Ragnar Axelsson Documents Iceland’s Disappearing Glaciers

GlacierHub founder and managing editor Ben Orlove recently sat down with Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson, whose “Glacier” (“Jokull” in Icelandic) depicts the disappearing glaciers of his homeland. His monochromatic images were recently displayed during a solo show at Reykjavik’s Asmundarsalur Museum.

Scale. With the exception of some images in the section “Caves,” most of the photographs seem to be of a large scale, showing areas hundreds or thousands of meters across. This relative uniformity gives a unity to the book. Did you plan this scale, or did it emerge as you took the photographs?

I worked with Einar Geir Ingvarsson, the designer of the book and the exhibition, to ping-pong ideas how the book should look like. We decided to give the readers their own ideas and view the surface of the glacier with an open mind and imagine the scale of the glacier. On the first pages in the book, one can see small people, who give a hunch of how big everything is from the air.

 

The ice caves are different as the caves are not very big and in the photographs, the faces in the ice walls are from the two-meter-wall up to 20 meters long. It was planned when photographing inside the ice caves to look into the walls of ice and see all the figures or figurative forms in the 1,000-year-old ice, not just showing an ice cave as a cave. The ice that is melting in those caves fell on the glacier as snow at the time when the first settlers came to Iceland. The book is thought of as an ode to the Icelandic glaciers—like a poem in photographs.

Orientation: The majority of the photographs are entirely filled with the glacier, though some (especially in “Peaks”) include a bit of sky. And most of them are at a medium oblique angle, rather than being taken directly from above, or shot at a low angle. What are the strengths of this angle and framing?

It was a decision in the beginning not to have a horizon in most of the photographs. The first photograph in the book showing Snæfellsjökull, which will disappear in a few decades, is the only one with a horizon. That photograph is thought of as showing a glacier as it is today and make people think when flipping through the book what will be the fate of the Icelandic glaciers. They are all going to melt to the ocean. The photographs were taken from all kind of different angles to show the different states and the diversity of the glaciers.

Human presence 1: People are absent from your photographs, though one section titled “Runes” signals the long presence of Icelanders in the country. What do you see as the effects of this focus on uninhabited spaces, without even any humans as temporary visitors?

There are small figures in two photographs in the book. It is on the first pages and it is to show as a scale how overwhelming and huge the glaciers are. We wanted to take the readers on a journey over the glaciers. The readers have to dream and solve the riddle or just imagine how huge the glaciers are. In “Runes,” one can find all kinds of figures and faces on the surface of the glacier. Those runes come from volcano ash from past eruptions in Iceland. There are very few places on earth where it can be seen. I wanted to show those figures forming a story where the glacier is talking to us. If you look for some time on a certain photograph you can find all kind of figures, like on the front page of the book you can make out a bird. All those figures are melting to the ocean.

Human presence 2: Perhaps it is my imagination, but I see a human figure, leaning forward and tilted a bit to the right, in the first image in “Caves” (p. 130), and a huge face, with high cheekbones and a narrow mouth, in the second (p. 131). With these in mind, faces can been in two others (p. 134-135), and rows of figures as well (p. 133, 137). Does this mention of resemblances to human faces and figures strike any echoes with you?

You are right, there are faces in the 1,000-year ice walls in the caves. When I was photographing the ice caves it was on purpose to find those figures in the ice. You just have to move a few inches left or right then everything is changing in the ice walls. All kind of figures pops up. I want people to think about the glaciers as something alive, and the figures and faces in the glaciers are talking to us. What are they saying? They are all fading away to the ocean where circulation of water continues around the planet.

Climate change: The titles of the four final sections of the book (“Terminus,” “Lagoons,” “Rivers,” and “The Sea”) could be read as a narrative of glacier retreat, showing how glaciers are melting and contributing to sea level rise. But the photographs themselves offer striking, beautiful images of surfaces, much like the ones in earlier sections of the book. They seem to avoid a simple, scientific, didactic presentation of glacier melting. What choices did you make to compose these four sections and to select images for them? Do you wish the book to engage with issues of climate change?

All those chapters are showing the glaciers from the peak to the ocean. It is an abstract view of what is happening. Not many are really thinking about it, that this is really happening. We will not be around to see it, but the next generations will have to face something that is or might be a hard task to follow. All the glaciers in Iceland will melt in 150-200 years. Yes, we want the book to take a place as a little puzzle in a bigger picture showing what we will be facing in the future to come. We want people to think, the glaciers will all be gone at the speed of sound in the context to the age of Earth. We don’t want to preach, it is just a fact, as scientists tell us.


Relation to your other work. You are known for your work as a photographer for the leading Icelandic newspaper Morgunbladid and for your books “Faces of the North” (2005) and “Last Days of the Arctic” (2010), which present changing human cultures in a changing environment. How does this book Glacier connect with your earlier work?

It does not connect to my earlier work, it is totally different from the other books, more of an abstract landscape book, with a message.

Hopes for the future. What hopes do you have for this book? Has its reception to date met these hopes?

We have high hopes for this book. The exhibition where the book was launched went well. Around 1,2000 people came to see the photographs in Ásmundarsalur museum in Reykjavik.  The book is in limited editions and will be, in the future, a collector’s item.

Additional comments: Are there any other thoughts that you would like to add?

Science is important and opens people’s eyes to what is happening. We think it is also very important to document the changes in the Arctic in photographs and make books about life and the changes that are happening extremely fast.  Films and photography books support science and can open eyes to what is happening. Making a book about life in the Arctic is like a little puzzle in a bigger picture and it can open eyes to what is happening and for new ideas.

Click here to purchase a copy of Ragnar Axelsson’s “Glaciers.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

Fire, Ice, and Climate Change in Iceland

Ash from Iceland’s Glacier Volcano Threatens Health of Local Children

Photo Friday: Kevin Lyons Captures Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier