Ragnar Axelsson: Around Iceland in 80 Hours

Ragnar Axelsson, also known as RAX, is an Icelandic photographer who was born in 1958. He has been a photographer for Morgunbladid, Iceland’s biggest newspaper, since 1976. Axelsson has also shot numerous freelance projects for magazines and had exhibitions all over the world. Most recently, he took the new  Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) for 80 hours all over Iceland. Below he shares what he captured and his thoughts on the camera.

Q: Can you provide some background information on these images? Where and when were they taken?

A: All the images were taken in early April in Iceland. My work as a photographer in the subarctic regions depends very much on the weather and, in a way, I went out to capture the life on the island in a certain kind of weather. According to the weather forecast a blizzard was underway and would even cause serious problems on mountain roads. But in April it gets brighter every evening very quickly, so the interplay of light and darkness alongside this dramatic weather interested me. I drove around the island in 80 hours and met some people on the way, but because of the storm they were few and far between. There were, however, lots of animals around, horses grassing as the Icelandic horses can do all year round or simply waiting for the storm to calm down. On a farm, the sheep were fed and as I approached a river, I saw a stoic seal that simply expected no harm from humans. I crossed mountain roads in the middle of the blizzard and then got back home, overwhelmed with joy as I had such fun with the camera.

Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?

A: I would say they show Iceland slowly emerging out of a long, windy and cold winter.

Q: Can you share with us your overall impressions of the Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246)?

A: The camera is enormously great and it is a real pleasure to work with. It is like playing a great guitar or driving a luxury car. The files from it could be compared to a huge field camera. The camera has that little something that takes a lifetime to find.

Q: What technical characteristics of the Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) specifically stood out to you?

A: It is simple to work with and it is easy to do all the things that you expect to do with a camera. The Live View is great to use and the display on the back shows the images as they will look when processed. After all the years I have used Leica rangefinder cameras for my Arctic projects, I am looking forward to using the Monochrom for my new book project on the Arctic. It feels like shooting on black-and-white film again, which, in the end, is the real thing for me. I grew up using film and working in the darkroom and I am extremely grateful for being able to relive that experience.

Q: Which lens(es) did you primarily use for these images and why?

A: I used the 35 mm Summilux f/1.4 ASPH. lens through the whole trip. It is the perfect lens for me. Most of the photographs in my books are done with 21 mm to 50 mm lenses.

Q: What goal, if any, did you have for this portfolio and do you think you achieved it?

A: My goal was to capture lasting images that would transcend their immediate use or relevance. I have worked as a press photographer since my teens and the need to capture the significance of the present in a visual language that goes beyond the singular event has always been the greatest challenge for me. It was also a great pleasure to work with the camera. It is very important in my mind to use equipment that enables you to connect emotionally with your work. A positive mind can work wonders.

Q: Obviously, the Leica M Monochrom only takes black-and-white images. Is all your work primarily in black-and-white or do you shoot color on occasion, and if the latter, how do you decide which medium to use for a particular subject?

A: My passion lies in black-and-white photography. My photography books are dominantly in black-and-white. I see my work as a string of images in black-and-white. That does not mean that I am not shooting pictures in color – I actually do that a lot – but I prefer photographing in black-and-white. I always say that everything that looks good in color looks even greater in black-and-white. When photographing in color I use my Leica M-P (Type 240) or a DSLR. When I work in black-and-white, I use film cameras like my Leica M6, Linhof  6×12 and Mamiya 7; I rarely use them for color.

Q: What about the black-and-white medium especially appeals to you?

A: For me, black-and-white photographs are in most cases stronger images than color images; the colors don’t distract from looking at the structure and the subject. The great traditional masters of photography, the ones who have created the most memorable images in history, shot them overwhelmingly in black-and-white. My mentor and friend Mary Ellen Mark does most of her work in black-and-white and her work is stunning. The black-and-white pictures create an atmosphere that represents to me the magic of photography. That does not only apply for the actual use of the photographic equipment; it is the whole process – how the pictures are printed, burned and dodged in the darkroom.

W. Eugene Smith is one of my favorite photographers. He created unforgettable photographs not at least by being the master of the darkroom. The darkroom has now moved into the computers and into the daylight as photographers now work with digital files. That work is for me always an extension of the traditional work in the darkroom. The darkroom is my leading guide and limit when it comes to working on digital files. My own rules are: what can be done when printing in the darkroom can be done on digital files. I still photograph on film as I love the darkroom work and my heart started beating again when I had a black-and-white digital camera. It feels like working with film again.

Q: You are well acquainted with photographing in extreme weather conditions. What preparations do you take to protect your equipment in these conditions? And how did the M Monochrom handle in these conditions?

A: I have always liked photographing in bad weather, but there are many degrees of bad and the Arctic is not the most forgiving environment when it comes to photography. These circumstances need special precautions and the biggest problems are the batteries. I keep them inside my jacket as long as I can and they don’t last long in temperatures far below freezing. It is sometimes strange to go to sleep in a tent on the Arctic ice shelf in a sleeping bag filled with batteries to keep them warm. The Monochrom worked fine in the cold. It was -10 degrees Celsius and with the wind chill it was around -18 degrees Celsius.

Q: What were your impressions of the M Monochrom’s new Live View functionality?

A: The Live View was new to me on the Leica M and I liked it. It is opening up a new world when using the M-System and it works perfectly. It slows the camera a bit down, but most of the time it does not matter and in conditions when it does, it is easy just to turn it off and use the camera as Leica has been used throughout the years.

Q: How have you found the M Monochrom’s image files to compare to black-and-white film photos and/or digital images from cameras with Bayer filters that are converted to B&W?

A: This is the beauty of it all, the files are from another world. They are the best files I have ever seen in a camera and for photographers who are passionate about black-and-white photos, this is the real thing. It always feels a little bit uneasy for me to change color files to black-and-white. It feels like doing something wrong. That’s over now.

Q: Much of your work is focused on the Arctic region, including your photo book “Last Days of the Arctic.” There have of course been massive environmental and ecological shifts in the region, but how else has the Arctic region and its people changed since you began your photography career covering the area?

A: The dramatic changes in the Inuit societies are to a large extent the result of the environmental changes. As the winter ice gets thinner, it is harder for the hunters to survive and sustain themselves as full-time hunters. The young generation does not see any future in the traditional way of life as it is extremely hard to survive on hunting alone with total ban on exports of seal and polar bear furs on the one side, and the radical ecological shift on the other. In just few years from now we will be facing a totally different Arctic. The four thousand year old subsistence hunting tradition will soon come to an end.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, and art form, a profession?

A: I got hooked on photography as a child when I saw old issues of magazines like LIFE and Stern. I remember photo essays by W. Eugene Smith and Ulrich Mack and there was no way of turning back. It was all in black-and-white. My father took pictures and collected Leica cameras. I got his Leica IIIg when I was 10 years old to photograph on a farm where I stayed during the summers of my childhood. I remember when I was sixteen, Leica came with a group of photographers; I saw Ulrich Mack among them, the man who took so many great photographs. I was totally star struck. I guess I wouldn’t have been more overwhelmed if I had met Elvis.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: It was my first camera. It is like having a favorite football team or favorite band, for are bound with your first love all your life. I do use other cameras but my Leica cameras are always with me.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: Photography means everything to me; it is my life. I dream in pictures. My approach in photography is the passion for leaving something behind for the world. That is one of the reasons I am photographing the Arctic as it will be a different Arctic in the future, something the world will miss.

Q: Do you have any future projects you plan on shooting with the Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) that you want to share with our readers?

A: Yes, I am working with my friends on a new book about the Arctic. The book will be produced in parallel to a film on the changes in the Arctic. The working title is “THE MYSTERIES OF THE ARCTIC”. In this work the Monochrom camera will play a big role, as the files from that little camera bring the same results as a big field camera. That is what I have been waiting for.

Thank you for your time, Ragnar!

– Leica Internet Team

Learn more about the Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) here.

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11 comments

  • Wonderful article and video, and especially the photos!
    The tonal quality is clearly evident–great job Leica!

  • A truly exciting use of a new Leica.
    Ragnar is a great photographer.
    Dedicated to his work, giving all he physically and emotionally,creating a brilliant and cohesive body of work.
    I prefer the simple “honest” work of Ragnar rather than Salgado’s “Genesis” in similar Arctic conditions..
    Both are superb, but one is better. A few of Salagado prints(exhibited) and book images had really “false” looking
    strange look.These were not from film..
    I long o see Ragnar Axelsson new work.
    I still shoot film for reasons of archival.
    Like digital, love film.

  • Jason, I agree with your comments about Salgado’s Genisis! Beautiful, but overwrought. You should try to find one of Pentti Sammallahti’s books. Here, Far Away is incredible in its subtlety.

    I really enjoyed Ragnar’s folio here; a fantastic set of pictures for 80 hours’ shooting.

  • Thanks to Leica and Ragnar for this collaboration. I also agree with the comments below, Ragnar have a really interesting eye on his country. His work is always a pleasure to see. I have shoot in Arctica, Alps Mountain at 3885m and during the coldest day of the century in New York without any protection on the Leica M240 and the camera is really robust. -20°C without problem. And in these particular condition you like the simplicity of the camera to be able to use it with gloves !
    Loïc

  • Ragnar is not a photographer I had come across until now, but wow great work. This is a man who knows black and white. Good work Leica. Great cameras, even better marketing?

  • I am really stunned by the stunning shots of Ragnar Axelsson. I think Black and White pictures are the most expressive and Ragnar seems to know how to make the most of it. Iceland has been top of my list of the places I wish to travel and I have to admit that his pictures make me eager. I’ve got through his set of folios in his 80 hours of shooting and I look forward to see more of his new works. The pictures carries philosophies on its every pixels he seems really dedicated in his work. Although the Leica camera is expensive I guess it is quite worthy for its price. They are beautiful constructed and I don’t think that someone will regret having it in their hands. But at the end it is not the tools that matter, but the magic produced by the craftsman’s hands. RAX in definitely one of my inspiration for Travel Photography. I can also quite relate how he started having interest in photography. Amazing artist!

  • hello leica-internet-team! wow, a great photo with the man in the canyon! difficult light and nevertheless so many details also in the background not overexposed! wonderful! best regards André

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