Review by By Marc Windahl of John Welsh’s Icelandic images on display at Spirit Room in Fargo, North Dakota.
WINDPHOTO, July 2005
By Marc Windahl
I recently went to an exhibit opening at the Spirit Room in Fargo, ND that featured three artists on the landscapes of Iceland. It was part of the Scandinavian Hjemkomst Festival. The main gallery featured exhibits by Wayne Gudmundson and Gudmundur Ingolfsson. Gudmundson featured black and white photographs of the area around the volcano Askja, whose explosion in 1875 precipitated immigration from Iceland to this part of the country. Ingolfsson displayed color prints.
The third artist was John Welsh. Welsh has a background in photojournalism, and his shots show a photojournalistic rather than a classic landscape approach. He exhibited in the “back gallery” a collection of color shots that were originally shot digitally (Nikon D1x) and cropped to a panoramic aspect. Welsh explained that he was limited on time for shooting so he could not wait for the perfect light. Iceland is far enough north that “classic landscape lighting” is frequently unavailable. Welsh compensates by using his photojournalist eye to break the “landscape rules” and the results are some very interesting photographs.
Very few of Welsh’s scenes include any view of the sky. generally, when the sky is included; the photographer is tempted to try to make it look better via darkroom or Photoshop techniques. Frequently, this can result in a sky that looks “plastic” and distracts from the overall effect. Welsh avoids this by removing the sky from the frame when the light does not enhance the vision he is trying to communicate. His panoramic crop gives a consistent view of his shots with a range of color that is sometimes lacking from other’s Iceland landscapes. Iceland is known for its black volcanic soil; Welsh also finds a range of browns and greens that bring a life to his landscapes that others sometimes lack.
Welsh is constantly breaking the rules; in two shots, there is a canyon with a stream. He frames the shot with the canyon running top to bottom so that when it is cropped into a panoramic format, the water only takes up a small part of the screen with the wide rims of the small canyon dominating the frame. It is a uncommon view that catches the eye and draws you into the frame.
Welsh also has a shot with a single green plant centered in the bottom of the frame. The plant is the only color variation in a red-brown rock field that was the former bottom of a lake that had been drained by volcanic activity. The eye is drawn to that speck of color and then, as one studies the frame more, the smooth rounded rocks of the brown lake bottom take shape in an intriguing pattern.
Welsh also had a shot of a wet blacktop road. Some viewers at the opening asked if he had enhanced it in photoshop. “No” was Welsh’s response. He captured it when wet, and offset the deep and sparkling black with a rich brown palate and as much green as he could find to create a landscape that served its purpose. It caught everyone’s attention and engaged them in a discussion of what Iceland is like.