Until recently Iceland has gone largely unnoticed by much of the world. It was only in 1944 that it gained its independence from Denmark, and today it has been discovered by Hollywood and the rest of the world. Social media is overflowing with landscape images of this little island, which rests on the fringe of the arctic circle. Many Icelandic farmers are building hotels next to their barns or expanding already existing hostels to accommodate the ever-growing tourist industry.
My first impression of Iceland was of a desolate, cold, and cloudy place. I was groggy from a long red-eye flight when I looked out through the window of the plane to see dark black lava cliffs battered by an angry sea. In the early hours of that wet morning, the plane landed in a remote, poorly lit area. Customs and immigration were a blur, as the entire process flashed by in less than a minute. Jet lagged, but cognizant of a quick day gone by and wide awake in total darkness, I was soon standing on those same black cliffs looking out over the ocean. But this time the heavens were filled with dancing shafts of green and red light. Less than 15 hours from landing in Iceland, and I was photographing spectacular Northern Lights! My impression was changing quickly, and it continued to do so over the course of several trips around the country. I began to realize that Iceland is a cornucopia of moss-covered lava, geysers, volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers, and coastline, all fused together as if the continental plates had moved Hawaii, Alaska, and Death Valley together.
The wind was biting, the ground was rough and the sky swirled with clouds, not just the dark kind, but the kind that goes dark then turns darker and finally stays so dark that daylight fuses with night time — and (if you happen to be there from May through August) becomes impossible to tell what time of day it actually is. The mountains were sharp, the ocean was deep and cold, the snow was very white and there were so many waterfalls! If somehow you are able to make it past all the landscape photographic “eye candy” without vowing to stay for a month longer than expected, and sit down to eat some local food — arctic char, salmon, lamb shanks to die for, or bread made in heaven — I can guarantee you will delay your flight home. The food is that good!
But we photographers don’t come for the food, we come for the striking landscapes. This is what is concerning to me. The very landscapes that we’re all enjoying now, could easily become violated in the same way the American West was. My father and grandfather spent their lives traveling through the West around the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, and many more locations in the region. Over the past 90 years, much has changed, with the most significant being the increase in the amount of private and fenced property that is no longer available for public exploration. Even 30 years ago, I recall being able to camp just about anywhere on BLM and National Forest Service lands. Now there are few places one can camp outside of a designated campground. Although these designated sites are saving many areas from overuse, the difference in the way I view the West has changed drastically. I no longer see it as the vast wilderness it once was. With increased visitation come new roads, developments, and power lines. WI-FI and cell service must be available around every corner and convenience stores filled with all the same stuff must be fully stocked within every 10 miles. Of course, that may be a slight exaggeration, but in many expanding rural regions not much. It seems that in areas experiencing a surge in tourism, there is little planning and money dictates over environmental considerations.
The beauty of Iceland now is what I remember most about the American West when I was young — vast, wild, and untamed. These are the ingredients of great landscape images and have become the inspiration for many to visit Iceland. Some good news is that Iceland will most likely never be fully exploited because of the volcanic environment. What intrigues me most is the delicate greenery and subtle but significant life that surrounds the dramatic volcanoes, waterfalls, and coastlines. It is these areas — where the land has been fertile and life has flourished for thousands of years — that make a striking contrast between lava and ice. Puffins cover the sea cliffs and Arctic Fox flourish. Hundreds of sea birds use the island as a breeding ground.
Without these oases of life, there would be little for tourists to connect with. For centuries, there were only farmers and fishermen. Now, with the recent increased popularity in tourism, those same families who have been living in the rural regions of Iceland are discovering they are living within the oasis. It is their ingenuity, vision, and hard work that is determining the future of the visitors’ experience. What I have discovered is that the vast majority of these families — who are caretakers of the land for so many years — are deeply connected to the power and influence of the grand beauty of their country. Their ways are quite conservative in comparison with most Americans. The architecture is very different than what you will find in Alaska, Hawaii, or especially California. The buildings are usually small and efficient, and in some cases built into the landscape, something I admire greatly.
Iceland is also clean. There is very little trash anywhere, and I’m also referring to all that crap that we Americans notice around the sides of homes and even farms. It wasn’t until my third trip to Iceland that I began to appreciate this.
I have now spent more than 40 days in Iceland on three different trips during three different seasons over the course of nine months. I have experienced a remarkable change in a relatively short period of time. Many of the farms along the highways that circle the island are in the midst of constructing either hostels or hotels. Farms that had hotels are under construction, expanding existing room capacity. Iceland’s largest city Reykjavik has plans to build many more hotels. Little hotels around the country are filling up in all seasons. It’s become difficult to rent a bus for our workshops. Popular photography locations, especially along the south coast, are becoming crowded with photographers from around the world. The numbers from the Icelandic tourism board show increases in visitation in the millions, as compared to a few hundred thousand.
Will this beautiful little island survive?
We at Muench Workshops are sensitive to the influence of even the small groups we bring on photography workshops have on the local economy. We have made it our goal to work with as many local businesses and proprietors as possible. We prepare our participants ahead of time, letting them know that we will be staying in small hotels or hostels on occasion, but that the food and customer service will be warm and charming because they will be genuine. It is our desire to experience something different than what big hotel chains have to offer in every other location around the world. Iceland is different, in fact unique, and should be experienced, not just viewed and photographed.
Who knows when Iceland’s tourism boom will end, but what I can tell you is that there is no shortage of natural splendor. Waterfalls that you can walk behind are quite unique, and no matter how many times I have been to Seljalandsfoss it is just as spectacular each time. The Northern Lights are magical, the ice-capped volcanoes are majestic, and the mysterious shapes in the basalt formations come alive with character. There is a lot to see and experience, so I can only hope that Iceland grows slowly and with class, allowing its attractive parts to stay intact while facilitating the curiosity of the world.
Life is short, take pictures.