Primordial Landscapes

Eruption of the Bárðarbunga fissure (all photographs by Feodor Pitcairn, courtesy Powerhouse Books)

Iceland, more than most places on the planet, frequently reveals the cataclysmic activity below its crust through volcanoes, fissures, and geothermal pools. Photographer and naturalist Feodor Pitcairn journeyed with poet and geophysicist Ari Trausti Guðmundsson to study both scientifically and artistically this active landscape.

Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealedout today (July 7) from Powerhouse Books, is the result of their collaboration which started with Pitcairn’s first exploration in 2011. It follows an exhibition that opened earlier this month at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, which features 41 of the over 230 photographs in the book.

“Across this island of over thirty volcanic systems, one finds scatterings of steaming vents in a landscape punctuated by vibrant pinks, reds, and oranges; a scene more reminiscent of a distant moon than anything found on our planet,” Pitcairn writes in an introduction. Primordial Landscapes features full pages of photographs from his Hasselblad cameras showing in incredible detail waterfalls, retreating glaciers, the 2014 eruption of the Bárðarbunga volcano, and the rare presence of human life that’s humbling in a way reminiscent of Carleton Watkins’s 19th-century photography. These images alternate with Guðmundsson’s poems that mostly center on the smallness of humanity in the presence of this natural power: “Stillness of mind. Tickling, soft moss under bare feet. / Only thoughts ripple the silvery surface. / Underneath lurks an unknown abyss.”

Primordial Landscapes

The highlands of the Torfajökull Volcanic System

Primordial Landscapes

Old farmhouse at Keldur

Yet people have arrived, even if the burbling lava and staggering glaciers suggest some primitive, untouched world. “Even here, one can see drained bogs, large-scale erosion from grazing sheep, and deep long-lasting ruts left by thoughtless drivers crossing fragile ecosystems,” Pitcairn writes. “Hydropower projects have re-channeled rivers and, except for some scattered remains, long gone are the large boreal birch forests since the advent of the early settlers.”

Icelandic landscapes have become in a way familiar, partly due to the surge in tourism which helped extract the country from economic collapse. The Smithsonian exhibition coincides with the United States chairing the Arctic Council from 2015 to 2017, where climate change looms large. The fragility of nature may be a bit of a cliché, but even those solitary farmhouses with a tiny wisp of smoke from the chimney, or an ancient rock cairn, punctuating the photographs are reminders of our potentially irreversible impact on these formidable landscapes.

Primordial Landscapes

Eroding glacier on the western edge of the Mýrdalsjökull Ice Cap in southern Iceland.

Primordial Landscapes

Stone cairn, a form of early marker created by early travelers

Primordial Landscapes

Moraine from a retreating glacier

Primordial Landscapes

Torfajökull Volcanic System

Primordial Landscapes

Pumice deposit from the 1875 eruption of the Askja volcano

Primordial Landscapes

Lake Jökulsárlón

Primordial Landscapes

The Icelandic crust with geothermal activity

Primordial Landscapes

Aurora Borealis over Iceland

Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed is out July 7 from Powerhouse Books. The exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (10th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC) is on view through April 2017.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...