“I simply try to create work that is true,” says Einar Falur Ingólfsson when asked about the message he wants to give with his photos. The Icelandic photographer is a man of many talents – landscape photography, culture journalism, educating... While most of his work captures Iceland, he loves a good adventure, having traced the steps of historic artists across his come country and worked around the world. In this interview, he talks about his transition from journalism to photography before diving into some of his projects.
Firstly, could you please introduce yourself and what you do?
I am a man of many hats, I guess. My name is Einar Falur Ingólfsson, I am a middle-aged Icelander, an artist – mainly photographer but also a writer – and also a Culture Editor and teacher of arts.
You have a background in journalism and visual arts – you studied literature at university and were set to become a culture journalist. Why did you make the switch to photography?
It has somehow worked well together, producing my art, books, writing and editing, and teaching. My background is both in journalism and literature. Having developed a passionate interest in photojournalism and documentary photography as a teenager, I was very lucky when I was 15 to be offered a position as a stringer and sports photographer for the main newspaper in Iceland. At 19, I moved to Reykjavik and started working full-time for the paper, first only as a photographer. Soon after that, I enrolled at University to study Literature, which was an old passion of mine and still is, but kept working for the newspaper, then as a culture journalist and photographer – I have been involved with the newspaper and its publication in one way or another for 40 years, along with all my other projects.
When I was 21, I attended a workshop in France with legendary American photographer Mary Ellen Mark. It was a week that changed my life. And soon after Mary Ellen – who became both a mentor and fantastic friend – brought me and my girlfriend at the time, now wife, to New York, where I got my master’s degree in photography and worked there for a while. But in 1995, I was offered the job of Picture Editor at my old newspaper in Iceland, which I accepted and held for 12 years.
In 2007, I got my first artist’s grant from the Icelandic state to work on a big art project and left my job at the newspaper to concentrate on my art, as I have done ever since. However, I am still involved with the paper, I am now its Culture Editor, but I work a big part of the year exclusively on producing my long-term art projects. Like now, I live in the beautiful town of Stykkishólmur in West Iceland and I'm working as the Icelandic participant in the World Weather Network.
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About Time: Elínborg Una, my daughter, in isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic – Skógarsel, Mosfellsheiði, Iceland, March 2020.
I’ve noticed that your work plays with colour a lot – some photos are very bright and vibrant while others are much more muted. What role does colour play in your work and how do you decide what colour palette to use in your photos?
I still find it interesting that I am working with colour, as my background was exclusively in black-and-white! And I still know nothing more beautiful as an exquisite and well-made silver print… But in 2007, I started using a 4 x 5-inch film camera, which was my main working tool until 3 years ago, and for that project, I felt I needed to switch to colour. I returned to the town of my youth and for a whole summer photographed using a script, where I traced places I remembered, friends from that time, relatives and the apartments we had lived in. I felt for that documentation I needed the reality of colour, the ‘now’ it brings.
Regarding the palette, I always work very objectively and change absolutely nothing. The colours are always as I experience them. I use neutral film and in the last 3 years, having started using large-format digital cameras (the reason was that it is very difficult to travel with films these days), it’s the same – I record colours as I experience them. I guess I can say I am sensitive to colours and often return to the same place, again and again, to get it as I feel is right. I always work quite objectively but after some kind of script or well-formed ideas and storylines, the subjective meets the objective.
In About Time, you ventured to Varanasi (India), Rome (Italy) and Egypt. Why did you choose these locations to work in?
For a long time, I have used the camera to ‘write’ my visual diary. And having spent some years creating demanding collaborative projects, where I worked ‘with’ deceased artists of the past, or the work they created, I decided to do an eighteen-month long diary-project. The reason being that both my daughters were leaving home at the same time, leaving Iceland to study abroad. I felt it difficult to have both of them leave which triggered that project. Then the pandemic hit, full force, and the project became loaded with different and probably deeper meanings. It ended up covering 20 months or until my daughters could return home to Iceland for a visit in the middle of the battle with Covid-19.
Since my teenage years, I have had a great interest in India, fuelled by photographs by masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Mary Ellen Mark, and around 20 years ago I did several photojournalistic projects there – and fell in love with the country and the incredibly vibrant and chaotic culture. For my diary project, About Time, I decided to reflect on my homogenous, simple and very young society in older cultural centres that influenced and affected the background of my culture. Therefore, I was very lucky to have had a fantastic studio in Varanasi to work from, in the oldest and holiest city of the Hindus – I love being and working in Varanasi; and similarly, I chose to work on the diary in Rome, which is a cradle of our Christian culture up here in Iceland, and also for the visual arts – there are over twenty Caravaggios in the city! And I chose Egypt for the same reason.
This visual diary reflects your life and background in a culturally and socially homogeneous society. Having travelled to various parts of the world, how has your perspective on your heritage culture changed?
Being able to truly appreciate what one has – it helps to know what is elsewhere. I feel lucky to live in a Nordic welfare state, with great equality for the few inhabitants on this weather-beaten island of ours. We do have a distinct cultural heritage that we are very proud of. We have our own language and a strong foundation of the culture, not in visual memory or building from the past, but in our mediaeval literature. They are our cathedrals of the past – stories. In my projects, I have been working with that heritage, and knowing the world, which is incredibly important and makes people wise, makes me only appreciate my own background better. But I adore experiencing different cultures and seeing different artists reflect on their backgrounds and heritage.
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About Time: Innri-Njarðvík – Snæfelsjökull-glacier – Iceland, 2020.
You’ve recently started working on the World Weather Network, in which various artists document climate change around the world. Can you elaborate on your contribution to this project?
It’s a great project and I am glad and proud to have been invited to participate. The artists are producing very diverse bodies of work or projects. I will be doing various things during this year, mainly photography but also texts, interviews and video pieces.
I will be reporting the Icelandic weather in my weather diary, Look of the Sky. For one year, I will take a photograph at noon wherever I happen to be and for the first four months I am mainly here in Stykkishólmur. I will publish the photographs weekly, one week at a time, and under each photo will be two notations. First, a recording of Mr Arni Thorlacius reporting the weather on the exact same day, only 170 years before me, in 1852. He recorded the weather in Stykkishólmur five times a day for decades in the 19th Century. Then, there will be the official recording of the weather at the same time and place where I took the photograph. This is one more project where I engage with the work of someone from the past. I can’t help it… I will post this first on Instagram. Later, after the year, it will become an exhibition and hopefully a book. Then, there are videos I'll make, pieces I call Weather-Sites, about something weather-related that has happened in the past.
Why is it important to use art to engage in the conversation around climate change?
As much as we need science and scientists to explain what is happening and what needs to be done to react to the dire situation, we need artists as well. Artists are independent – they can think and react differently, and they often see the world in a different and clearer way than people generally do. Their voices are therefore equally important – artists are at any time a mirror of society and the world. They bring our attention to things, they explain, poke, tease, whisper or scream. We need them to show and tell.
In Saga Sites and Land Seen, you venture around Iceland, retracing the footsteps of artists W.G. Collingwood and Johannes Larson, respectively. Why did you choose to follow the paths of these two artists specifically?
This all comes down to my interest in the cultural background here in Iceland – but equally importantly it deals with how to represent things, whether it be cultural sites, cultural memory or what we call reality. W.G. Collingwood spent one summer on horseback in Iceland in 1897, riding between places mentioned in the medieval Sagas, producing in ten weeks the incredible number of three hundred highly descriptive watercolours depicting the sites. This work is loved up here and is very important. I spent 3 years following in Collingwood’s footsteps, photographing with my large view camera the sites he painted.
First, my aim was to find out how precise, objective or subjective he was while painting the landscapes but the project became much more than that; it became a discussion between three time periods – the times of the Sagas, the end of the 19th Century and my time in the 21st. I made a large book about the project and the work has been exhibited in a few countries, often with my prints and paintings by Collingwood in pairs.
Having spent years ‘with’ Collingwood I felt I would not work with a dead artist again – the discussions with them can be strange! But, another such voice would not let me be and in the end, I did a sister project, with the highly precise drawings of Johannes Larsen. When Larsen came to Iceland first in 1927, he was sixty years old and one of Denmark’s best-known artists. He came to do a similar thing – in 1927 and 1930 he made illustrations at Saga sites in Iceland for a grand Danish publication of the main Sagas. I also spent 3 years on the road in Iceland, following in Larsen’s footsteps, in collaboration with the Johannes Larsen Museum in Demark where the first exhibition opened in 2017. I simply loved using the work and writings and ideas of these two artists as the material for a script to work with, and experience my country and heritage through their eyes – and create my own art from it.
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About Time: Railway Colony, Varanasi, India, 2018.
A lot of your projects are produced in Iceland and you are Icelandic yourself. Why is it important for you to photograph your home country? What kind of message do you want to share about Iceland?
I love working on long-term projects where I can first dive into preparations with lots of reading and looking while I construct what I call my ‘script’ to work from. And here I am, in Iceland. I was born here, I live and work here, and my family is here. As a photojournalist, I have worked all over but each place is different, and it has to do with time, knowledge and research. In my art, I work with my world – based on literature, stories, myths and knowledge passed through the generations – and the output is most often photography. I hope that people who experience the work gain something, maybe understand a thing or two, whether it is about Iceland or some other truth or feeling. I have little control there, I simply try to create work that is true.
I’m sure that although you have lived in Iceland for a long time, each project is still an adventure to discover something new about the country. What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about Iceland?
It’s true, it’s always an adventure to discover something new. Time and collected knowledge, while concentrating on an idea or a place, are always a pleasure to enjoy. I try to keep my sense open and be constantly interested, whether it is in the art young people are creating or the stories about weather people are now telling me. Icelandic culture is constantly changing, influenced by global trends and issues, and it’s both a challenge and pleasure to try to follow it and understand it.
Lastly, your project, Sanctuary, captures safe places that “provide cover from the aggressiveness of time and situations one cannot control.” Where is your sanctuary?
I created that project, Sanctuary, immediately after the financial crisis of 2008, when the banks and economic system collapsed. I looked for and photographed symbolic shelters people could seek for the global storms beating on the island. But I try to make my shelter wherever I happen to be and locate myself – whether it is now in the residency here in Library of Water or in great my studio in Kriti Gallery in Varanasi. And I do seek spiritual sanctuary in the arts, visual arts, literature, music… But the core is my home in Reykjavík, I am sheltered there.
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About Time: Varanasi, India, 2018.
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About Time: Varanasi, India, 2018.
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About Time: Hanuman and David, Kumartuli, Kolkata, India, 2019.
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About Time: Sisters Elínborg Una and Hugrún Egla, with Móa Olmó, before both left home to study abroad. Gljúfrasel, Reykjavík, 2019.
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Land Seen: Johannes Larsen: The Hvítá estuary in Borgarfjördur, Mt. Hafnarfjall and Borgarnes: July 31, 1927 / Linda Maria Asudottir and Harpa Rut Jonasdottir, Borgarnes. Mt. Hafnarfjall to the south: June 17, 2016
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Land Seen: Johannes Larsen: Borg at Mýrar: August 8, 1927 / Borg at Mýrar: July 6, 2014.
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Land Seen: Johannes Larsen: Looking over Skagafjordur, toward Mt. Tindastoll and Drangey island from Arnarstapi: August 16, 1930 / Looking over Skagafjordur, toward Mt. Tindastoll and Drangey island from Arnarstapi: June 19, 2016.
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Saga-Sites: W.G. Collingwood: Bessatunga in Saurbær, West-Iceland, July 11, 1897 / Farmer Eysteinn Thordarson, Bessatunga in Saurbær (09.07.2009).
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Saga-Sites: W.G. Collingwood: Höskuldsstadir in Laxardalur, West-Iceland, July 7, 1897 / Höskuldsstadir in Laxardalur (08.07.2009).
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Saga-Sites: W.G. Collingwood: Kolgrafafjordur, West-Iceland, June 19, 1897 / Kolgrafafjordur (29.06.2007).
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Saga-Sites: W.G. Collingwood: View from Breidabolstadur in Fljotshlid, South-Iceland, August 3, 1897 / View from Breidabolstadur in Fljotshlid (15.07.2009).