Iceland

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 August, 2006, 12:00am

Iceland


Photographs by Patrick Desgraupes. Text by Einar Mar Jonsson and Guillaume Canat


(Abrams)


A stream of lava like a mane of blond hair, a crater like a lizard's eye, turquoise chunks of ice sticking out of the earth. Welcome to Iceland, the site of some of the world's most striking scenery, captured on camera by French landscape photographer Patrick Desgraupes.


In his introduction, Desgraupes comes across as a perfectionist. To obtain 'unrivalled sharpness',


he enlisted a heavy camera for which the cost of processing a single negative was the same as that


for 36 exposures of 35mm film. And in passing, Desgraupes mentions that, to exploit exactly the right kind of light for one shot, he had to wait seven years. The result is a work of magic and purity.


Unlike in National Geographic photographs, few humans interrupt the views. Experiencing Iceland makes you feel you have entered a dreamworld or landed on another planet - maybe Mars in light of the dominance of the colour red. Pea green and a hundred shades of pink crop up too. Inevitably, Desgraupes' panoramas eclipse the texts of Icelandic essayist Einar Mar Jonsson and naturalist Guillaume Canat. In raincloud-dull prose, Mar Jonsson tells the history of Iceland. The island was almost certainly settled by Norwegians in 874. 'The sight that rose before their eyes was almost unbelievable abundance,' he writes. The land was spectacularly lush but, beneath this beguiling sheen lurked volcanoes, which must have alarmed the colonists. After all, every five years, a major eruption occurs somewhere in Iceland.


In their Old Norse tongue the newcomers set about naming geographical features. They used 'transparent' terms precisely referring to natural features - for example, the name of the capital city, Reykjavik, means 'the bay of smokes', signalling the presence of hot springs. As time wore on, the settlers burned up the resources of their fiery land. Now they embrace the practice of reforestation. Their culture of sagas, romantic poetry and tales about elves and ghosts makes Iceland a quirkily mysterious place. But the main attraction appears to be the natural phenomena, which Canat evokes atmospherically. I especially warmed to his description of the mood of some unpronounceable caverns hollowed out by blasts of steam, set under a giant glacier. 'Touring these caverns,' Canat writes, 'is one of the most impressive - and oppressive - experiences Iceland affords. Nothing is quite stable in these places, and the deep grinding and dry cracking sounds that sometimes drown out the quiet gurgling of the streams often cause visitors to fear the worst.'


Canat invites readers to revel in the beauty of 'sumptuous waterfalls' and wallow in muck. Appraising potholes full of boiling sludge, he writes: 'While caution dictates viewing them from a reasonable distance, since the weakened earth can give way at any moment beneath one's feet, the spectacle, and especially the sounds, produced by these formations are a delight, calling to mind pots full of thick, bubbling jam or childhood memories of splashing about in the mud.'


Iceland is available at www.amazon.com, priced US$25.20.