BR Q&A:Feel the Magic of Iceland withPhotographer Jon Gustafsson
When you fly over Iceland you see these incredibly beautiful patterns in nature that you never see otherwise.”
To illustrate the magic of our Holiday 2018 collection, we traveled across the globe to faraway Iceland. We were captivated by the landscape, but the view from above was even more astounding. Cue Jon Gustafsson. The aerial photographer flies over his home country to capture the spectacle of Iceland you can’t see with your naked eye. Read on to discover his favorite local haunts, Icelandic holiday traditions and his path to aerial photography.
BR: You started your aerial photography career from a chance helicopter ride during the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption. Tell us about this life-changing experience.
A few weeks before the big eruption in Eyjafjallajökull there was a small eruption in the glacier nearby. This eruption became quite a tourist attraction. People were hiking or driving up the glacier to see the eruption. Helicopter companies started offering volcano sightseeing flights as well. Friends of mine wanted to get a free helicopter ride and they talked me into shooting a video for one of a helicopter company with themselves as models. I was duped into doing all the hard work but it was fun. Then the big eruption started but nobody had seen it because the glacier was covered in clouds. The helicopter guys called me and invited me to come along for a flight to try to take pictures of the eruption. We found a small opening in the clouds and became the first people to see the eruption that grounded flights all over the world. We got the first video and photographs of the eruption and those became valuable as the eruption became big news and the media was hungry for more. I spent the first three days of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption hanging out of a 30-year-old Bell helicopter, flying as close as we could, looking into the mouth of the volcano. If you saw the eruption on the news during those days they were probably mine. Even President Obama used my pictures at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner when he made fun of journalists not being able to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull.
BR: Before that helicopter ride, you were a filmmaker. How do you think your career would be different if you hadn’t had that opportunity? Do you think you would eventually explore aerial photography?
Helicopters are rather expensive so I don’t think I would have started flying if I hadn’t been dragged into this. Now I can’t stop. I am still a filmmaker but I fly as often as I can. When you fly over Iceland you see these incredibly beautiful patterns in nature that you never see otherwise. There are beautiful patterns to be found in glacier rivers that flow over black, volcanic sand, especially when they are mixed with mineral deposits from nearby fields. If you stood on the banks of that river you would never see those patterns. It’s only when you look at the river from above and the sky is reflected in the water that you see these amazing natural works of art.
BR: As an award-winning film director, writer, producer and photographer, how often do you find yourself blurring the lines between your creative mediums?
These are completely separate worlds in some ways. When I write and direct I think about every sentence and every word in detail. I have the actors do many takes and try different versions. When I’m hanging out of a helicopter I can not think about what I’m doing. I go into some kind of a trance. We are usually moving quite fast and I have to act on my instinct. If I see something that I like I have to grab it right away and as soon as I have taken the picture the moment is gone and I can never find it again. I never have time to analyze what I’m seeing. I sometimes don’t even remember the flights. Again and again, I have loaded the photographs on to the computer and been completely surprised by what I captured.
BR: The preparation for aerial photography must greatly differ from standard photography. What is the planning process for one of these photo shoots? How do you choose your locations? Is weather a constant factor to consider?
I don’t really do standard photography. I’m not good at taking pictures of waterfalls and horses in the field. Other people are much better at that. Aerial photography is quite addictive and I would do it even if no one liked the photographs. You can prepare by searching Google Earth and finding interesting places. I also count on my pilot friends to discover interesting places and take me there. I try to go for good weather and turn down flights if the light isn’t right. It’s pointless when the light is bad or visibility is limited. On the other hand, dramatic skies can surprise you but you can also go flying and come back with nothing. We have also fought our way through rain and fog to get to an active volcano and come back with great pictures.
BR: The Icelandic landscape has incredible variation. Do you ever see your pictures as somewhat of a Rorschach test?
I see faces, trolls and monsters in patterns in nature all over the place. What does that say about me?
BR: I know you probably can’t pick a favorite, but do any of your aerial photographs resonate with you more than the others? Or a part of the shoot that you enjoyed shooting the most?
My favorite picture so far is one that I call Deep Sleep and can be found on my website www.icelandgonewild.com. The reason it is my favorite is that no matter how hard I look, I can not tell if it is in focus or not or if it is blurred or sharp. The motive and framing just work for me and it feels like Northern Lights floating in a river. There is some magic in that picture, at least for me.
There is some magic in that picture, at least for me.”
BR: You describe Iceland as “surreal, dynamic and ultimately: a work of art.” In your experience, what makes Iceland such a magical place?
The best thing about Iceland is that there are almost no trees here. This means that in most places I have unobstructed views and I can see the ground, the different colors of dirt and rocks. Iceland sits on the North Atlantic Ridge where the North American plate and the European plates are moving apart. That is the reason we have volcanic eruptions. New land is constantly being created. Iceland is a place of big contrasts. In North America, you have to drive for hours or days to change your environment. In Iceland, it is sometimes enough to turn in the other direction.
BR: There’s so much folklore around Iceland that gives it a magical feeling. Being from there, have you felt that kind of magic? Could you share some stories?
I have memories from hiking trips I went on as a teenager where fog came out of nowhere and suddenly you were lost. Sometimes faces and trolls appeared in the distance but they turned out to be rocks or lava formations. I can understand how many of the stories of hidden people and trolls came about in past centuries when there was no electricity. Now you just turn on the GPS on your phone and you know where to go. Iceland has a lot of magical energy and it also has creative energy and that is the biggest reason I moved back to Iceland after years in other countries and continue to live here.
BR: The winter months bring everyone closer together. Are there any special Icelandic traditions or holidays that you look forward to celebrating in the winter months?
We are a small community so family and friends are always close by but big family dinners are my favorite parts of the holidays.
BR: Speaking of the holidays, what are your favorite gifts to give and receive?
We have more writers per capita than any other nation. We are storytellers and our big cultural contribution are The Viking Sagas. A part of the reason why so many writers get published here is that most people give their friends and family books as Christmas presents. The dark winters are good for reading good novels.
BR: With a name like Iceland, it’s bound to get a little chilly there. How do locals dress for the weather?
A downtown clothing store has a permanent window display of heavy-duty parkas and rainproof gear along with a sign that says “Icelandic Summer Fashion”. The summers here are not as warm as in most other places and the winters are actually not that bad.
To be safe in any season you need a woolen sweater and a windproof jacket. I also have a heavy-duty parka for when I have to film.
BR: Say you have a few friends visiting who have never been to Iceland before. Where would you take them?
I take my friends flying around the west coast and the south coast and into the highlands. On an ideal day, we land on the top of Vatnajokull glacier and then in the geothermal area of Landmannalaugar to bathe in a warm geothermal stream. We then sometimes land by the Glacier Lagoon on the south-east coast and then to the little town of Höfn for a locally caught lobster lunch. Back in Reykjavik I only go to a family run Thai restaurant called Ban Thai. Surprisingly it has some of the best Thai food in Europe.
BR: Following up on the places to visit, are there any items you would suggest first-time Iceland should bring with—cozy sweaters, fur scarves, water-proof layers, etc.? Are there any magical clothing or goods that you think they should wait to buy once in Iceland to wear there and bring home with them?
The Icelandic woolen sweaters are great in both cold and warm situations. You should always have a windproof layer on top. What most other people call a storm is what we call “slightly windy day”. In Iceland, it’s the wind that gets you. You should also always wear woolen socks when you head out into the Icelandic nature. The will keep you warm even if you have to wade through a river.
Explore Iceland through all of Jon Gustafsson’s work, then feel the magic with our Holiday 2018 collection.