This is me at rest. When I first got to Húsavík, I sat in my studio overlooking the harbor and wondered what spots to visit. I didn't want to see the same spots as any tourist; I wanted to encourage the illusion in myself that I wasn't a tourist at all.

This made me think of Ardmore, my home town, where I'm not a tourist. I thought of places there I used to walk to from my home, places that aren't there any more, smoothed over by the genericism of the 21st century.

Back to Húsavík! What was in those same spots, if I were to move through the same amount of space, visiting those places my body remembered but in another space and time? I decided to find out, and this is how I found it; and what I found there; and what it said to me.


mapA mapH locations

Arthur's next to the graveyard


Pizza place parking lot


Church on the corner public pier


Wawa hillside


YMCA campgrounds


Parking lot harbour corner

    First step: find the right time
  1. At first you may think that, because the sun never dips below the horizon, the magic hour goes all night, and so there is no right time, it's always the right time. Disabuse yourself of this notion.
  2. Realise that time and place are dependent on each other. Each place has the right time.
  3. Realise how specific place is. Not Husavik; not the dockside; not the pier; but that spot, at that moment, the space one's body occupies at the time the world's attention revolves through that spot.
  4. Realise it's impossible to find those times. The world is large; you are finite. Despair.
  5. Remember technology! Reject your despair. Do you have a tripod? Of course you do. Set up your camera; point it in a direction.
  6. Work quickly, with instinct. Do not look for good pictures, good pictures are shallow and distracting.
  7. Record video for as long as your battery will last. Somewhere in there the perfect moment might be lurking.
  8. Sometimes the perfect moment eludes us, not because it's so brief, but because it lasts so long. Do you have video editing software? Of course you do. Compress the time of your footage into a tight knot; turn the endless magic hour into a few minutes. Something might be pressed out, like juice.
  9. At the end of this process, if you look again at the footage, you might see something, compressed and blurry, in the frame: A white shape, like a piece of paper. Resist the urge to be confused. This is how the landscape communicates with you, in correspondence.
    Second step: long exposure
  1. Make sure your camera is stable (the wind is constant) and take long exposures. Very long exposures.
  2. Video is a long exposure in small pieces. The only drawback is the lesser resolution.
  3. Are you shooting at as high a resolution as possible? Of course you are. I shouldn't have asked.
  4. Time is the key.
  5. However time is too large a key to be grasped.
  6. This is true in both the physical and the psychological senses. The eye can't see time even on a very small, non-geographical scale, and the mind can't comprehend it.
  7. Sitting in one spot for hours might seem boring, but then it will seem like a revelation.
  8. Sitting in one spot for hours might seem like a revelation, but think how little time has passed for the landscape. It hasn't even noticed you yet; or rather it has been aware of you all this time, because the landscape both predates you by eons, and was created by you stepping into it.
  9. The landscape has been sending you these messages for uncountable time. If you don't pay attention, it won't even notice.
  10. Let the camera do the paying attention. Amuse yourself with your own consciousness of place, in the knowledge that it doesn't really change anything.
    Third step: avoid other people
  1. Hell isn't all other people, just some of them.
  2. However all people are annoying, when the proper amount of people is none.
  3. Endless sunlight means endless people.
  4. It's impossible to tell whether they're the same people over and over, or different people every night.
  5. Which, after all, is the same night.
  6. The people don't matter to the camera, the camera is undistractable.
  7. The same goes for the landscape.
  8. However you can be distracted by people, and you're the one with the camera.
  9. Some places will never not have people in them. Nonetheless those places deserve the attention of solitude.
  10. Stand at a distance from the camera, looking the other way. Pretend not to be associated with it. Leave the camera alone with its subject, give them privacy.
  11. Don't wince at the midnight whale watchers as they pile off the tourist boat. Watching whales also has value, hackneyed though it is.
  12. Watch out they don't knock over the camera.
  13. Your embarrassment isn't anyone's problem but your own: not the landscape's, not the camera's, not the watchers, not the whales. Nonetheless keep looking the other way.
  14. Keep on after the people have gone, even though you can still hear them in the background, along the pier, for a long time after the boat's crew are gone home. Are they just wandering up and down the waterline? But then who are you to judge.
  15. The ability to remain still even when friendly strangers look like they'd like to ask you questions is good practice for something, probably.
  16. There are whales somewhere nearby. They're probably having a good time.
    Fourth step: pick up the pace
  1. Now that you have the method, it's time to become more businesslike.
  2. You should be able to set up the tripod, find a shot, and walk away in a few moments. In fact doing this as fast as possible is of benefit; the more decisions you make, the more chance you will be wrong.
  3. You should be able to fit in two or more site photos per night by now.
  4. Think about the images you've made so far. I forgot to mention, you should be compressing these images in your video editing software until the correspondence just flickers in a single frame. Then extract that frame, and there's your image.
  5. At this time of year, in the eternal twilight, three hours of footage, once compressed to about ten minutes, will yield the landscape's messages in a single frame. However each night is different, of course.
  6. It will also take some practice to isolate that one frame so that the message is legible.
  7. Think about this process as you wait for the camera to do its looking. Thinking about it is so much easier than doing it, not because it's difficult but because it's so boring.
  8. Realise how much more intimate you are with the image of the landscape than with the landscape itself.
  9. Ironies are cheap.
  10. Each place you've chosen so far has yielded a message. Are these messages everywhere? Did the landscape send you duplicate letters, in case you missed some, like we used to do in previous centuries? Or are you gravitating naturally to the places where the messages are contained?
  11. You'll never know, of course.
    Fifth and final step: watch the sun go down
  1. Realise that you haven't taken any landscape photos in a while, and you're about to leave the country.
  2. It really is very boring.
  3. Also, you've gotten over the thrill of a new place, and now this thing of the landscape sending you messages seems, I don't know, a bit embarrassing, a bit touristy.
  4. Locals never get these letters; they already know.
  5. In addition the landscape's missives are obscure and unhelpful.
  6. As you'd expect from all the relevant literature, of course, but still.
  7. Nonetheless, here you are, and not for much longer.
  8. Go out one more time, to a green hill overlooking the bay.
  9. Not a natural place; not the side of the mountain. A tended field, next to the graveyard, just next to a newish set of houses. This is one of the first places you came.
  10. Presumably the field will be developed for one of those things, cheap houses or graves.
  11. Irony is still cheap, but there's no escape from it.
  12. Set up your camera, low to the ground, so that it can't see over the hedge but you can.
  13. Let the camera watch the verge of tended green. Watch the ocean.
  14. There are all kinds of noises; birds, wind, people, cars. Ignore them; they come and go, they don't last, they can't contain the landscape in the way the camera's scientific eyeball can capture.
  15. But you can listen to them if you want.
  16. There won't be a letter tonight.
  17. To your right, the sun is finally going down.
    Sixth step: has anything changed?
  1. Sometimes reflection only gets in the way.

or, how not to belong

I came to Húsavík in June, as a traveling artist, and so of course I had to do something about the midnight sun. That is, I don't suppose I was required to, but I felt obliged to. How often do you live through such a large, simple, mundane set of circumstances, that violates the shape of the world you have always lived in?

Of course, if you're a native of Húsavík (or many other places) you go through this every year, so either it doesn't violate your world or you're used to the world violating itself. I have an unproductive horror of making tourist art, which is hard to avoid if you're only in a place for a month. You just barely have time to get over the same first impressions everyone else had before you, but if you don't act on those first impressions, and therefore make a lot of bad art, how can you flush them out?

I always come into a new place wanting to know what it's like to belong there. I'm increasingly convinced, though, that belonging to a particular place isn't something anyone can really know, even those who were born there. You can recognize belonging, or the lack of it, but you can't describe what it consists of to someone else. Coming to belong to a new place means, in some degree, losing awareness of it.

Whenever I come to a new place and wonder what it's like to belong there, I wonder also why I don't think more about my own home town. I haven't lived there in many years, but I understand it in a way that I don't feel anywhere else—at least, I understand the town I remember from my childhood. More of the places I remember are gone every year, swept away by redevelopment of a generic, upscale sort, the kind of thing that seems impossible to belong anywhere, and the kind of thing that is happening also to Húsavík. I and my studiomates were the last artists there; our workspace, an old fish-cleaning workroom, was taken over for some shop featuring winter gear that was just Icelandic enough to sell; and the house we lived in was snapped up also for tourist rentals. Global capital is rounding off the corners of the world.

How does a transient person belong, especially when so many places seem not quite to belong to themselves any more? Well, you don't. But the act of not belonging can be interesting, and perhaps productive as well, for me and even, possibly, for the world I move through. That's the theory, anyway. In Húsavík I set out to figure out how it is that I, specifically, don't belong.

how to take landscape photos

The trick, of course, isn't to take good-looking photos of the landscape; everybody knows how to do that, all you need is a good-looking landscape. Nor is the trick to find a new way to take good-looking photos of the landscape. Novelty is overrated; the second time you look at a photo, it isn't new anymore, and then where are you?

No, the trick is to find something of yourself invested in the landscape, and reveal it in a photo. So the first thing to do, of course, is to find that thing about you that's in the place you're looking at. This is practically impossible to do with a camera in your hand. It's nearly impossible to do anyway, in a new place, because the first thing that a landscape reveals is that you don't belong in it. But it comes, with the proper application of time.

There are many ways to use time in a place. You can live in a place for ten years; you can sit in a single spot for three hours; you can take the same walk every day, at the same time, for three weeks, and then suddenly take the walk at a different time of day. Duration is the key. But then, in order to know how to use time, you need to know how time fits into the place you're in. This varies from one field to the next, let alone from country to country. In America we're used to saying that other countries are older than ours, though of course that's not true—we've just had more turnover, so to speak, than some other places. Iceland has had much less, relatively speaking; the global sameness of the contemporary world rests relatively lightly on a place that famously still speaks the same way they did a thousand years ago. Modern Icelanders can still read the ancient sagas with little difficulty, though whether they do is another question. I can't, of course, but I do read them in English, and also about them, and also about the types uses of Icelandic verse. Slowly snippets of knowledge, physical and historic, start to form a picture—a shallow, illusory picture, one that only exists for me at this moment, but a picture nonetheless that with a little work can come to resemble a real place.

One of the things I find, or choose to find, is a story about the voice of the landscape under the endless sun. The story goes like this:

After several weeks of perpetual sunlight, the landscape begins to wake up. It becomes aware of the people moving about within it. Landscape isn't the same as the land; landscape is made by people, and it makes the people in turn. There is no beginning to this process, and no end, because the landscape is too slow to know what time is. When the landscape becomes aware of the people it contains, it is from deep within time; it has always known those people, and always will. In the brief moment it is awake it can speak to its inhabitants as well. In fact being aware of people is the same as speaking to them, for something as large and old as this. But no one can hear it, of course, even those people who pride themselves on being in tune with nature. If you could hear it, it would tell you about yourself, a sort of telling, maybe an omen, as in the old verse; but no one has ever listened successfully.

Sounds good! Good enough for the basis of a photo essay. I wondered: is it possible to locate something of that message from the landscape, to record it as part of a field exercise?