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.
Great and inspiring read Rachel. I have travelled lots in the Army and many times I’ve wished I had captured images. But the best memories are firmly embedded in my ‘mind’s eye’ and that’s what is most important. It’s what keeps me going, regardless of whether it’s recorded with light.
Hi Carl. Thanks. Interesting to know that we think alike on this topic. Are you still enlisted?
Just coming to my final two years so thinking lots about the future. I might just be getting the chance to lead a group trekking in the Himalayas for 21 days next year which would be an amazing end to my service.
As usual a fascinating read, lovely to still hear from you.
Thanks! I have neglected this blog of late. I’ve been doing so much writing for magazines that my writing here has had to take a temporary back seat.
Lovely post Rachael. I can definitely relate. I now may be a traveller who photographs rather than a photographer who travels, but the moments and experiences are what I always will remember.
Hi Susan! Great to hear from you. 🙂 You are a very inspiring traveller. xx
You didn’t take any pictures Rachael but you certainly paint one. 🙂
Given where I am on my photographic journey I’m not sure I could have resisted chips of ice on black sand, mini icebergs floating in still water on the edge of a glacier and moody, misty receding mountains. I would have been like the proverbial ‘kid in a sweet shop’. For me the images would be a necessary step in my progression, much like learning popular tunes when studying an instrument in order to develop muscle memory and train the ear.
Having said that, I have had moments where I’ve not taken any photographs but just sat and absorbed my surroundings. I vividly remember one such morning sitting atop a Cornish clifftop waiting for the sunrise. I have no images from that morning but certainly have the memories.
Hi Gary. You make a good point. And I did take photos of all those things, much in the way you describe, but they (mostly) haven’t made the cut for my website. Your Cornish experience sounds beautiful – those moments are so important.
Sometimes, organic storage beats digital storage if for not other reason that we can —
and do — continuously improve and enhance what’s stored in our memory as opposed to what’s stored on our hard drives.
Thanks! Hope you’re doing well?
As well as can be expected?
Most of the stunning images from my travels are in my head . Many from my extensive travels and trekking days in the Himalayas, Bhutan , Outer Mongolia and many more. I was never good enough to capture them in my camera. So they remain personal and private as I have nothing to show. I am fortunate that my travels and photography are there for my own pleasure.
As my photography has improved I try to capture a moment in so doing to bring pleasure to myself and friends. But of course only an image and not what I really saw.
An image of the Potala Palace in Tibet is just of a building . But the palace is so much more that that and beyond the capabilities of a camera.
Happily your drive towards Patreksfjord will always remain.
I enjoy hearing your stories about those trips. You create the pictures with your words.
What a great post Rachel.
Thank you, Arlene. 🙂
This is so well written, Rachel. I’ve thought much about the western fjords and how stunning and atmospheric the whole area was. I returned with some ok images but I really feel I missed something somewhere. You’ve managed to marshall my thoughts and clarify what I already knew but hadn’t put together in my head! Thank you x
Thanks! Although not so productive photographically, it was a brilliant trip and not least for meeting you and the rest of the dream group. 🙂