For Iceland Airwaves this year I was looking to try something different, so I approached Icelandic band Rökkurró (whose keyboardist, Helga, lives in London and is involved in my Icelanders in London project) and suggested following them around the festival with the aim of creating a photo diary of their Airwaves. They agreed without hesitation, and I ended up having a great time with these lovely people. Here is a small selection of photos from the week. Continue reading Behind the scenes with Rökkurró at Iceland Airwaves
I’ve been racking my brain lately for something to write about that could be a regular feature on the blog. Loads of people say you should just write what interests you, but so much interests me and I want to keep the blog photography themed. Hence, “The story behind the photo” – an occasional series where I post one of my favourite photos and explain how it came about.
Today’s photo is a shot from Iceland Airwaves 2013, the annual music festival held in Reykjavík, to which I have been as photographer for The 405 since 2011. Even in that short space of time I’ve seen the festival grow; I’ve seen popular venues close and new ones open, and I’ve seen Björk in the wild several times. During the early morning of 3rd November, Jon Hopkins took to the stage of Harpa Silfurberg to close the night with some face-melting electronic music.
When shooting electronic music, there isn’t really a lot you can do. In this case, Hopkins was alone on stage standing behind his gear, so all you could see from the photo pit was his head and shoulders, and little else. The lighting was mainly from the back of the stage too, so you could barely see his face, leading to a few disappointing shots of an anonymous figure looking downwards with a frown of concentration barely visible through the dry ice.
As a photographer, one soon learns that many of the best shots come from looking the other way. Nowhere was this more true than at this particular gig, as the aforementioned backlighting would occasionally cast amazing colourful shadows on the walls of the venue, while also illuminating the faces of the crowd. So I stood to the far end of the pit, hoping that nobody else would spot what I was doing, perched on a step (taking care not to get in anyones way) and waited for the silhouette of Hopkins to appear.
The final result is one I’m very pleased with – the larger-than-life silhouette with the coloured edges makes Hopkins appear as an almost supernatural presence, as much operating the crowd directly as he is his equipment.
Last year, as I had done the year before, I went to Iceland Airwaves in Reykjavík to take photos for The405. I said afterwards that it would probably be the last time I did music photography, as my professional career was taking off, and I wan’t able to afford the endless trips to London to cover gigs for the website, much as I had been enjoying them.
This year, The405 were approached by the festival organisers about forming a media partnership with Iceland Airwaves, and it turns out I’ll be able to go along to this year’s festival again, with another photo pass, so I find myself just a few weeks away from another week of music, beer, hotdogs and lopapeysur, ready to rediscover my love for gig photography.
This year, a few local bands that I still haven’t managed to catch at a live performance are playing, including Múm and Emilíana Torrini, and German legends Kraftwerk will be making an appearance too. On top of the scheduled line-up (see Harpa Silfurberg on Friday for The405’s stage) there is the usual array of endless off-venue gigs, where festival goers are crammed, sardine-like, into bookshops, cafés, hostels and bars (and even bus stops) to catch more intimate performances from the visiting artists. A highlight for me from last year was when Ólöf Arnalds played to an entranced Restaurant Reykjavík, and we spotted none other than Björk in the crowd afterwards. It’s not uncommon to find yourself sitting next to, or passing in the street, any of the performers from the bands playing at the festival, and this feeling of involvement that is unique to Iceland is what makes the festival feel so special for me.
If you’re going this year, look out for me in my lopapeysa and stop me and say hi if you recognise me. I’ll no doubt be with my bros from The405: Oli, Tim and Stephen, most of us carrying our cameras around with us, so we shouldn’t be hard to spot.
And if you’re not going, keep an eye out on The405’s website, the Grapevine’s Airwaves minisite, or my own Facebook page for updates from the festival, photo galleries, interviews, sessions and more may well appear, so you can enjoy it as vicariously as you dare.
Modern Iceland has a population barely exceeding 300,000 people. The vast majority of Icelanders (over 200,000) live in Reykajvík and the surrounding conurbation, which consists of Mosfellsbær to the north, and Kópavogur, Garðabær and Hafnarfjörður to the south. The next largest town is Akureyri, in the north of the country, which has a population of around 18,000, with the rest of Iceland’s population distributed throughout towns, villages, hamlets and farms scattered around the coastline. The interior, also known as Hálendið (the highland), is utterly uninhabitable, and impassable by all but the most rugged 4×4. In winter, the four routes through the middle of Iceland are closed to traffic completely.
The extremely low population density means that road maintenance, which is funded by taxpayers, is prioritised towards the more populous regions, and it is not uncommon to be driving towards a remote lake, waterfall or settlement and find the road surface suddenly deteriorate into a pitted gravel surface (heralded by the warning ‘Malbik Endar’). Recent years have seen a huge rise in tourist visitors to Iceland, however, and many of the more popular destinations are now serviced by fully surfaced roads.
Despite its low population, Iceland has a booming music scene, which reaches far beyond the much feted Björk and Sigur Rós. Something in the education system, possibly combined with the island’s isolation, means many people use music as a form of self-expression, and the parochial nature of even the capital means musicians don’t need to look far to find like-minded individuals with whom they can form bands. Another consequence of the lack of people means that many bands share members, and it’s not uncommon to see the same musician appear with two or even three separate bands at various times.
The annual Iceland Airwaves festival, held in venues across Reykjavík in the late autumn, has in recent years grown exponentially into one of the world’s foremost musical events. Acting as a showpiece for primarily new and up-and-coming artists (from home and abroad), it is a great way to acquaint oneself with the local musical talent, as well as discover some newer bands on the verge of greatness (Florence and the Machine and Elbow are two bands who rose to international recognition on the back of Airwaves appearances). Some idiosyncratic choices at the 2011 event (namely Sinéad O’Connor and Yoko Ono) made many people question the festival’s commitment to new music, but the general feeling from people who attended was that it was possibly the best thing they’d been to, ever.
Winter in Iceland is an unusual time of year for people used to less polar latitudes. It’s common knowledge that through the winter solstice you get very little daylight at all. Even in late February the sun rises above the horizon for just 9 hours, and given that Iceland is further to the west than the UK, yet still uses GMT, the ‘day’ is shifted so that you get more daylight after midday than before. This also gives rise to a more regular ‘midnight sun’ during the summer months that would otherwise not occur, a sly marketing trick, I think!
Iceland’s main international airport sits at the western tip of the Reykjanes peninsula, near the town of Keflavík, and is named after Leifur Eiríksson, the man credited by many with discovering the Americas (though he named them Vinland). First time visitors, who have been informed by their departure airport that their flight is to Reykjavík, are usually in for a surprise as there is a half-hour journey by road through the barren lava fields of Reykjanes before they finally reach the capital.
I had met a young couple on the plane who, despite being well-travelled, had not visited Iceland before. I envied them their first visit to Iceland, an experience that can never be repeated. Instead, I picked up my rental car and drove myself to the capital, where I was meeting Inga, who had very kindly arranged my accommodation for the week in the 4-star Radisson 1919 hotel right in the middle of town.
Once settled in, I helped myself to one of the town’s, and possibly the world’s, best hotdogs. ‘Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur’ literally means ‘Town’s best hotdogs’ and is aptly named. If you ask for ‘eina með öllu’ (‘one with everything’) you get a bun with onions, ketchup, mustard and remoulade sauce smothered over a perfect hotdog sausage. As traditional Icelandic food goes, it’s not quite up there with dried fish or fermented shark, but if it’s good enough for President Bill Clinton, it’s good enough for me. (In fact, Slick Willie only wanted mustard on his, so if you ask for ‘the Clinton’, that’s what you get!)
As the sky darkened I decided to head for Setljarnarnes, the northwesterly point on the small peninsula on which Reykjavík sits, to see what the aurora was up to. When I arrived, there was a pale green arc in the northern sky, but little movement. I sat in the car for a few minutes to wait, and suddenly, I saw a portion of the arc start to brighten and move. It wasn’t long before the aurora started to put on a real show.
A Brazilian man who was there too seemed very agitated by the whole thing. He asked me if that was the aurora, and when I confirmed that it was, seemed to be overcome with emotion, thanking me passionately, as though I had personally laid on the aurora for him. He saw that I was taking photographs and ask if I’d help him do the same, but when he fetched his camera from the car, I had to inform him that his compact point-and-shoot wouldn’t be capable of the long exposures necessary. He seemed decidedly crestfallen by the news, but brightened up quickly enough when his attention returned to the celestial light show.
With aurora pictures sorted, what was I to do for the rest of the week? I had been hoping to capture some more photos with perhaps one of Iceland’s famous waterfalls in the foreground, but I knew I’d be at the mercy of the elements, and had probably been extremely fortunate just to capture what I had tonight.
Sadly, on closer inspection, the picture above is still slightly out of focus, something I only discovered once I uploaded the images onto my laptop back at the hotel. So I was going to have to try again at some point if I was to get the headline-grabbing images that I wanted.
Here’s what you get if you take the essence of Iceland Airwaves 2011 and distil it into a 3 and a half minute video. Thanks to Icelandic Glacial Water for bringing this to my attention.