Published June 14, 2015
Claus Sterneck is celebrating his tenth summer in Djúpavík, a minute coastal hamlet in a remote part of Iceland’s Westfjords. A former busy fishing village based around a dramatic abandoned fish-processing factory, Djúpavík is also home to a sole hotel, renovated from the old factory worker’s quarters in 1985. Claus returns to work at the hotel each summer.
After helping to serve breakfast to the hotel’s guests, he walks out into the light summer rain, past the rusting hull of a decomposing ship and over to the factory. He opens the doors for the first time this year and enters, looking around the dark, cold space with fondness.
As well as being a waiter at the hotel, Claus is also here to hang the third edition of his group photography exhibition ‘STEYPA’ (or “Concrete,” in English). “The last time I was here was the end of August last year,” says the mild-mannered German, in his clipped accent. “When I first come inside, I kind of say hello to the place again. I kind of whisper: ‘Hello, factory! how are you?’”
A good beginning
Claus first visited Djúpavík 12 years ago, after reading about the place in a magazine article entitled “The loneliest hotel in the world is maybe in Iceland.” It more than lived up to the moniker. Djúpavík is an extremely remote place, located in the sparsely populated area of Strandir, down a long unpaved track that clings to the dramatic fjord cliffside. Eva and Ási, the couple who run the hotel, are the only year-round residents, meaning Djúpavík has an official permanent population of two.
As luck would have it, that first week-long trip coincided with Sigur Rós playing a now-legendary free show in the dilapidated factory as part of their ‘Heima’ tour. A spell was cast: Claus was entranced by the compelling, run-down charm of Djúpavík. The experience would turn out to be life-changing.
“This was the first place I came in Iceland,” he smiles. “There are some birds, and when they hatch, the first thing they see is what becomes their mother. There’s some connection. Djúpavík is kind of like that for me. My first experience of Iceland was here. Somehow, arriving here always feels like coming home. Everything is so familiar.”
Claus knows the factory well, and runs guided tours for curious holidaymakers. This includes a permanent exhibit dedicated to Djúpavík’s industrial past, featuring large-scale photographs of the building teeming with workers—the men fishing and maintaining the plant’s processing machines, and the women gutting the fish and salting them in barrels.
STEYPA, by comparison, is more connected to the factory’s current state of picturesque decay. The exhibition happens in a cavernous, airy hall so resolutely grey that any dash of colour in the photographs on show seems to leap from the paper, and continues in a light attic space with mountain views on all sides.
“The only rule I have in curating the exhibition is that the work is connected to Iceland,” says Claus. “The first years I searched for people to show, out of necessity, but this year several people asked me about taking part in advance—people who knew of Djúpavík, or had been here, or had some interest in the hotel. The exhibition is getting more popular, and people are happy to join in.” Claus pauses, his eyes searching around the space. “After all, it even gets written about in Grapevine,” he smiles.
The postman photographer
When he’s not in Djúpavík, Claus works as a postman in Reykjavík, a job in which he feels comfortable. “I like it because there’s nobody telling me how to do it,” he says. “I can deliver the mail by walking, by bike, by car—it doesn’t matter, as long as the work is done. I can take breaks to enjoy the scenery or get a coffee. I like to be moving, and to be outside. It’s nice to meet the people, have a small chat about the weather or whatever, and then move on, but still have this connection to life in Iceland.”
As he walks his route, Claus documents the everyday life of the city. His popular Facebook page, “Claus in Iceland,” features one new image every day. “It’s the little things that I find interesting,” Claus says. “Iceland isn’t just about blue skies, waterfalls and sunsets. I think people are interested in my pictures because they’re not just the familiar Iceland shots. There are a lot of books of those kinds of pictures in the stores. And although they’re good pictures and well-made, it does get boring. On my page I show a different view, the daily view of those who live here. It’s not all about geysers and mountains here, it’s also about what it’s like to wake up at 5am and go to work.”
Claus’s interests in Djúpavík and photography combine in the STEYPA exhibition. This summer will be the third edition. “In 2009 I showed my own work here,” he recalls. “Then in 2013, I had the idea of having a group exhibition. There were more people coming here, and more friends of Djúpavík around, and one of them asked me about maybe having an exhibition here. After that I realised that there’s a synergy in working with other people, and that combining our powers we could get more done. We were able to get a booklet done this year, for example. If it was nine individual photography shows, it would be much harder to organise.”
Silence is golden
Djúpavík is a charming one-off place, and the hotel picks up more and more trips each year. But Claus’s connection to the place is deeper. He thinks for a long time when asked to verbalise the attraction. “The hotel made a big first impression,” he explains, slowly. “It’s so very cosy and remote. In August of 2003, there were fewer guests—now the hotel would be full at that time. I was the only guest for three or four nights. I liked that a lot.”
He pauses, looking around at the factory’s roughly textured walls and brickstrewn floors. “And, I like the silence,” Claus continues. “And the darkness—real darkness, far away from light pollution. I also like that you can see a long way. Even when it’s cloudy, you can see the horizon most of the time. Back in Germany, the clouds are grey and heavy. Here’s it’s very fresh, the view is always different. It’s just me, when I’m here—nobody disturbs me with noise or music. I like to be alone, even though of course I also like to work in the group at the hotel.”
So, for Claus, Djúpavík is both a retreat, and a home. The STEYPA exhibition will be open all summer, with the door left open to tempt curious passersby and hotel guests in for a look. And with such a motivated and passionate organiser, it seems like an endeavour that will only grow in the years come.