Review by Steve Harp •
I discovered the work of Ragnar Axelsson in a slim volume I came across in a small photo bookstore/gallery in Reykjavik in 2014. A part of the Photo Poche Series, published by Crymogea, it was titled simply Ragnar Axelsson. I loved the book’s compact size – it suggested to me nothing so much as a sketchbook, glimpses of a lifetime spent primarily in the North – Greenland, northern Canada, the Faroe Islands but mostly Axelsson’s native Iceland. It included images from places farther afield as well – Russia, Lithuania, Mozambique, Indonesia, South Africa. A pocket diary of impressions from a life of travel. And the images themselves! Beautiful, stark blacks and whites depicting harsh landscapes and the people (and animals) that reside therein.
What was immediately apparent in the smaller volume – and is even more pronounced in the larger and more delicately rendered duotones in the volume under review here – is Axelsson’s (or “Rax” as he is generally known) absolute mastery as a photographer. The tonalities of the landscapes are rich, detailed and subtle. The play of values range from highly contrasty (yet always detailed) scenes to those depictions of – for example – blizzards or blowing snow, which display a very narrow yet always rich and compelling tonal range. So too, is Axelsson masterful and assured in his strategies for constructing the frame, whether in utilizing frames within frames (windows, mirrors, etc.) or the employment of bokeh and depth of field. Certain frames will be entirely without focus – all the better to suggest the instability of the landscape being depicted, while other frames will be sharp foreground to back– suggesting the quietness and stillness of the seemingly unchanging land.
Many of the same images I first saw in that little softcover nearly a decade ago reappear in Where the World is Meltingpublished by Kehrer Verlag in 2021. We are told in the Afterword that it accompanies an exhibition on view from December 2021 – March 2022 at Kuntsfoyer, Versicherungskammer Kulturstiftung Munchen. This book is a physically imposing volume – hardcover, 10” x 12”, an inch thick. Not only do the images in this newer volume give a better visual sense of the “photographic” qualities and beauty of the images, but Axelsson is after something expositionally much different here than in the earlier little book of notations, his agenda is much more ambitious.
The book (and the exhibition of which it serves as a catalog) is structured roughly chronologically, in eight sections. Beginning (logically enough), with a section titled “Where it all Started,” Axelsson tells of his memories as a seven-year old boy seeing a glacier for the first time, taking his first photographs with his father’s Leica and not allowing himself to disappoint his father after being lent “a camera that was as expensive as a car.” But even in these early photographs, Axelsson was aware of the tenuousness of the place and the life he was recording:
“to photograph a life that was changing and to record time that would never come back… the importance of documenting time and freezing moments of life, I saw everything in pictures and still do.” (I find it interesting – and apt – that instead of using “to capture” for taking a photograph, Axelsson instead uses “to freeze.”).
Each of the eight sections of the book opens with a brief but eloquent introduction by Axelsson. Each considers the inherent otherness of the North. (I was reminded, in passing, of Glenn Gould’s 1967 experimental radio documentary, The Idea of North). In two of the sections he comments on the otherworldliness of the Northern landscape. He refers to its inherent foreignness: “a story one can hear but not understand.” And in the section, “Arctic Heroes” which focuses to a large extent on images of animals in the North, he remarks on how the “plaintive call of the Greenlandic sled dog bears with it an unexpected solace for the soul.” Axelsson’s images of animals are perhaps the most sensitive and respectful I’ve ever seen. No “cute” anthropomorphizing here, the animals Axelsson presents us with – mostly dogs, but bears and horses as well – are fully individual and fully other.
The book’s final section, “Black Landscape,” features more recent images, from 2021. Again, Axelsson mentions “visitors from another planet.” But the new, previously unseen landscapes he is remarking on are actually a warning: “A new landscape is created when glaciers recede… If these white giants, which have reflected the sun’s light and maintained a tolerable temperature on Earth disappear, the planet will grow warmer as the reflections of the sun’s rays diminish and more dark surfaces are exposed.” What Axelsson gives us in Where the World is Melting is not simply a retrospective overview of his distinguished career as a documentarian of the North, of some of the world’s most formidable landscapes, but he is giving us an epic “myth,” a story of ice and loss and the disappearance of traditional ways of being and existing in the world.
A tragedy, but one depicted in desolate beauty.
Steve Harp, is a Contributing Editor and Associate Professor The Art School, DePaul University
Where the World is Melting, Ragnar Axelsson
Photographer: Ragnar Axelsson, born Kopavogur Iceland, resides Iceland
Publisher: Kehrer Verlag (Heidelberg, Germany copyright 2021)
Introduction: Isabel Siben; Afterward and texts: Ragnar Axelsson
Text: English & German
Hardcover with German text booklet, 149 duotone illustrations printed and bound in Germany, ISBN 978-3-96900-064-9
Photobook designer: Einer Geir Ingvarsson
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