it seems from a distance to be an aberration, a very colorful infection that has sprouted from a stretch of volcanic plain. The capital is not the reason for a trip to Iceland, but there is definitely a unique charm to a town that strives for cosmopolitanism in a country where the same families have lived on the same farms going back a thousand years. I wasn’t attempting to be as photographically thorough here as I was in the countryside; some of these shots are iPhone pics. Nonetheless, I think I got enough to present a little overview of the capital at the end of the world. This post, the first of two, will be pictures of, from, and in Hallgrimskirkja, a towering church that dominates Reykjavik’s skyline.
One thing I knew before going on this trip was that I might get killed by a volcano or fall into a crevasse, but at least I didn’t have to worry about any predators. There aren’t any. This isn’t Australia, after all. (Apologies to Aussie readers, but y’all’s animal life is scary. It’s like God is trying to get the Pharaoh to let you people go.) All mammals in Iceland, as far as I know, came over with the Vikings and are primarily livestock. The sheep, especially, seem innumerable and roam wherever they please; it’s hard to see how the farmers keep track of them. Add in some goats and the singular Icelandic horse, and I figured I should devote one post to the animals found roaming the roads.
Those of you who have followed this blog for a while know that the Idiot Photographer and I are quite fond of ruined and abandoned buildings. That said, I wasn’t expecting to find many abandoned factories in Iceland. So it was a bit of a surprise to come across many abandoned farms across the country. What they lack in size and scale they sure make up for in background, and I found myself in the familiar position of documenting ruins on a trip where that had been the furthest thing from my mind.
In one picture, this is why I chose Iceland as a destination: stark, foreboding and awe inspiring landscapes shrouded in mist.
A campground in a remote valley was where I spent my third night in Iceland. Getting there was an adventure; high winds and rain made driving treacherous, and dense fog kept my destination obscured. When I woke the next morning, the winds had calmed and the fog had lifted somewhat, and I could see my surroundings. The flat valley where I had camped was surrounded on three sides by steep mountains, cut through by gorges that trailed up into the hills until fading into the mist. I’m not prone to using adjectives like ‘magical’ or ‘enchanted’, those words having been worn out from repeated use on Disney movies, but here I humbly suggest their meaning might be restored.
I’m not sure if this is a great shot, but, by god, I was going to post it after what I went through to get it.
I’ve mentioned Heimaey before, the island of 1973 volcanic eruption fame. It was there I encountered the worst weather I would face in Iceland, with stiff 40mph winds and sideways rain that chilled to the bone. I had made up my mind to climb the volcano on the heart of the island. I had also lost my wool hat, and my hands were freezing. Nothing to do but run down to the town and purchase some gear. The Icelandic outerwear store 66° North (similar to the NorthFace in the States) had a shop in the small downtown. I knew they were expensive, but what choice did I have? 10000ISK (about $100USD) later, I had a hat and gloves. I can’t grouse; beggars can’t be choosers, the gear was excellent, and allowed me to brave the extreme winds on the ascent. The climb was tough but steady, and I reached the summit safely. Once there, I had to keep my camera inside my sweatshirt to shield it from rain until the moment I was ready for an exposure. The results were, well, spotty. But I’d be damned if I didn’t post at least one shot to make me feel that the whole hullabaloo was worthwhile. So, with storytime over, here it is.
Clearly visible for miles when approaching from the west, the glaciers of Skaftafell are easily reached by a short hike. A long tongue of ice slaloms between mountains down to a lake, where the glacier calves, setting afloat scores of miniature icebergs. The weather on the approach noticeably changes; the temperature drops as a cold wind blows down from the hills over the top of the glacier. Here is the lake with the Skaftafell visible in the background.
Perhaps nothing instills a sense of otherness in the visitor to Iceland than glaciers. To drive along on a fine summer day and come across a swath of ice a mile across is incredible. Jokulsarlon, a bay connecting the Atlantic ocean to the tongue of a glacier inland, is teeming with icebergs. The scene is uncannily quiet, save for the eerie rumbles, squeaks and splashes of the ice as it calves from the main glacier Vatnajokull. The color of the ice varies, but the day I visited, most was a vibrant blue. Most of the icebergs are bobbing and drifting very gently, in a way that is hard to comprehend for objects that big. The motion, however subtle, made HDR sets hard to shoot. In the couple of shots that worked, however, the super-reality and detail that the process adds really made the ice pop.
Iceland is born of volcanoes, and signs of its fiery (and ongoing) birth are visible everywhere. This is a view across lava from 1973, when an eruption on Heimaey island threatened to destroy the local town. The situation was looking grim, until resourceful scientists figured they could control the magma flow by means of pumped seawater, which cooled it into berms and allowed the townspeople to channel it away from their homes. The fields of boulders and tephra form an unearthly landscape, especially with the low clouds and mist that was moving in as I was taking this shot.
Waterfalls, I found, can be tricky to shoot. As Iceland is often cloudy, it can be hard to get a crisp contrast with the flowing water and grey sky in the background. Here, as with the previous two posts, I opted for HDR and black and white, which I hope showcases the motion and power of the water.
Next up: a return to color.
Seeing as I’ve thrown down the monochrome gauntlet in the last post, I might as well go whole hog and post a few more. Today’s shot is from a different vantage point in the same rift valley as yesterday’s.
I’ve shot a lot of pool in my life. I played competitively a bit, and it was interesting to try to gauge the skill of your opponent by how he or she presented themselves. Something that would always get a rise out of me was meeting a player who had his own very expensive cue and case, a glove, and myriad other accoutrements, that I would proceed to beat soundly. I’m of the mind that your equipment should match your skills, otherwise you can look ridiculous.
So it is with photography, where I’ve waited until I felt my skills justified the investment before upgrading equipment. But even technique or editing gets this scrutiny for me; I feel you should be ready for it. HDR, for example, is a rather advanced tool that can be dangerous in unskilled hands. (For a compelling rant on that subject, see The Idiot Photographer‘s recent post here.) And, though others would disagree, I might put black and white photography in this category, though mainly because I feel I abused it early on. With the recent trip to Iceland, however, I decided to tackle my reluctance head on, since much of that country’s landscape is seemingly made for B&W. Here is an HDR shot that has been desaturated into a sepia tone, as well as other editing tweaks. I think I’ve worked this shot so long I’ve lost the ability to be objective about it anymore; I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if this came out well, or if it is Frankenstein’s monster of photography.
A huge perk of photography in Iceland this time of the year is there is no night to speak of. Sure, the sun sets for three hours, but that merely throws the landscape into twilight. If cloud cover isn’t too heavy, the “golden hour” of optimal light can stretch seemingly forever. At the time of this shot, roughly 11:30 PM, the sun was crawling down towards the horizon and casting the boulders and mists of the alluvial plain in sharp contrast.
Somewhat hidden inside a ravine in Thingvellir was this waterfall, one of the most beautiful I would see in Iceland.
Ubiquitous in this country are cairns, or rock piles, which punctuate the landscape. Dense in some areas, occasional in others, cairns can be a memorial, a bit of folk art, or, seemingly, a simple way of saying “I was here.” The first shot is from the base of a sea cliff.
The second, from a hilltop not far from an excavated viking longhouse.
As unremarkable as moss may seem here, in temperate climates, it can take on fantastic forms in Iceland. It is one of the few types of flora that thrives in this cold, damp climate. While driving the ring road east of Vik, I came upon vast lava fields that at first glance appeared to be green crumb cake. In fact, each rock and boulder had grown a thick coat of moss and lichens. When I left the car to get a closer shot, I found jumping from rock to rock to be like trampolining, the stuff was so thick and spongy.
A thirty minute drive northeast from Reykjavik will take you to Thingvellir, site of the old Althingi, where the Icelandic parliament was held every year. It was, essentially, a celebrated campground where chieftains would meet to hammer out laws and try difficult cases, and not much is left to see of that. The site, however, is fantastic. A wide continental rift valley between mountain ranges with the country’s largest lake in the middle offers gorgeous vistas, tortured gorges, and of course, a sense of history.
A frustrating thing about having a lot of pictures to go through is that I don’t know what’s good until I get to edit it, and I can’t edit 1500 shots in one sitting. What I’m saying here is that I’d like a mulligan on yesterday’s post. Here’s the same subject with a tighter focus, better color and… well, I think it’s just a better shot. Let me know what you think.
Before I get to my latest offering, a quick plug. Those of you that visit this blog recently have seen a lot of pictures of the fantastic ruins of Gary, Indiana. If you’ve ever wondered about the stories of some of these edifices, fellow blogger Sometimes-Interesting has an ongoing series of posts documenting some of the most notable buildings, using many of our photographs. The stories deserve a wider audience, and anyone interested in the hows and whys of the decline of our favorite rust belt city should check him out here.
Today’s picture illustrates a point that I’ve reached on just about all of my forays abroad. There usually comes a time a day or two into a trip when I seem to hit a wall. The immediate reasons vary, but inevitably it is a crisis of doubt: “why did I come here?” “I planned this all wrong” “I hope the U.S. consulate can claim my body.” Whatever the case, I usually just work through it. Sometimes a good dinner at some restaurant with a few drinks helps. This time, however, at a moment when I had recently left Reykjavik and struck out into a strange country, unsure of how this excursion would go, I made a turn and found myself facing this:
I’m not religious, nor even spiritual in the least. But this sight made me take a deep breath and believe I’d come to the right place. I hope the pictures that follow bear me out.
I like things organized. Returning from Iceland, I had been mulling over the shots I took, planning an approach as to how I would post them. I thought I’d be like a museum curator, planning an orderly and cogent tour through various themes.
That was before Delta airlines stranded me at JFK airport for eight hours, ultimately canceling my flight and sending me out on a redeye the next day, leaving me even more jetlagged than I would have been. That was before returning to work Monday, which didn’t leave much time for thoughtfully and leisurely editing pictures. This isn’t merely bitching, but a reminder of how the best laid plans of mice and men turn out. Alright, it is pretty much bitching. But I’ve managed to clean up one more shot of the same beach at Vik which I’ve showcased in previous days, and progress is being made on the many, many photos which remain.
Outside the town of Vik, rivers have eroded volcanic basalt into a black sand as they’ve carried it south toward the sea. The result is a wide plume of inky beach, maybe a couple miles along. Walk along the monochromatic coast and you’re likely to fall into reverie, imagining yourself in a Chris Isaak video or a Calvin Klein perfume commercial. Then, you snap out of it and decide to get to work taking pictures.
I chose Iceland as a destination because I had heard it was full of sights not to be seen elsewhere. I was not dissapointed. Since returning this morning, I urge any traveler with the means to get there to go. The austere beauty of the Icelandic countryside can be hypnotic, with otherworldly geological formations, strange mosses, and slender waterfalls vying for the photographer’s attention. I can only hope that I’ve managed to faithfully capture on camera a fraction of what the country had to offer. Whatever the results, I will be presenting them here in coming posts.