Drive north from Reykjavik, past the peaks of black rock thrusting from the lowlands. A dense wind comes off the coast, laced with salt, flowing over narrow coves and up empty streets. Hot springs pepper the country's center, the sharp musk of sulfur floating from their pocked surfaces. Wedged between mountains are lush strips of field dotted with small villages—Reykholt, Laugarbakki, Varmahlíð—and goats and horses wander behind homes eating grass or just staring off into the distance. Then you hit the northern coast, farms and fisheries lining its shores, up and up until you can't drive anymore. As the Arctic Ocean meets the country's northern front, waterfalls of glacial runoff pour over cliffs, crashing into the rocks below.
Then, once you've gone as far north as you can go, look 25 miles to the north of that, and that's while you'll find Grímsey, an the size of Central Park where roughly 90 people live, a lush patch of green encased in cliffs. Last May, as I boarded a ferry to the island with my close friend and photographer Cole Barash and our mutual friend and cinematographer Brandon Kuzma, I could almost make out its southern tip in the distance, a sliver of green set against the dense blue strip of the horizon.
During our week on Grímsey, Cole documented all aspects of the culture. We would take late-night hikes to all corners of the island, to the western cliffs and the lighthouse, down to the harbor and into homes of residents. We went on boats and attended Bingo night and school graduation. We played soccer with the children. We looked at photo albums and mementos. Cole shot the entire project on medium-format and 35mm film. He is patient and detailed when he makes a photograph. His lips purse and his eyes narrow. He stands on the balls of his feet, moving his head back and forth like a boxer, looking for the best way in. He was drawn into the small details of the island—a mirror on a wall, the shower of a bathroom, a hula hoop left on the ground. Muted tones of landscapes juxtaposed flash-driven and vibrant interiors. White, gold and blue flood the images chosen for the book. A subtle but uneasy feeling threads itself throughout the end product—a snapshot of what it means to live on Grímsey. It's abstract and subtle.
Now these photos have made their way into a book published by Silas Finch, so I took the chance to catch up with Cole about the project and his process.
VICE: How did your approach to this body of work differ from past projects?
Cole Barash: At the time I was really frustrated and over my work so I went to Iceland on a trip to create two new bodies of work and this ended up being one of them. Not wanting to get stuck in the typical Iceland photo ring I found this tiny speck on the map when i was planning my trip. I looked it up—six kilometers wide, located in the Arctic Circle, and a population of 95 people. I knew this was something really worth digging into, more than just landscape photos or general overview [of Iceland]. I went there and wanted to scrape deep into life there—what the true colors of living rooms were, what kind of bed sheets, what smells are in the kitchens, what the youngest kids looked like, what the warm and cold feelings were. I shut myself off for eight days and worked with only medium-format film to provide unknown outcomes making me react purely off my gut not knowing what was working or what wasn't.
Why did this subject matter intrigue you enough to make it in to a book?
I feel like a lot of communities and places are very self-obsessed now, with social media being such a prominent part of modern life. This sometimes makes it hard to go in and make real photographs in new places. Grímsey was different, it was almost a place stuck in time 30 to 40 years ago—from the fashion to the interior styles to the focus on family and community. They were very open, kind, and curious which made my journey and process intriguing, honest, and organic.
I make books to make a statement of a consistent vision as a medium about a place or feeling or an idea. This is meant to represent a stamp on the map of Grimsey in 2013/2014, something that can be looked at from 40 years from now about an island or community that not might be there. I tried to make the body a work of reportage portraits, landscapes, and abstract feelings, or still lifes making you question ties or assumptions between two things.
How did you approach the photographs stylistically?
I made the entire body of work with two medium-format cameras that would ensure a consistency and an aesthetic that I was after. Kodak also provided 130 rolls of color negative film for the project. I'm not sure what other people get from the visual experience of this book, but to me it represents a place frozen in time, full of pure community and simplicity with a bit of horror/oddness.