Ice, cold and stunning beauty: the fact that the Arctic has so much to offer is evident in the impressions captured by the Icelandic photographer. Ragnar Axelsson – who has chosen to go by a shortened version of his name, RAX – is not only the most acclaimed photographer from his homeland, but also enjoys great renown around the world as an award-winning, documentary photographer. His work offers us unusual and beautiful motifs, while also revealing his active and cautionary role in this time of global, climate change.
In an interview with Leica, the photographer speaks about his new book, his work and his experiences.
How long have you worked on the series? When did you take the pictures?
I’ve been shooting the glaciers in Iceland for a few years now, while I was flying over them; but the project really took off in 2015 when we decided to make the book about them. According to scientists, the Icelandic glaciers will disappear in around 150 to 200 years.
What childhood memories emerged when you flew over the glaciers for the first time?
As a young boy, it was a special moment to see a glacier for the first time. It was overwhelming; and that feeling for the beauty of the glaciers and nature got stuck in my head and has never left.
What is it that fascinates you about glacier landscapes?
It’s always exciting going on a plane or a mission to photograph the glaciers. There is always something new and adventurous to see, new forms and figures in the ice; and there’s the ash on the surface, which comes from the volcanic eruptions in Iceland and is hardly seen anywhere in the world.
It is the forms and figures and the special light they give off. It is a world of adventure, an extraordinary one. The glaciers are like a book, because there is information in the ice that speaks about the weather hundreds of years back in time. Every year we are losing five years of the information being stored in the glaciers. All those pieces of information are melting into the ocean and will be lost forever.
What significance do glaciers have for Icelanders?
The glaciers are the pearls of Iceland. They have the kind of beauty that can leave you speechless. Most of us won’t be around when the glaciers are gone; but I think I’ll be here with the immortal Keith Richards and see what it will all look like in 200 years time.
Considering the experiences of the economic crisis and the political upheavals in the country, does nature today play a greater role in Icelandic society than it did a few years ago?
Nature is acquiring stronger ambassadors every year. It is the most critical part of the identity of Icelanders and of the country, and we understand well the powerful attraction it has for visitors from all around the world – visitors coming to see untouched nature.
Would you also describe your glacier images as portraits?
Ha ha, good question. The landscape does not hit back at you; it smiles, especially the glaciers. Both are fun. I do get along well with people, and that is more me, I think.
So, how would you describe the biggest differences between portraits of people and portraits of landscapes?
Well yes, if you look at the forms in glaciers, you can find a lot of figures and faces. That was what I looked at, imagining the iceberg was talking to me, trying to tell us something. All those figures are melting into the ocean. It has been a long journey – in some cases nearly 1000 years. Soon they will be free.
Does a feeling of humility emerge when looking at a glacier? What hope do you have for the global climate?
Yes, it does. Just imagine looking at them, and then thinking about them disappearing. What is under the ice, what new landscape will we be facing? The Arctic is the refrigerator of our planet, and now it is melting and, as a consequence, the earth will heat up. It is something that all those living on the planet should be worried about. When the glaciers are gone they will not reflect back the rays of the sun, and the dark surface of the land will heat the planet. Ocean and sea levels will rise.
What technical equipment, and which camera systems were used to take the pictures?
All the images in the last three years were taken with a Leica SL. I used two lenses for the project, the Summilux-M 50 f/1.4 ASPH. and the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 f/2.8–4/ASPH. By flying higher or lower, I could also “zoom” with the 50mm lens.
Can you tell us more about the new publishing house?
Qerndu Publishing was formed solely to publish books about the Arctic. We feel it is imperative to document the changing life there, because the Arctic will be one of the most significant issues on our planet in the coming years.
What are your current and upcoming projects?
There are a few big projects ongoing which I’m very excited to share in the near future. The largest project is a big book about all eight of the Arctic countries, showing life under harsh conditions and the beauty of life in the Arctic.
Thank you very much and good luck for all further projects.
You will find a portfolio of Axelsson’s work in LFI 2.2016.
Ragnar Axelsson was born near Reykjavik in 1958. When he was ten, he borrowed an old Leica from his father to take photographs he also developed himself. By the time Axelsson was 18, he was a photographer for the Icelandic newspaper, Morgunblaðið , and since then has been documenting nature and the lives of people in the North. His pictures have been published in Life, Geo, Polka, Newsweek, Stern and Time magazine, among others. The books he has published so far are: Faces of the North (2004, new edition 2015), Last Days of the Arctic (2010), Behind the Mountains (2013), and the latest photo book, that appeared at the end of last year, Glacier. He has received numerous awards for more than just his books. They include the Grand Prize, Photo de Mer, Vannes, and Iceland’s highest award, the Order of the Falcon, Knight’s Cross, for his work in the Arctic. In 2001 he received an honorable mention at the Leica Oskar Barnack Award.
To see more of Axelsson’s photography you can visit his website.