In her exploration of magical beliefs in Iceland, Bego Antón visited a home for the elderly where a group of residents forecast the weather based on their dreams, and the house of a man who snapped a shot of a lake monster. The Spanish photographer created portraits of the men and women who claim to see elves and trolls, and documented Iceland’s otherworldly landscapes of ice, mountains, and towering rock formations, over which the aurora borealis glows like a supernatural aura.
“I’m not a dreamer, but I do believe that every reality deserves to be examined and that there can be an intermediate world between reality and imagination,” Antón writes in The Earth Is Only A Little Dust Under Our Feet. The book, out now from Overlapse, is part storybook, part monograph, with Antón’s photographs from her journey around Iceland alongside the tales she collected. Rather than attach each photograph to a specific story, they’re presented separately, and connected by an index of symbols. This makes it a little confusing to navigate, yet the book is less a narrative than it is a meditation on the blurry boundary between the known and unknown.
The title is a reference to W.B. Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight, the famed poet’s chronicle of Irish folklore, and suggests the universality of how feeling a closeness to nature fosters a belief in magic. Several white, seemingly blank pages in the book have hidden messages such as “When you turn on the radio, do you see the waves?” and “Nature is our temple.” The sometimes strange relationships between humans and nature are recurring themes in Antón’s work, with other series including the butterfly aficionados of southern England, and participants in “musical canine freestyle” (dancing with dogs!).
As Antón states in The Earth Is Only A Little Dust Under Our Feet, “If there is a place to believe in magic, then Iceland must be that place.” Her interest was sparked by her discovery of the Elf School in Reykjavík; her diploma in the “study of elfs and hidden people” is reprinted in the book. Curious about the cultural presence of magical creatures in Iceland, she traveled “from north to south and from east to west of the island,” in each place “asking in every gas station, library, grocery store or hotel if there was someone in the area who could communicate with the Beings of the Earth.”
And she did find people who see and speak to the invisible beings. A shaman, who she photographed surrounded by feathers and iridescent stones, gave her a protective bracelet blessed with dragon blood; a woman who witnessed a queen elf in another dimension that happens to be at the same spot as her home is captured in a flare of colorful light. Although Antón explains that she never saw a magical being herself, she used filters and altering effects to evoke the perception of her subjects. Her photographs are empathetic, suggesting that her subjects’ reality is somewhere beyond what can be portrayed by the camera.
A fold-out 16th-century map in the back of the book shows Iceland overrun by sea monsters and other fantastic beasts, a reminder that belief in the magical is ancient. While it isn’t a focus of the book, the rising popularity of Iceland now as a tourist destination, and the destruction and loss of wilderness around the world, is eroding the sublimity of that very personal connection to nature. Even if you are a total skeptic for fairies, unicorns, and water sprites, recognizing the complexity of nature encourages an appreciation for its processes that we often can’t see. As Antón writes of her experience with the project, “I have never felt so united with nature, and have never been so overwhelmed with emotion at seeing the landscape.”