Aerial photographer Elvar Örn on his project Over Iceland
Elvar Örn is a professional photographer and filmmaker with a passion for aerial photography. He’s traveled the world, from the deserts of Namibia, to icy Antarctica, and the highlands of Iceland. He’s explored a wide range of techniques in the art of photography, and he’s delved deeply into high-quality, archival printing processes. In collaboration with Gallerí List, select works of his aerial photography from the Icelandic highlands will be on display at Sólon Bistro starting September 15.
I chatted with Elvar about his upcoming exhibition and his craft of printmaking more generally.
Your passion is aerial photography. What drew you to it?
In 2003, when I was researching for a trip to Denali, the highest mountain in North America, I learned about American climber and aerial photographer Bradford Washburn. He used a large-format film camera, shot through the open door of an airplane. Seeing his images inspired me a lot and I knew I wanted to try the same. In 2009, I was hired by the Norwegian Polar Institute to work in Svalbard. I shot my first aerial frame there in a helicopter. Later on, I wanted to go back to Iceland and shoot some aerial photography because I had already done so much from the ground. In 2010, I went for my first photography flight in Iceland. After those first few frames I shot I knew there was no going back. It was a life-changing experience.
The allure of the highlands
What was your vision for your project of the Icelandic highlands? How did you accomplish your vision? What were some of the challenges you encountered on this project?
My vision for this project was to make abstract landscape images. I take the images straight down because without the orientation of the horizon, the viewer kind of loses the perspective of the frame, which creates that abstract feeling. I mainly use an Ultralight or Microlight aircraft. It’s like a hang glider, but you have a pilot, a big motor and an open cockpit. It can fly much slower and lower than a larger aircraft like a Cessna. I need the slower speed and better accessibility from both sides to carefully frame my shots straight down. But it doesn’t handle turbulence as well as a Cessna. For example, a week after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, we flew down into the crater. The turbulence was so intense I thought it might be my last flight! It was quite an adventure.
It’s key to know where to go and how to plan the day. I have a pilot in Iceland that I work with very closely and we plan out everything beforehand. The early morning light and late afternoon light is the best in the mountains where there’s deep contrast and shadows. In the afternoon, I often shoot rivers.
The sun is more directly above and the colour of the rivers is spectacular. I talk to the pilot via an intercom on the helmet, and I’m giving him directions all the time. Go slower, faster, down, up! It’s a very fine-tuned collaboration. We can spend eight hours in the air. It’s very hard work and it’s all part of the challenge.
Your printing processes are very meticulous and the results are exceptional. Would you briefly describe the process of making the prints for this exhibition?
I’m showing large—format inkjet prints in this exhibition. They’re printed on very heavy fine art, museum—quality paper. I always do a lot of test prints before I edition a print. An edition means there are a limited number of prints per image. I let the test print stay in my living room for a few days or weeks
to see if the composition is right and that there is nothing in the image that disturbs me. If all is good then the print is ready to be made into a limited edition. Printing is the final step of the photography process, and for me, it’s the most important moment.
What excites and inspires you creatively? For example, is it chasing that perfect light, the thrill of exploring new places or the satisfaction of seeing your final printed works hanging on the wall?
Seeing the huge art canvas that is the Earth from above, and being able to capture just a small part of it. I consider myself a reproduction artist; the original artist is the Earth. Experiencing the masterpiece has been life-changing. Of course, after being so focused on the flight, coming home from a trip and going through the images is always very surprising and gratifying. As I go through the images, the experiences of the day come back to me.
I’m compelled to try to express this in words, and one of my favorite quotes is, “The only artist is nature herself, the rest of us are only trying to copy her brush strokes.” Seeing my work living on a wall in other people’s homes is also very gratifying. That’s the main goal.
Exploring the craft
You’ve been working as a professional photographer for six years. If you were starting again today, knowing what you know now with six years of experience, what advice would you give yourself? What, if anything, would you do differently?
I’d study the old masters of photography instead of following the latest digital trends. I would have kept shooting film and developing my own images. The cell phones and digital cameras today with built-in programs are great, and we all use them, but often the craft of photography can be lost in this technology. For me, it’s important to know the details. I enjoy mastering the fundamentals. Using film forces one to understand the basics of photography.
Today, in addition to taking digital images, I use an 8” x 10” film camera more and more in my projects. It’s a vintage camera format used back in late 1800s. It often takes almost an hour to make a single image. It’s a very slow process. You have to really think about the composition. It’s a great way to understand photography and how to read the light. You often skip that step in digital.
The printing of the final image is extremely important to me, and it’s something I’ve always done myself when possible. It’s not enough to just take images and see them on a digital display. That’s only half of the journey of the image. One has to be printmaker too. The art of printmaking is as important as being a photographer. Sadly, that part is often forgotten.
The best advice I could give myself would probably be to focus on developing projects instead of just going out to hunt for a nice frame.
Do you have any new projects or travels planned in the near future? What’s on your photography bucket list?
It’s a long list! I’m always pushing my limits. I had to challenge my artist vision, and instead of going into the future, I went back to the beginning of photography—both in terms of camera format and printing. Today, I’m using a large-format 8” x 10” film camera that produces a super-high-quality negative and makes it possible to enlarge the images without loss of detail. On the printing side, I’m working with the Photogravure technique, which is one of the oldest methods to get a photograph onto paper. The photograph is etched onto a copper plate, which I then carefully ink up with oil-based inks, and use a large press to transfer the image from the copper plate onto paper. The final product is amazing. In the near future, I’d like to try my hand at other historic techniques such as platinum and carbon printing.