Look at Iceland Through His Eyes

Anne Minicozzi of Main Line Life on John Welsh’s travels to Iceland and his documentation of the country.
MAIN LINE LIFE, March 2007

By Anne Minicozzi


“Many people find geothermal areas to be hellish, but I find them to be entertaining and a welcome sign of life.”
John Welsh regarding the “Gunnuhver” photograph.

Usually, when you attend an event in Radnor, you see John Welsh, a long-time local photojournalist, taking photos. However, at an event last Friday, it was John Welsh himself who was the featured artist.

Feb. 23 marked the opening of Welsh’s exhibit, “Icelandic Travels,” held in the gallery in the Connelly Center on the Villanova University Campus. The exhibit is composed of thirty-four photographs culled from over 8,000 images taken during seven trips to Iceland in the past five years.

What can compel a man who has been a photographer of people for 20 years to become a landscape photographer? Welsh and I talked recently, and he says it is the landscape of Iceland that he found so compelling. Initially, Welsh was drawn to Iceland more by curiosity than by intention. While traveling in 1993 in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, he became curious about Iceland from reading about descriptions of the country in guidebooks.

Winter 2001 marked his first brief visit there, but in spring 2002 he returned. In that season he began wandering the rugged terrain and empty spaces just beyond the borders of the small settlement towns and started taking photographs.

“To a visitor, it is the landscape which speaks with the loudest voice,” said Welsh in a 2006 Canadian newspaper interview. Iceland is a notable location on the planet because it is where the European and North American tectonic plates collide. If there is any news of a planetary nature to be found, what better location might a journalist be drawn to than to where the landscape is being made and remade?
Welsh is a photographer/journalist by perspective, and brings that same honest, fresh lens to his artistic work too. We talked a little about how he presents the landsacpes in the exhibit. Metaphorically speaking his technique melds with the geographic dominance of the landscape because he employs a layering technique when exhibiting his work.

Welsh’s current exhibit is his first major one, but not his first. At prior exhibits he told me he would watch people reacting to the photographs. In order to enhance the viewer’s experience, he wrote text to accompany each. In addition to the framed photograph and text there is also a smaller sized version of another photograph accompanying the first. So while Welsh’s approach is clean, it is not absolutely objective. We who take in the photograph are not alone in that landscape; accompanied by Welsh’s words, we are guided through that sometimes very other space.
Another layer Welsh includes is music. On Friday there were several musicians playing a variety of pieces for brass instruments. But sometimes the photographs are accompanied by classical guitar pieces composed and performed by a friend who adapted ancient melodies from Icelandic sung-folk stories. Which adds a fourth layer to that Icelandic experience.

Alone for hours and days in remote places like “Kleifarvatn,” Drápuhlíðarfjall,” and Reynisdrangar,” Welsh says he is sometimes mindful of Icelandic lore inhabited by ghosts and of almost the palpable spirit of the land which fills the space through which he moves. Then he talks of the Icelandic people, of the mix of their ancient and modern ways, and of their continued deep respect for the sometimes volatile landscape in which they too live.

Welsh special guest last Friday was the Ambassador of Iceland to the United States, Albert Jónsson. Escorting him around his exhibit which was a year in the making, Welsh is pleased to have the work at this stage of artistic completion.

The exhibit at Villanova University is free and open to the public and continues to April 12. Welsh has additional plans for the work in progress, as Iceland remains a compelling subject for him.