Focus on Iceland / 2012

Einar Eriendsson at a geothermal station in Iceland
Einar was driving on the "Ring Road" just east of Reykjavik, his eyes darting back and forth between the road and his dash-mounted iPad with an updated weather map of clouds swirling around the extraordinary wonderland of Iceland's landscapes. As his right index finger moved the timeline from 6AM to 9AM to noon and eventually to dusk, he allowed a small grin to light up his face. "Perfect...the weather is perfect everywhere we are going!"

What is "perfect" I wondered? Reading my mind, Einar pointed to areas of dark and light and took me through the upcoming schedule that was playing out in his mind, as he described the stark valleys and remote villages along our route. The sun would not set for another 17 hours, and we began to joke with each other as we both realized there were many very long days ahead. Finally, we reached our destination, only to find the road to the beach was closed, as a film crew was setting up to film a scene from Russell Crowe's upcoming movie "Noah".

I first came to Iceland in 2010 as part of Seth Resnick's workshop, to photograph the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, one of several volcanoes which have erupted in the last few decades. Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe, with a population of 320,000 spread out over 40,000 square miles, and two-thirds of the people live in the capital, Reykjavik. Lava fields, geothermal springs, geysers, mountains and glaciers, and a landscape out of Harry Potter gives way to many glacial rivers which flow to the sea through the lowlands.

My host and guide in early August was Einar Eriendsson, who has been running workings for the past four years through his company "Focus on Nature". This time, I concentrated on shooting aerials from a Cessna 172, as well as shooting glaciers, the small town of Vik in the southeast, the remnants of volcanic cinder cones, the glacial ice lagoon of Jökulsárlón, and the mysterious, long-maned ponies which are everywhere you look in the farms along the road.

The first six days we had spectacular weather--brilliant sunshine, mixed with periods of soft overcast light, and the long days carried over into the twilight of very late evening, with my 1 terabyte hard drives doing hard labor, as they copied thousands of files from my Canon 5D MkIII and Canon 1DX cameras.

Of all the places I have been to, Iceland is surely the most primeval, and in July 1965 U.S. astronauts trained for their lunar excursions by walking in the lava fields which cover the landscape.

On our last day, Einar drove us to the airport in Kevlavik, and to be honest, we hugged as we laughed about our experiences. In October, according to a clairvoyant who had a visionary dream of an eruption, Hekla will erupt. And shortly thereafter, another volcano will "blow its top". Katla, the granddaddy of Icelandic volcanoes, has been sending out tremors for the past several months. If it erupts, much of European air traffic will again be shut down. Hopefully, I'll get there before it does, and hopefully Einar will be waiting with open arms, and a glass of "Reyka," the crystal clear Icelandic vodka.

Beginnings: The First Assignment / 2012

In September 1965, as a fledgling photographer working for the newspaper "The Daily Orange" at Syracuse University, I got my first assignment from picture editor Sean Callahan. Sean—who would go on to work at LIFE magazine, and publish a book on Margaret Bourke-White—gave me an assignment to photograph the musician Dave Brubeck, who was playing the next evening at the Manley Field House.

I scouted the venue, and read up on processing Tri-X, one of the highest speed black-and-white films in those days. A new developer called Acufine had come out and if you were careful you could boost the normal ASA ("ISO" in today's vernacular) from 500 to 1,000. I shot some tests, and made a few prints. The grain ("noise" in the digital era)—which was something photographers revered in those days—was very fine, "tight" and sharp. But what could I do to make an image that was unique? My mind was swirling with ideas, and little did Sean know that in his quiet, encouraging way there was a veil to another demeanor that most picture editors share: come back with something great, come back with the goods because I'm giving YOU this assignment, and it's a good one and...well, you get the idea.


I had something else in mind. I knew that shooting from the front the light would be flat, and except for spotlighting, photographs from that angle were simply a record of a curtained stage, speakers and instruments. Shooting from the front would be clinical, and expected. There was, however, something literally in my pocket—I had backstage access !

As soon as I was backstage the performance took on an aura and mystery that were not hinted at in any way from one hundred and eighty degrees on the other side. So at that moment I learned lesson #1—always walk around your subject.

Now, Dave Brubeck was bathed in luminous, incandescent rays of light, with framed and famed bassist Eugene Wright rim-lit to his side. If you looked beyond, you could make out the outline of an audience, with all the microphone, speaker, amplifier and power cords snaking their way back to me. Looking more closely, from what I can make out, I count three ties, white shirts and jackets in the first couple of rows. I waited for a loud passage and snapped the first image shown here. How did I get the exposure? In those days there were no light meters attached to cameras. I used a hand-held reflected light meter to get me in the ballpark, but I had a secret...I did a stand-in with a workman earlier that day. A quick few shots, a notebook, some fast processing...and I was very close. And I had time to bracket.

Of course, I shot from the front—to cover myself and to cover Sean. But as soon as I made this image, I knew it told a story and telegraphed it quickly. The black silhouettes of baffles and speakers on both sides of the image also left Sean with place to put copy, if he chose to reverse white type. Lesson #2—shoot wide, tight, and in between.

I had my wide, so now I changed to a 200mm lens on my Nikon F, and leaning against a wall shot some much tighter portraits.

When I processed the film and made contacts, Sean was mildly complimentary, saying he really liked the shots, especially the wide one. He ran it large in the paper, and looking back I realize there was an electric jolt that comes with seeing your first published news photograph. And photography suddenly was real because I was getting PAID to make photographs. How much? That is one number I don't remember...er, come to think of it, I don't think I got paid. Lesson #3...get paid.

LEARNING TO SEE / 2011

One bleak November morning in 1968, I woke up very early and took the R train in Manhattan up to 57th Street and Seventh Avenue. I walked a couple of blocks south and crossed over to the east side of the street and tried to ignore the lingerie mannequins in the window as I walked up to the building at 853 Seventh Avenue and started to ring the buzzer for Ernst Haas. Just before doing so, I checked my watch. It was 5:55 A.M. I hesitated, deciding to wait five minutes before finally reaching out and nervously placing my finger on the button. The night before, after talking briefly with Haas, I had made an appointment to see him "at six," and as I hung up the phone, I realized I had no idea whether he meant A.M. or P.M. On a hunch, I went with my gut, but...what if I was wrong? No sooner did I hear the buzzer go off with a disconcertingly loud and annoying sound, than I heard a European voice through the the intercom telling me to come up.

Forty-three years later, I walked into a gift shop one day and after wading through the isles of stationery, chocolate and dolls, I came upon a woman sitting at an easel while painting. Behind her were some of her paintings—bucolic and sedate oils of scenery along with some portraits. Through a partition, I could see something far more interesting to me and, as I stood in the doorway, I asked her about the wall of abstract colors. "Oh...that?" she said, in a voice both filled with amusement and dripping with disdain. Then she added "That's where I clean my brushes and test my colors. And to emphasize how little she thought of it, she added "We'll be painting over that wall next week!"


I asked her if I could photograph the wall, and no sooner had she said "yes, sure, go ahead. Knock yourself out" than I began cropping sections of it in my mind and in the camera. One hundred frames later I thanked her, and as I walked out my mind raced back to that day in 1968 and to what Haas had asked me.

As I sat down in his apartment, he asked if I would like some tea. I sat there with my portfolio on my knees, wondering what to say and what not to say; then he looked straight at me and asked "Do you paint?" I was thrown off guard, and disappointed. I was a photographer and I did not want to talk about painting. I wanted advice. I wanted to hear one of my heroes talk about making images. The last thing I wanted to talk about was painting.

There was a long, awkward silence, and then I said "No." Haas didn't hesitate one bit as he continued to probe. "Why not?" he asked. I told him I didn't know how to paint. And then, with a twinkle in his eye, and a smile that somehow cut me in half while consoling me, he firmly said "You don't need to know how to paint to paint." Half an hour later I walked out into the day's gloom wondering just what he meant and what he was trying to tell me.


1968 was a good time—just how good, I had little idea. Across the Hudson, a young man named Clarence Clemons was working as a counselor for emotionally disturbed children in Newark. It would be three years before he would meet Bruce Springsteen and another four years before they would walk into my studio in lower Manhattan. Stan Kanney and Larry Fried had yet to start a company called The Image Bank, and there was no "photo district." Nor was there the "Black Book" of self promotion. Sean Callahan, an editor at Life, would not begin to publish American Photographer magazine for another decade. Hiro, Avedon, Art Kane, Jay Maisel, and Pete Turner were all making great images, and the magazines were filled with a kaleidoscope of dazzling photographs. It was a time when you could stand outside the Time-Life building and see Alfred Eisenstaedt—"Eisie"—stride in after walking several miles from his apartment. Marty Forscher, the genius of camera repair and modification, had yet to see his first auto-focus camera come into his shop at 37 West 47th Street. And Nikon had yet to declare that "We take the world's greatest pictures."

What Haas was telling me in those seemingly prehistoric times was to open my eyes, to learn how to see, to slow down, to open my mind, to see the world in a grain of sand, to dream, to walk the streets, to watch the light, and to feel the wind on my face. The trinity formed by Haas, Pete Turner and Jay Maisel, gave birth to a gallery called "The Space," in Carnegie Hall. I had my first exhibit there in 1970. I was still learning to walk; I was still learning to see. These were the mentors for my generation, who showed us the road map for where photography could and would go. They took a staid and tired craft and made it their own. They inspired us, they taught us, and they made us dream.


DAYS OF HEAVEN / 2011

In 1976, Terrence Malick began production on his second film, Days of Heaven. Filming each day in the last twenty minutes of daylight, cinematographer Nestor Almendros, along with Malick, produced a masterpiece that is so visually compelling that even on repeated viewings it is difficult to comprehend how it was made. Although they filmed in Alberta, Canada, the Palouse region of southeastern Washington State is nearly as haunting a landscape. I have returned there several times over the past few decades. Its softly undulating hills, wheat fields, abandoned prairie houses, and the last remnants of an iconic America I grew up with, are unmatched by anything I have ever seen. It is hard to believe that it exists, let alone in an era of iPads and debt ceilings.


This is a place in America without billboards or street signs, a place where unmarked dirt and gravel roads meet the horizon. A place where God's light strikes the land at oblique angles, and a place where other than at harvest time you are unlikely to see anyone outdoors. The cafes and old movie theaters in the few small towns are mostly gone. The landscapes are so sinuous and so sensual that it is easy to be mesmerized by the chiaroscuro of dappled light and shadow that rakes across the hills.


Long winters give way to an early spring rush, and by May the seed is in the ground. Then, in late July, the green fields of wheat begin their transformation, turning gold in a wave that generally moves from south to north, bringing with it a frenzied rush of special combines built to work along the slopes of the hills. This is where I took my first ride in a biplane, 30 years ago. One day, just east of Pullman, Washington, I saw a plane suddenly drop from the sky and taxi to a stop in a wheat field.


I drove up a short, steep dirt road and got out of the car. Suddenly, an old man named "Siggie" jumped from the plane, yelling at me that the car's catalytic converter might start the field on fire. Somewhat chastened, I watched as he walked to one of his barns, sliding open a giant wooden door to reveal a row of colorful biplanes parked neatly side by side! Then, turning to me, with a twinkle in his eye, he said "Want to go up?"




I looked at him for several seconds, and all I could think about was that he was probably more than 80 years old. He looked at the camera I was holding and I caught his eye, as I heard myself saying a not too convincing "sure." Within two minutes we were in the air, and I began photographing the patchwork quilt of fallow and planted green and yellow fields. As I was shooting, Siggie kept spiraling higher and higher. Distracted, I heard him say over the noise of the engine "Anything you wanna see closer?"


I will never forget the way he said it, nor my response, as I pointed down at a patch of light and shadow far below. No sooner had my finger moved, than Siggie thrust the throttle straight forward with a demonic grin, pointing the nose of the plane perfectly perpendicular to the ground. As I saw the ground rushing up I had no chance of holding the camera in my hands as the small biplane, despite its deceptive look of fragility, began to test its "G-force" limit along with my stomach's inability to maintain equilibrium. As we reached what I guessed was two hundrd feet above the ground, Siggie made an abrupt vertical U-turn and climbed straight up. We leveled off and he looked over at me and, in his unique rasp of a voice, said "Wanna go up to Alaska with me?"


This past month, as I drove past Pullman, I learned that Siggie had passed away. Peacefully. As I walked along the streets of one small town, I came across a recently renovated old theater. So old that the Empire Theater's ancient projectors did not use bulbs, but instead used a series of lenses to focus the light from a burning strip of superheated zinc. Out of the top of the projector, a series of angled stovepipes directed the toxic vapors up and out the roof. For a moment I wondered when the last movie had been shown there. What year, and which movie? And the company that made those zinc strips...when did they go out of business? I walked next door and bought a huckleberry ice cream cone for two dollars, fully expecting Buddy Holly to walk in at any moment.


The Palouse is all about texture—the textures of the land, the textures of the barns, the textures of the fields of wheat and wild grasses that move in the wind. I came across a huge field of grass one afternoon, and watched for more than an hour as the tall, wispy strands of grass caught the wind, undulating like the green waves of an ocean, creating an illusion of liquid that was hypnotic, as if the land had been flooded by some great sea. In the tranquil twilight of evening, as long shadows roll a blanket across the hills and stars fall from the sky, the hauntingly beautiful light brings thoughts of the strange world we have created for ourselves. How long will this place be here? What force will bring its demise? And why are we always seeking something new we think is better?