Geology is the star in David Welch’s Icelandic photo series

"Reynisdrangar Basalthraun Columnar II" — David Welch

Photographer David Welch traveled to the ends of the earth to pursue his most recent projects. Well, to one end of the globe at least — the uppermost portion. In April of 2015, the Katama resident journeyed to Iceland with a mission: to document the unique geological formations in the remote areas of Europe’s northernmost (and most sparsely populated) country.

A series of stunning black-and-white photos of the volcanic rock formations in their myriad forms is now hanging at the Feldman Family Art Space at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. The spectacular images showcase some of the most unique, haunting, and unusual organic structures in the world. Iceland is of geological interest because of the number of active volcanoes, and the Island country’s spectacular landscape is defined by dramatic glacial and basalt (volcanic rock) formations.

Most tourists to Iceland limit themselves to the capital of Reykjavík and its environs, and generally visit during one of the tourist seasons (September through April to see the northern lights, or in the summer to take advantage of the milder weather). Mr. Welch went off-season and took the road less traveled, traversing thousands of miles of desolate country in a rented camper van.

His journey took him to some of the most remote areas of the Island country. He traveled alone, staying in campsites and sleeping on a bed in the converted van. “It was a solitary trip,” Mr. Welch said, explaining that he prefers traveling solo in order to focus on his work: “I don’t like having interruptions, and I don’t like being bogged down with a definite itinerary.” He didn’t have to worry too much about interruptions, since in the countryside homes are few and far apart.

Although he had a general idea of where he would explore, the photographer let the landscape itself determine his travels. “I wanted to cover as much territory as possible,” he said. Although he did have one particular destination in mind, he had to alter his original plan. “The area I really wanted to focus on was the West Fjords,” Mr. Welch said. “I didn’t get to go. The weather turned winter again, and the roads were impassable.”

However, one of his planned destinations — the tiny town of Vik, the southernmost village in Iceland — proved to be so impressive that after visiting it on his journey north, he stopped again on the return trip. “I was floored when I got to Vik,” Mr. Welch said. “I had a real emotional attachment to this part of Iceland.”

Vik is located on the coast of the North Atlantic. The town of 300 inhabitants lies just south of an active volcano. Its black sand beaches and volcanic formations are considered some of the most dramatic in the country.

It was Mr. Welch’s passion for geology that inspired him to make the journey. “There are so many beautiful spots. Each has its own unique geology,” he said. “There’s no sort of postmodern concept behind this. It’s just the tonality of the rock. I love geology. I found these formations just fascinating.” Iceland is located between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean, where it sits on two tectonic plates whose shifting has created huge canyonlike fissures.

“The landscape is awe-inspiring,” Mr. Welch said. “It’s so raw it seems dangerous, with its jagged rocks, steep cliffs, dangerous oceans. It’s pretty unique for the Northern Atlantic.”

The photos that make up the current exhibition were all taken in and around Vik. The series features craggy rocks and cliffs, savage seas, and towering basalt structures in a forbidding, desolate landscape. The jagged formations — often crystalline in nature — have the look of ancient monuments in some shots and in others give the scene the look of a post-apocalyptic landscape or a view of another planet.

The effect is heightened by the photographer’s use of film, as opposed to digital media. The clarity and depth of the images, and the focus on the majesty of nature, is reminiscent of Ansel Adams.

“For this type of work, you need film,” Mr. Welch said. “You need the resolution. You need the clarity. The contrast is amazing. The crispness in film is unsurpassed.”

Like Adams, Mr. Welch often uses a large-format camera, whose high resolution allows for ultimate sharpness. The primary goal of the his trip was to create a huge diptych of Iceland’s basalt formations with a large-format camera. That project is still ongoing. Mr. Welch, who teaches darkroom techniques at Featherstone and at the Charter School, is in the processing and production phase of those monumental five-foot-long photos.

The more traditionally sized photos that make up the exhibit, shot with a medium-format Hasselblad, were an extension of his project.

The climate of Iceland proved challenging in a number of ways, but the cold was especially remarkable. Mr. Welch said that after spending a night in the camper, he would often awaken to find his drinking water frozen. There were other obstacles to his work. “Iceland is such a difficult country to photograph,” he said. “It’s so huge and everything is so beautiful, and the weather sucks. If it’s not raining, it will rain soon. The wind and the rain prevent you from composing the image on a large-format camera. You have to throw that cloth over your head. I swore at the wind so many times. Of course, there was nobody there to hear me.”

Luckily, Mr. Welch got two days of sunshine while in Vik and was able to produce the stunning series of that area. He was also treated to a bonus at the end of the trip. He was lucky enough to catch the migration of the puffins — something that, like the northern lights, is impossible to predict and plan for.

“When I came back to Vik the second time, on my last evening there, all of these puffins just arrived,” Mr. Welch said. “I saw one, then a dozen, then thousands of puffins.”

Unfortunately he didn’t have the right type of lens to take advantage of this unique photo op. But Mr. Welch has already purchased a ticket for a return trip next year.
David Welch’s Iceland photos will hang at the Film Center through July 5. For more information, visit