The renowned Icelandic photographer, Ragnar Axelsson, was one of the first to have the opportunity to try out the Leica SL2. He took it with him on another trip to the Polar region. For years, his favourite theme has been ice landscapes and their inhabitants: hunters, fisherman and farmers. We spoke to him at the end of October while he was at the International Nature Festival in Lünen, North Rhine-Westphalia, where he presented his Glacier project. The series is dedicated to the unique beauty of Icelandic glaciers, but it also shows the frightening changes we humans have imposed upon this fragile world.
Hi Ragnar, would you please tell us how it was to work with the new Leica SL2? Are you still working on your big project about Arctic landscapes and glaciers?
Yes, I decided to do some new work on the series; then I got the camera and saw the pictures it produces! You should know that the weather was quite bad on the flight, and as we flew over the Icelandic highlands, it felt like I was going to another planet. It was like flying to the moon, when the first astronauts landed there. I was thinking, that if I could fly to another planet, I would take this camera with me – just because of the pictures I got of the glaciers and the landscape. They were extraordinary.
Are there any differences to the Leica SL1 you used previously?
The handling is very similar, and it’s even easier to use in many ways. It took me only a few minutes to get used to it. The difference is in the files: they are extremely sharp and fantastic. When I used the Leica SL1, it was absolutely great; but the SL2 is like a big 8×10 field camera or something like that, but in a small body. It’s so unbelievable, it’s like a dream. It was like travelling to another world; and with this camera I was able to capture pictures from that other world. If I could go to another world, I would take that camera with me, definitely. No doubt.
So, you were completely happy with it?
Absolutely – it is the best thing I’ve ever seen so far.
What lens did you use?
I used a 24 – 90 zoom lens. It’s a really good and sharp lens; the same one I used with the SL1 last time. It’s my prime lens for everything, everywhere.
Will you publish the images you took with the Leica SL2?
I’m collecting images for a new book about the Arctic. I’m taking photos in every Arctic country, because I think it’s important to show the world the changes that are taking place, and the things that are fading away. So, I’m photographing and mixing together the themes: people, landscapes and the environment, the weather, whatever. I will continue photographing these issues. I’ll definitely use the images I got with this camera in the book. There’s a magical light, it’s a magical landscape – I will use the photos for the book’s chapter on Iceland.
The new images are very dark and rich in contrast. They seem different to previous pictures you’ve taken?
Yes, they are darker, because I wanted to show pictures that look like they were taken on the moon or on another planet. If you see the glaciers and the craters, it’s like a lunar landscape – like another world.
You also photographed some people and their animals. Who are they?
They are farmers, herding their sheep. It’s an annual round-up every year in the autumn, when the farmers go to the mountains to bring their sheep home for the winter. It takes a week – and they have to walk and ride through the mountains. I’ve been doing that for 25 years now.
What are your next plans?
I’m continuing my trips to every Arctic country. Maybe I’ve done 25 percent of them. The next chapter will be about the Arctic dog. So, I’m going to Greenland to get some more stories. But I will use my SL1 again. I don’t have access to the SL2 any more; I just took it back to Leica.
Why would you recommend the SL2 to other photographers?
They won’t be disappointed with it. This camera is so great – I can’t really explain it.
But for some photographers it is also a question of money, isn’t it?
You can buy a cheap camera, go to great places, and when you bring back memories of your moments with a person or whatever, they will maybe live forever; but, do you want to have a bad picture or a good one? I’ve decided to always have the best I can. For example, I went to Greenland and flew over its blue lakes before most people did; but I had a bad lens I’d borrowed from a friend. So, I had to return a second time, and flying over the glaciers again cost me a lot more money. So, don’t ever go to take photographs you’re not passionate about; and, do it with a good camera. Otherwise you’ll be disappointed your whole life. Take the best, and spend a little more money to get the pictures you’ll be pleased with for the rest of your life. There are moments that won’t come back, but that could live forever.
Thank you very much and all the best for your ongoing project.
Ragnar Axelsson was born near Reykjavik on March 6, 1958. When he was ten, he borrowed an old Leica from his father to take photographs he also developed himself. He became fascinated early on in the changes taking place in nature. 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 honourable mention at the Leica Oskar Barnack Award.
Find out more about the photography of Ragnar Axelsson on his Website.
An exhibition with Rax‘ photos will run from November 15, 2019, to January 27, 2020, at the Leica Gallery Wetzlar.