A Beguiling Land of Fire and Ice

An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer written by Mary Anne Janco about photographing Iceland and the exhibit at Wayne Art Center.

By Mary Anne Janco
Inquirer Suburban Staff


It’s the land of fire and ice, where volcanoes are buried under glaciers and the sky erupts with the changing winds.

In this land of contrasts, glacial streams carve their way through lava fields, waterfalls cascade over moss-covered hillsides, and waves crash against the rocky coast.
It’s the rugged beauty of Iceland and its eerily captivating landscapes that have drawn photographer John Welsh back again and again.

“I just fell in love with the place,” said Welsh, of Jenkintown, who’s been shooting photographs in the Philadelphia area and abroad for 16 years. “It felt like it was home. It just felt right.”

On his three trips to Europe’s westernmost country, Welsh has captured some dramatic images that reflect the depths of this Nordic landscape. Some of those photographs are on display through April 24 at the Wayne Art Center.

While Iceland’s waterfalls are picturesque, Welsh said, he found sights far more intriguing as he journeyed alone along the southwestern coast.

“This sums up Iceland for me,” said Welsh, referring to an image that he shot while driving on a winding road through the lava fields. It had been storming all day, he recalled. But, at one point, as he rounded a bend in the road, the rain let up. The dark clouds broke, and the light fell on one of the islands close to the shoreline. Within a minute, the light was gone.

“I happened to capture that,” he said. “I seem to have good luck in Iceland.”

“It’s really a different place to be,” he added. “You’re in touch with the land, the weather and nature and it puts you more in touch with yourself.

“Hiking in the mountains, “you don’t see anyone the whole day. It gives you a different perspective.”

On another stormy day, while traveling in what’s known as the cold valley between two glaciers, the sun started to come out. Welsh’s camera was next to him when “a rainbow hit the ground in front of me,” he said. He jumped out to take the picture. but it disappeared. Again, he saw a rainbow, but it eluded him.

“I was chasing this rainbow, hoping to capture this rainbow. I saw it. I couldn’t keep it.”

The weather changes often and radically and in winter there’s only a couple hours of daylight, he said. On his first trip to Iceland in the winter of 2001-02, from the top of a church called Hallgrimskirkja, he shot the changing sky as it darkened with wind, rain and snow, then brightened. Then, the light disappeared, and it was back to blizzard-like conditions.

With his three trips combined, he’s spent more than a month in Iceland and only had a few sunny days. On those days, the sky is a vivid blue.

While there are not many trees in the landscape, the autumn colors appear in the ground cover, said Welsh, who made his last trek to southwest Iceland last fall.
He starts his journeys in the country’s capital, Reykjavik, a name which means Smoky Bay and refers to the steam rising from geothermal hot springs. In some spots, pools of mud are boiling because of the geothermal energy, he said.

He’s explored Myrdalsjokull, a glacier that has an active volcano underneath it. When the volcano erupts, the flood waters come in. A sign warns visitors to be cautious. As one approaches this huge mass of ice, you can hear the glacier creak, he said.

Before the fog rolled in at Reykjanesviti, the most southern and western tip of Iceland, Welsh shot powerful waves crashing against the coast. “I never shoot landscapes,” he said. “It’s never been my interest. It’s always people. But in Iceland, he said, “How could you not shoot the landscape? It’s so amazing.”

Welsh’s friend, Edward Savaria, a photographer in Roxborough, said: “His photographs express the passion of the country. They’re artfully done with a true photographic eye that only comes from an experienced photographer.”

Savaria said he especially liked the photos of the lava fields.

“They were like an alien landscape. It’s like a whole other world,” he said.

Welsh’s former teacher, Mark Thellmann, who is now an instructor at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, added that Welsh has “a good eye for composition and color.” As Welsh travels in Iceland, his goal is not to document the country but to find the fine-art angle, Thellmann said.

Welsh, who uses a digital Nikon camera, plans to return to Iceland on April 16, and this time, he wants to focus on the people. The portraits will reflect how the people – there are fewer than 300,000 of them – react to the landscape and the weather.

Welsh, who studied at Antonelli Institute, a school for art and photography in Erdenheim, last year taught an honors photography course at Villanova University.