“YOU HAVE TO COME, YOU MUST,” SHE SAID. Mary Ellen Mark, the renowned documentary photographer, was trying to convince me to make the trip from San Francisco to Iceland, where she runs a workshop each summer. I was flattered that she wanted me there, but the prospect of spending 10 days on any icy, volcanic rock in the middle of the North Atlantic held little appeal for me.
Besides, the more I read about Reykjavik — the capital and the country’s only sizable city (with a population half that of Marin) — the less interested I became. It was clean. It was safe. It was nearly all white.
Why, I asked Mary Ellen, would I want to go there?
“Because it’s weird,” she said. “The people are weird. You’ll like it.”
Mary Ellen knows me. I like weird. And, as usual, she was right — Iceland has plenty of weird.
Beyond the ubiquitous blondes, behind the unrelenting civility and underneath the itchy woolen sweaters, there was plenty of oddity. I found all I could of it. For more than a week, I photographed homeless people, alcoholics, an American-born heroin addict, a karaoke night for Elvis freaks, a women’s Roller Derby team and a group of massive gym rats — men and women — known as power lifters (the country’s national sport). I explored other aspects of life as well, including looking at those with challenges like a sweet teenage girl who had lost a leg to cancer and the residents of a Down syndrome community.
I did what I often do while traveling: look for interesting people and ignore the tourist attractions.
That’s all well and good when I am in New York or Paris or Oaxaca, places I have the good fortune to visit regularly, but Iceland might have been a once-in-a-lifetime trip and the people I met and photographed could have lived anywhere in the world. After all, an alcoholic who lives in a shipping container resembles similarly broken people in the U.S. — even if her name is Sigrun. I was photographing Icelanders, not Iceland.
The country is a geologic amusement park chock-full of glaciers, fjords and fumaroles, none of which I had seen. Nor had I walked on lava, slid on ice or dunked myself in the warm waters of the Blue Lagoon.
And that is how, in an eleventh-hour effort to fill that gap two days before my return flight to San Francisco, I found myself on a gray, blustery Sunday riding in a small station wagon being driven by one of the workshop’s photography interns. She was taking me on a fast-forward tour of the volcanic landscape east of Reykjavik.
My guide’s young son was buckled into the rear seat, and a serpentine road carried us out from the city through uplands studded with dark, magenta-tinted cinder cones. A spongy mat of green lichen covered the lower reaches of the rock. The colors, vibrant on a sunny day, were muted this day by a heavy mist. For photography, especially the drive-by variety I was doing, the day didn’t look promising.
We stopped several times so I could click off some frames. Even though I doubted the ability of my computerized camera to capture the natural complexity before me, I marveled at the rawness of the landscape. The rocks, in geologic years, were newborns. The water, sitting deep in glacial lakes or running rapidly through basalt-rimmed rivers, was untainted by humankind. The air, moist and moving, quenched a deep pulmonary thirst.
At Þingvellir National Park, where the great tectonic plates of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge collide, I walked in the mist and followed a boardwalk through the rift valley to a promontory. I recorded the volcanic hills in the distance and the lake below. The gray swallowed the color, but I wanted the photo anyhow, as a memory and as something that might compel me to come back and devote more time to this landscape.
I can’t say I will return to Iceland. I would like to, though. There are good people there I would like to see again. There are amazing places — such as Þingvellir — I want to revisit and many more I’ve yet to see. But as my years accumulate, my promises become fewer. There is less time ahead to keep them.
That day, then, that Sunday when I left behind the streets of Reykjavik for a more typical tourist experience — a drive through the hills, around the lake, past the waterfalls and home again — was my Iceland day.
For more photos from Iceland, view the gallery below.