The Travel Series: Iceland and the Journey of Seeing
I think that travel can be an important part of the creative experience for photographers. The idea of the open road and the images you’ll find there is a powerful draw. Seeing new sights and exploring new visual territory can be very invigorating and it helps to kindle the creative spark. You see things in a new way because the primary purpose of the journey is to see, to view the world with new eyes, and create something from that vision.
An iceberg grounded just offshore
Some landscapes, some places, just get inside your head and inside your heart. You see them in your dreams, in meandering thoughts during the day, and in memories, even if those memories are only wishful thinking. You picture the pictures you might make there, and if you’ve been, remember the photographs you have made there, and then set the wheels in motion to plan for a return visit. Iceland is like that for me. I’ve traveled there in summer and winter, both very different seasons with different photographic opportunities, but both were visually rich and rewarding. I’m looking forward to returning in October of 2014, to teach my Autumn & Aurora Discoveries workshop.
The coastal road with the Vatnajökull glacier in the distance
Iceland is a top destination for photographers, and for good reason. The landscape palette in this small and welcoming country includes rugged coasts, beautiful waterfalls, intricate textures and patterns, majestic snowy peaks, volcanic highlands, surreal moss-covered lava fields that go on for miles and miles, the largest ice cap in Europe, and glacial lakes filled with sculptural icebergs that float to sea to then wash back up on a black sand beach.
A skull-shaped ice fragment on the black sand beach near Jokulsárlón
In summertime the sun sets near midnight, ushering in a brief twilight period that is followed by a sunrise only a few hours later. The sweet light at the beginning and end of the day lasts for hours, ensuring plenty of time to enjoy the magic illumination at these times. And in certain seasons there is the possibility of experiencing and photographing the fantastical apparitions of the aurora borealis dancing in the night sky.
Looking straight overhead at auroras dancing in the night sky
A highlight of any visit to Iceland is the glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón. Ice breaks off from the Vatnajökull glacier to form icebergs in the deep tidal lake. Here they drift slowly, sometimes rolling over and breaking apart, to gradually move toward the channel that leads to the sea. The fascinating thing about this place is that it is always different. Sometimes there are huge icebergs in the lagoon, while at other times the ice may be smaller and bunched together to form a rough and jumbled version of pack ice. In winter, seals loll about on the ice shelf and, at all times of the year, birds call and dart about the sky. Although wide-angle lenses help to capture the vastness of the lagoon and the icebergs floating there in relation to the snowcapped mountains and the immense glacier in the background, this is a place where a long telephoto lens will serve you well, bringing you closer to the icebergs and compressing the distance between the ice and the mountains.
An iceberg in the glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón echoes the shape of the mountain in the background
Ice and water are one of the main natural forces here, very fitting, since the name of the country is Iceland. They shape the landscape and provide intriguing and beautiful scenes to photograph. The ever-changing ice draws you back over and over. Whether in the form of floating icebergs in the glacial lagoon, washed ashore as delicate ice sculptures on the black sand beach near Jökulsárlón, or as a vast and luminous ice cave reaching under the huge glacier, ice is an ever-present visual theme to explore.
Inside an ice cave that extended 300 meters beneath the Vatnajökull glacier
Some of the landscapes in Iceland have a raw and primal quality, as if you had traveled back in time to when the world was just being formed. The earth-sculpting powers of wind, sea, rivers, glaciers, and volcanoes are always close at hand. These forces shape the land on a vast and impressive scale, but also create delicate textures and small details that pull you in close and that are just as enchanting as the grander, more epic scenery.
Black volcanic soil and delicate patterns of green in the highlands
One of the most fascinating places in Iceland was also one of the most challenging to photograph; a lava field from an eruption in the late 1700s that stretches for miles and miles as you drive along the southern coast. The sharp, jagged lava rocks are covered in a blanket of thick, springy moss, creating the appearance of a liquid landscape recently poured into place that visually references the once-molten state of the lava that flowed there. The scene is visually very busy, yet there is also a sameness to it wherever you look. Images of the long view of the landscape tend to fall flat and don’t convey the depth and nuanced detail of the place. Finding patterns and textures and working with strong foreground-to-background compositions work well to portray both the sculpted details as well as convey some sense of the scale of the location.
A moss-covered lava field from an eruption in the late 1700s
The natural landscapes get the lion’s share of attention in Iceland, simply because they are so majestic and awe-inspiring, but there are also plenty of things to photograph in Reykjavik and in many of the smaller towns that you pass through on the way to those grand natural vistas. The human landscape is sometimes just as interesting as the natural one.
A geothermal power plant south of Reykjavik
The other aspect of the Icelandic landscape that speaks to me is the idea of the landscape as a stage, a setting where other stories are told. With this in mind, on all of my trips there I’ve spent time working on a long-running landscape/still-life project called “Artifacts of an Uncertain Origin.” These photographs are made using a wooden pinhole camera and medium format black-and-white film. The image-making process is much different from shooting with my digital cameras; slower, more meditative, and the results are less certain, but it is those differences and challenges that make it so appealing to me.
The Barometer, pinhole photograph from the “Artifacts of an Uncertain Origin” series
Some of the times that I’ve felt the most alive and excited as a photographer are when I’ve traveled to a place I’ve always wanted to go to, for the sole purpose of seeing, exploring, and making images. By stepping outside your normal routine and traveling to those “bucket list” places so you can immerse yourself in your photography, your creative awareness is heightened and enhanced. You’re energized by the experience and that energy and creative inspiration infuses your photography.
In the highlands of Iceland is a volcanic core named Einhyrningur, or "the Unicorn." In the background is
Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano which last erupted in the spring of 2010.
About Seán Duggan
Seán Duggan is a fine art photographer, author, and educator with extensive experience in both the traditional and digital darkroom. He is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York City and leads workshops and seminars across the country. He is the co-author of Photoshop Masking & Compositing (2nd Edition, 2012), Real World Digital Photography (3rd Edition, 2010), and The Creative Digital Darkroom (2008), and he has courses on Photoshop and digital photography on lynda.com. He is an Adobe Certified Photoshop Expert, and an Adobe Community Professional, and his Lightroom Tips & Tricks column can be seen regularly in Photoshop User magazine. He also offers personalized online consulting and training.