Monday, 21 November 2011

Photography in Iceland

Grim. Desolate. Imposing. Brisk. The landscape in Iceland is reminding me both of the Moors in the north of England as well as the Scottish Highlands. It is a natural enough topic for Icelandic photographers, some of whom are presented at the Reykjavik Museum of Photography and the National Gallery of Photography in the National Museum of Iceland. The latter shows visitors the history and development of Iceland ever since the first settlers arrived in the 9th and 10th century A.D.

The National Gallery of Photography has a similar aim, at least in the exhibition currently on show. Visitors can come and see the work by Hjalmar R. Bardarson. Although officially an avid amateur photographer - he always combined his photography with a permanent job - he used to be one of the more eminent figures in the Icelandic photography scene. He took snapshots during his youth of the small village he grew up in as well as its inhabitants, he pictured the coming into existence of a new island off the coast of Iceland, he photographed the aftermath of volcanic eruptions. But his most impressing images are those of Icelandic industries and fisheries. Most of them are staged, due to technical limitations of photography at the time, but the images are beautiful. Although it is unlikely that Bardarsson knew his work, the pictures remind me of Maurice Broomfield's industrial images.

The presentations at the Reykjavik Museum of Photography are of an entirely different order. The museum is the only independent photography museum in Iceland. It has ten exhibitions per year and aims to introduce and promote Icelandic photographers, show works from its collection and images by important foreign photographers. During my stay in Iceland, the museum presented a small retrospective by Marc Riboud, a contemporary of Capa, Cartier-Bresson and Seymour, as well as an early Magnum photographer. It is a straightforward presentation, black-and-white images framed in a straight line on a white wall. However, the beauty and quality of the pictures cannot be denied.

Riboud's work is juxtaposed with that of Leifur Þorsteinsson. The latter is a pioneer in advertising and commercial photography in Iceland and one of the founders of the museum. His work has been shown at the museum during the last year in five installments. The fifth and last one focuses on street life in Europe. The pictures were taken in the period from 1958 to 1980 as part of his travels throughout Europe. All the works are in black-and-white, like Riboud's. Þorsteinsson is a decent street photographer, but not an extraordinary one. I imagine his strength lies with commercial and advertising work.

The last presentation is by Soffía Gísladóttir. The exhibition is a combination of printed black-and-white and colour images, as well as a slideshow. The presentation is about her six-month stay in Madrid, focusing on daily life and daily rituals. A number of her pictures are amusing and very tongue-in-cheek.

All in all, I have only barely scratched the surface here of the Icelandic photography scene, but it has aroused my interest, and I am looking forward to seeing more of it.

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