On a visit to Reykjavik in 2018 I spent a morning at the Museum of Photography, one of five sites making up the Reykjavik City Museum. The Museum holds a collection of over 6 million images dating back to 1860 and around 35,000 of these are accessible online. The exhibition spaces are relatively small but the works on display when I was there were excellent – definitely a case of quality over quantity. The museum also has a library of photography books and while browsing these I came across several by Ragnar Axelsson. I was vaguely aware of Axelsson, but had never looked closely at his work, so this was still something of a new discovery.
Of the books by Axelsson available in the library Fjallaland was the most striking. The books subject is the annual autumn round up of sheep that have spent the summer grazing in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve and are being brought down from this highland region for the winter. Axelsson has followied the farmers who take part in the round up for more than two decades, photographing them and the rugged volcanic landscape of the region. The result is a stunning collection, part documentary and part landscape.
I decided I wanted my own copy but a search on the usuals sources showed only a few new copies available which were selling for $300 and upwards, with used copies not much less and often more. So it seemed best to try to find it locally. One Icelandic retailer did claim to have it in stock on their website but when I visited the bricks and mortar outlet they had never heard of it. Another I tried turned out to a fashionable clothes store that also sold a few photobooks and CDs of Icelandic music on the side. When I asked the sales assistant she started wandering round the store searching on random shelves and bits of old furniture that served as display stands for the clothes but also had a few scattered books. So I joined in. And then I found it. The last copy in stock. Some negotiation on price and it was mine for an acceptable $80.
The book itself starts with a satellite image of the Fjallaland region, then a number of aerial shots that give a sense of the landscape, before bringing us to ground level with the farmers as they go about their work. Apart from the aerial images all the pictures are shot in a punchy monochrome. There is some descriptive text scattered throughout but since mine is the Icelandic version I have no idea what it says. No matter, the pictures are what counts.
What makes this project stand out, I think, from his other books I have seen is the concentrated focus on one community, one event, and one location. The project and the book have a coherence that is often lacking in photobooks of more broadly based projects. That Axelsson has been visiting the same community of farmers year after year for decades must create a sense of familiarity and ease with the photographer and his camera that facilitates great images. There is a certain timelessness to the pictures, as though they could have been taken anytime in the last hundred years. Only the ocasional presence of a Land Rover or a truck reminds you that this is a – more or less – contemporary event.
I would highly recommend this book if the images here appeal to you but you will need to have a sizeable book buying budget since it is out of print. I have not seen my Icelandic version on sale anywhere for some time and the English version, Behind the Mountains, goes for 800 – 900 dollars / pounds / euros when it occasionally comes up for sale.
- A selection of images from the book can be found on Axelsson’s website.
- There are also interviews with Axelsson here, here and here.
- There is an 80 minute documentary made by a Greek television company on YouTube. The video covers the subject of this book at around 50 minutes with some spectacular aerial views of the landscape. The documentary is mostly in English though the conversations in Icelandic are subtitled in Greek only.