Olli Thomson

Ragnar Axelsson – Fjallaland

Visiting photography galleries is always high on the list of must do activities for every trip. In Reykjavik I spent a morning at the Museum of Photography, which is one of the five sites making up the Reykjavik City Museum. The Museum houses a collection of over 6 million images dating back to 1860 and is continually expanding its holdings. The collection includes both amateur and professional work and, commercial and personal photographs.

The exhibition spaces are relatively small but the works on display when I was there were excellent – definitely a case of quality over quantity. There are also a number of monitors giving access to the museum’s digitised photo collection of 35,000 images. These can also be accessed directly online.

The museum also has a publicly accessible library of photography books and photographic records and I took the opportunity to browse through some of the works after viewing the exhibitions. It was while browsing that I came across a number of books by Ragnar Axelsson. I was vaguely aware of Axelsson, but not sufficiently aware to make the connection when I decided to visit Iceland, so he was still something of a new discovery.

Of his many books focusing on his homeland and other countries of the north Fjallaland was the most striking. The book focuses on the annual autumn round up of flocks 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 been following the farmers who take part in the round up for more than two decades and photographing them and the rugged volcanic landscape of the region. The result is a book of stunning images, more a work of photojournalism than landscape photography, though the incredible landscape features heavily.

Needless to say, I decided I needed this book. A quick search on Amazon US, UK and DE, on Abe Books and Alibris, and many more besides was less than encouraging. Originally published in 2013, new editions were selling for upwards of $300 and good used copies for $250 and more for both the original Icelandic version and the English language version (titled Behind the Mountains). Amazon DE did claim to have the English language version in stock for a very reasonable €47.50 but given that no one else seemed to have it I was a little wary.

It seemed wiser to try to locate it in Iceland. So began my trek round the bookshops of Reykjavik. One Icelandic website did claim to have it in stock but when I visited the bricks and mortar outlet there was no record of it. Another retailer that listed it online turned out to be a fashionable clothes store that also sold a few photobooks and CDs of Icelandic music on the side. When I visited the store and asked about the book the sales assistant started wandering round looking on random shelves and bits of old furniture that served as display stands for the clothes but also had a few scattered books here and there. So I joined in. And then I found it. The last copy in stock. Some negotiation on price and it was mine. Add in the VAT refund and I got it 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 the rest of his work 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.

A selection of images from Fjallaland can be found on Axelsson’s website. If those whet your appetite for the book good luck trying to find it! There are also a number of interviews with the photographer where he talks about his work here, here and here.

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