A Photographer’s View of Iceland


A Photographer's View of Iceland

Beautiful landscapes and friendly people have inspired countless artists. Follow photographer Wayne Gudmundson to this island country in the North Atlantic Ocean to capture the sights and explore its volcanic majesty.

AIRED: October 11, 2018 | 0:26:46

[piano, synthesizer, & drums

play in bright rhythm & tone]

(Wayne Gudmundson)I'm quite in lovewith this landscape,

as I am withthe North Dakota landscape.


It feels very tangible to stand

where your forefathershave stood.

In some ways, that's also fueledmy interest in North Dakota.

What was it liketo homestead there?

What did these people haveto do, where do they come from?

As they stood out

in that wonderful opennessof North Dakota

they were comparing thatto the landscape

that shaped them and in my case,it was Iceland.

So to have that experienceto stand in both places

and think aboutwhat that experience

must have been likewas pretty profound.


(woman) Funding for this programis provided in part by...

...and by the members of...

I was fascinated by a poet wholived in Mountain, North Dakota,

an Icelandic communitywhere my father grew up.

His name was Kow en Julius.

and he wroteunder the initials K.N.,

or "Kow en" as the oldIcelanders called him.

And it became apparentthat I should go

to whereKow en came from, Iceland.

So I camehere to photograph

whereKow en Julius

had come from,and I ended up

becoming very awareof my Icelandic heritage,

because in huntingfor Kow en's place,

I learned about church records

and they learnedabout the sagas,

so I started tracking downmy ancestral landscapes.

That's okayif we get there late?

Might bea long day but...

Given the way I photograph anduse large format photography,

I needed a placeto change my film,

I had seen an exhibit atthe Walker in the early '80's

that was called "Frozen Image"and divided the work

of these photographersin Scandinavia by country.

I went back tothe section on Iceland,

found theliving photographer

who's work Iliked the most,

It was some guy namedGudemundur Ingolfsson,

and I called up informationin Reykjavik.

Is that close to Selfoss?

Wayne saw that my first namewas Gudemundur

and his family name isGudmundson,

so maybe he hoped we wererelated, and in fact, we are.

Seven generations back we haveour common forefather.

He had my name looked upin the Icelandic telephone book

and simply called and askedif he could use my darkroom.

That was the first rapport.

And when I came, he was just,he and his wife

were just the most graciousof host and hostesses

and showed meall kinds of things,

and over the course of that weekwe became friends.


I was watching him

like the proud fathershowing off his kid to someone

who hasn't seen it before.

I mean, he clearlyhas a love affair

of the Icelandic landscape,and I think his photographs

have more of the presenceof the landscape

and the respect for itand the love of the outdoors.

We went to Hofsos, inthrough north central Iceland,

to see the emigration museum.

It's good for the peopleof Icelandic descent

who are in Canadaand the United States,

so they can get some assistancein tracking their genealogy,

but I think it's also goodfor the Icelanders too,

to think a bitabout those who left.


(Valgeir Thorvaldsson)Hofsos had been for a long time

a trade center,the fishing village,

The fishing business had beengoing down in Iceland,

so lots of a little townis dying.

There's probably close to20,000 people who left Iceland

and in that time it was88,000 people in Iceland,

so you can see that's a lot.

I have a lot of family membersin Canada,

so I start to read somethingabout that.

And when I started to work herewith these houses,

this idea came upto do something

to commemorate these people

who left Icelandfor Canada and U.S.


We call these people today"wester eastlandicers,"

as in westernIcelandic people.


We can say it's a whole historybehind why people left

and what happened in their life,how it was to go over the ocean,

to find a new land, a new home,

and how they fit

into the new land

and the feeling behind.


(Wayne)We are on Drangey Island

on the north coast of Iceland,and this particular island

was the last days of a famoussaga hero named Grettir.


Grettir was an outlawand he was able to fight

and conquer trollsand all sorts of sorcery

and it all kind of came downto this big event

that took placeon this Drangey Island.


He lived up there in the top; hewas ultimately killed up there.


Well, the sagas were saidby many, even non-Icelanders

to be the great literatureof the Middle Ages.

Being that close, again

it's just nice to stand on theplace where this saga unfolded.

And it was a spectacular day

and what a great placeto make photographs.


One of the beautiesof photography

is that you end upin places like this.

And so it gets you out the door,

I mean, I neverwould have come here

were it not for having read thesaga and had this opportunity

to photographanother part of Iceland.



(Gudmundur)Iceland is half heathen and halfChristian in the year 1000,

so there was a politicalpressure from Norway

that we would all be Christians.

And there was a wise man

and he was askedto make a decision

on behalf of all Icelanders.

So he laid downand slept on it for a night.

And the morning after, hedecided we would be Christians,

probably for a practical reason,

to avoid warwith the Norwegians.

He went home to his farm andtook all the heathen totem poles

or pictures of the old gods

and threw them into a waterfallclose by called Godafoss.

And Godafoss really meansthe waterfall of the gods.



[acoustic guitar and drumsplay in bright rhythm]

[music only under pictures;no other audio]

[piano & strings play softly]

(Wayne)This is sort ofthe epicenter of Askja,

the volcanothat erupted in 1875

that really sped up

the emigration process of theIcelanders to the New World,

to Canada and the United States,

because the ash, there wasa wind from the southwest,

it blew the ashto the northeast,

the ash killed the grass,

the sheep didn't havegrass to eat.

So it really put the pinchon the people who were living

sort of a marginallysubsistent living.

And that pushed the emigrationinto full gear.

One of those people wasmy great-grandfather,

Sigurbjorn Gudmundson.

So he lived up in the northeast

and he need upin Mountain, North Dakota.


It's a spectacular placewith this massive lake here

and this one-mile-across crater,surrounded by these mountains.

So it's quitea spectacular landscape.


(Gudmundur) There is a pots,

which was originally anexplosive crater,

one bank sort of madethe crater,

but on the bottom of the crater,

there is a warm lake you canswim in.

But the nameof the crater is Viti,

which is Icelandic for hell.

So you stand at the edge of hell

and you sort ofsmell the brimstone.

But people go and bathe in hell.

[fiddles play a folk tune]

(Wayne)We're up in the northeast cornerof Iceland

and 1881, my great-grandfatherwas living over there

where you seethat white building.

And this cemeteryand this church behind us

were frequented by his familyand those before him.

And it was from there, in 1881,

that he and his wifeand their infant daughter,

walked some 95 milesover to Vopnafjorou,

and got on a small freight boatthat was taking Icelandic ponies

and Icelandic immigrantsto Scotland.

They got on a train to Glasgow,a boat to Canada,

down the Great Lakes to Duluth,a train across,

caught a boat down the Red

and went through then Fort Garyup to Gimli.

And so they spenta couple years in Gimli

and when the communityof Mountain opened up,

they walkeddown to Mountain

and staked ahomestead in 1883.


So this is what he looked at,

this is whathis family looked at,

his parents and roughly backabout 1000 years

to the point when they came overfrom the Faroe Islands

and before that from Norway,so this was his view,

this is the ancestral landscape.


And so it's justthis marginal grazing land

from the crest of this hillto the edge of the lava

and this wasn't much.

So 1875, when Askia blows,

this marginal grazing land

gets covered with ashand the grass is killed

and eventually the sheeppopulation goes down.

He was farmingwith his brother-in-law,

so they were landowners.

They could have survived,I expect,

but the decision to gowas made by many.

But this isn'tunlike North Dakota,

outside ofthe big mountains, [laughs]

but this kind of openness,this sort of open view,

he would have felt quite at home

in the valleyor on the edge of the valley.


When this trip came up,our daughter, Liv,

immediately asked,"Oh, can I go along with you?"

And of course,that would be just great

because I'm the dad and happento like her quite a bit.

So that was great to share someplaces she hadn't seen with her.

Chances are our relatives won't have markers.

She's been here before

and she then was very excitedabout puffins and horses,

but this time she cameas a 21-year-old,

and I think in some waysstarted to ask questions

that suggested an awarenessof her ancestry.

See if they left in 1880,it's very unlikely

that there'd beany markers left.

But I think what is significant

is this was the placeand that was the view.

(Liv)It really doesresemble North Dakota.

I was thinking the same thing,if you take away the mountains.

(Wayne)Yeah, exactly, because it hasthat same kind of openness.

All in all, it's a lovely place.

All in all it'sa lovely place!

No, this is it,this is good being here.

[chimes & orchestra play]

(Wayne)I mean, it's so breathtaking;

it almost seems futileto try to take a picture of it.

[this segmentmusic only under video]

[mandolin playsin bright rhythm]

I think when the Icelanderscame here,

Iceland had all kinds of birds,but only foxes and mice.

So they brought alongsheep, cattle,

horses and chickens and pigs,

and also some goats,this is what they brought.

We have this bird,the Arctic tern, "kria,"

which is one of themost popular birds that comes

all the way to Iceland fromthe South Pole every spring,

then goes back in the fall.

They fly 40,000 kilometersa year,

that's around the earth--the same distance.

And we have eider ducks,

of course, we haveeagles and hawks,

but they're really rare though,

puffins, yes, very belovedamongst tourists

and very beloved amongIcelanders-- to eat!

[bass & piano playsoft swing jazz]


(Liv)Once they're born, they need tospend their first winter at sea.

Recently, with urban development,

the puffins get distracted by the lights

on their way to the sea, and these baby puffins

often end up in the town stranded

and they can't get out, and they die in the towns.

I went out in the middle of the night

and joined this village's tradition,

which is the children go out at night and they chase puffins.

So you run really, really fast

after these awkward little penguinlike birds

and you try to snatch them up

and you collect them in cardboard boxes,

and you gather them and you holdthem like a football

and you chuck them as hard as you can out into the sea.

And that's supposed to get them pointed in the right direction

and back into the sea.


[guitar, bass,& drums play smooth jazz]


(Wayne)We are at the southeast cornerof Iceland,

and it's a spectacular day.

This ring road, this road,Highway Number 1

has really only gone aroundthe island for maybe 30 years,

so this road, relativelyspeaking, is pretty new,

and this corner is spectacular

because there's multiple fjords,and it goes in and out

and the road just kind of skirtsthis wonderful kind of

grassy shoreline and thisvery dramatic series of cliffs.

It's pretty spectacular.


What I'm trying to do is to getsomething of the shoreline.

My frame kind of goesaround the top of the clouds,

cuts back over,takes some these rocks

and goes out and just includesthat tip of land there,

so it's a very nicelittle composition.

[shutter click]

A friend lent mea 4 X 5 speed graphic.

Now, a speed graphicis a camera

that was popularin the '40's and the '50's.

It was a newspaperman's cameraand had a large negative.

It was rugged;you could pound nails with it,

nothing fancy about it.

I learned thatthe bigger negatives

would give youa sharper image

and so that kind of directedmy interest in these cameras.


I think black and whiteis more evocative.

There's a separation from ourperception of the world in color

and it becomes somethingkind of a little bit removed,

and I guess I like that idea

that this2-dimensional piece of paper

is a separate realityfrom that place.


Sometimes you make a picture

to somehow just pay homageto the raw beauty of a place.

You just sort of can't not,and there it is,

and so I wonderwhat I can do with this.

But I think more times than not,the pictures that I end up

being attached toor feeling good about,

are the ones where I foundsomething sort of small

and perhaps insignificant thatI can make some sense out of.

So it hasto do with

this 4 X 5rectangle

and what do you put in therethat can visually resonate,

not to the point of being overlyformalistic or compositional,

I mean, you always want tosort of hide your fingerprint,

you the artist, but it isa celebration of the common.


[bongos& synthesizer plays softly]

This ice I have in my hand,

it is between 1000 and 1500 years old.

In 1932, about 75 years ago, this lagoon did not exist.

The glacier touched the ocean out there.

Now we have about 5 kilometers from the bridge

and to the face of the glacier

and the glacier is losing about 100 meters every year.


Must be the densest ice in the world right here.


This is like small depth of fields.

There's not going to be much in focus.

(Wayne)Since my first tripto Iceland in '92, '93,

I've made many trips,and I always keep a diary

and I mentioned I've started

to photographmy ancestral landscapes.

The next projectis going to be

called a"A Song for Liv,"

and it's a story,it's a collection

of my rewritten diary excerpts

with a photograph of mine setin these different places.

The name, Song for Liv,"

is taken from the bookcalled "Song Lines,"

and it's about the aboriginalpeople in Australia

who keep track of their nomadictravels by creating songs

that record the physicalfeatures of the landscape.

So maybe it's a walk two days

before this riveror before that mountain,

so they sing a songthat is the map.

They felt that if the song wasnot sung, the land would die.

So what that means is

that it's incumbent upon usto sing our song.

So that's what it is;it's my gift to her.

Now you look through the dark cloth

and tell me where I'm at the edge.

Is it here? Can you see my foot?




N, n, now?

[both laugh]


Can you see my foot now? How about now?

How 'bout now?



(woman) Funding for this programis provided in part by...

...and by the members of...


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