I spent 4 weeks of the last year in Iceland. I love it there. That’s hardly surprising for a photographer who shoots the coast – Iceland’s coast is … well … no superlative is adequate. But it’s so very much photographed. And there lies a potential problem. I find it hard to dim in my mind’s eye the beautiful images of others. Chips of ice on black sand – done, and done, and done. Mini icebergs floating in still water on the edge of a glacier… also done. Aerial views of colourful deltas that look like the most beautiful abstract art – so very done. Moody, misty receding mountains – well, you can guess what comes next. So, it’s not surprising that relatively few images from my trips to Iceland, so far, have made it to my website. Still, I’ll go back, probably more than once, even if I bring home no keepers at all, and here’s why.
In September, I spent a week in the WestFjords area. It’s relatively quiet, compared with the south coast, and we rarely encountered other photographers. But it’s also a frustrating place because, while the coast is stunning, and there’s lots of it with all those inlets, it’s hard to find anywhere to pull over. Time and time again we drove through the most incredible scenery without being able to stop. There was this one drive, however, along the shore towards Patreksfjord, that has stayed with me. It was pouring with rain and there was nowhere to pull over on our sliver of road, sandwiched between mountain and ocean. But I was listening to some great tunes and looking out of the window at mountains soaring straight from the sea, shore grass billowing in the wind and foam-topped waves silvering the curves of the strand. It was an ineffably wild place, so very different from anywhere closer to home. Uncompromising and uncompromised. Then, as we swung round a corner, something magical happened; a hawk shot out of nowhere, no doubt surprised by our van, and sailed above us before melting into the mist. An ordinary enough thing, I suppose, but that moment has lodged itself in my mind’s eye. When we got to our motel and my companions sensibly had a rest before dinner, I walked along the shore for an hour in the pouring rain. I had to – I didn’t want the magic to end. I made no photographs at that place, not one. But it has informed every picture I’ve made since, in Iceland or closer to home.
So this is why I travel. I often say that the secret to making strong images lies in shooting close to home, in going to places to which we can return, again and again. We relax in the knowledge that we’ll be back and this means we’re not afraid to spend time taking risks, trying new compositions that might not work at all. We can move on from the obvious and seek difference, the things that mean something to us as individuals. That’s what art should communicate, in my opinion. But that doesn’t mean I dismiss the value of travel. Far from it. I will continue to travel, even if my hit rate of images is lower than when I’m at home. I will continue to do it, with enthusiasm, as often as I can afford. For moments like this.
Time spent developing our own connection with the landscape, on nurturing that spark inside us that makes us want to make beautiful photographs, is just as valuable as time spent actually making them. I think it’s fair to say that most landscape photographers do it because they love the landscape; there’s not enough money in it these days to make it a pragmatic career choice. Time spent feeding that love is time well spent. Put most simply, that fleeting encounter with a wild thing on a dismal day in Iceland made me happy.