THE SACRIFICIAL LANDSCAPES OF FRIDGEIR HELGASON
by Peter Holliday



© Fridgeir Helgason from the series 'Da Parish'

«Enjoy it while you can» says Fridgeir Helgason, the sobering axiom that seems to permeate much of the photographer’s work, whose very life can be described as a story of loss, recovery, and Nordic nomadism. Fridgeir grew up in Iceland, although since 1986 has lived in the United States. During his life he has worked as a fisherman, a chef, and was once hired as an extra in a Michael Jackson TV commercial. He now lives with his wife in the L.A. suburb of Altadena, spending much of his time documenting the changing landscapes of the American South and his native Iceland with a Pentax 67 medium format negative film camera.

Born in 1966 on the island of Heimaey off the south coast of Iceland, Fridgeir is no stranger to the shifting forces of Planet Earth. At the age of six, his childhood home was destroyed by the eruption of Eldfell. In the early hours of 23rd January 1973 the island of Heimaey suddenly split open spewing lava into the night sky, forcing the island’s entire population to flee to the mainland. Five months later, the island would be reclaimed by its inhabitants from the contingent forces of nature, though Fridgeir would never return. This battle in the struggle between mankind and nature was an event that would influence Fridgeir’s outlook on the world. «Like the scientist says in Godzilla, the arrogance of man is that he thinks he can rule nature, not the other way around», he explains.


© Fridgeir Helgason from the series 'Nordic Mood'

After fleeing the eruption on Heimaey, Fridgeir and his family moved into his grandparent’s home in the district of Breidholt in Reykjavik. In this urban hinterland of the working class, he observed another world. It was here he found a plainer side of Iceland that he came to love, remembering it fondly as "the ghetto at the end of the world”. Fridgeir would later leave Iceland with his mum in 1986 for the better weather they knew they would find in Los Angeles. In 1991, the Viking nomad moved once again, this time to New Orleans in Louisiana where he fell in love with the Creole and Cajun seafood culture. There he began working as a chef until 2004 when he returned to California. Whilst recovering from alcoholism at a homeless shelter on Skid Row in 2005, Fridgeir enrolled in a filmmaking course at Los Angeles City College, taking a beginner’s class in photography, recounting that «making a movie takes an army. The thing I enjoyed about photography is that it’s just you and the camera».

Fridgeir may have initially visited the Mississippi Delta for the food, but he now returns to document the industrialised landscapes of Louisiana’s fragmented petrochemical wetlands. «I care about Louisiana as much as Iceland’s, it is very dear to me. There are places I like to go to like Isle de Jean Charles that will probably be gone in 10 years» realising that this landscape may soon become nothing more than a submerged wasteland. In these rural backwaters of Louisiana the swamps silently sink away as the refineries churn in the background. Louisiana is regarded as the world’s fastest submerging state and loses an area equivalent to the size of a football field every hour, the cataclysmic consequences of climate change, the local fossil fuel industry, and illconsidered land management. Much of the land here already lies below sea level, shielded from the Gulf of Mexico by an elaborate network of levees, pumping stations, and irrigation canals.


© Fridgeir Helgason from the series 'Da Parish'


© Fridgeir Helgason from the series 'Southern Mood'

In Fridgeir’s rendition of Louisiana the hot un-relieving sun washes over the landscape, only to illuminate the omnipotent presence of the petrochemical refineries on the horizon. Here the Louisianan topography of the ‘South’ is captured with a northern sense of melancholia. «As someone who grew up during the Cold War, there was always a feeling of impending doom», Fridgeir explains. This sense of anxiety seems to continue to haunt the photographer, surfacing throughout his work in his series ‘Da Parish’ and ‘Southern Mood’. With these projects the Mississippi Delta is represented as a toxic and dying landscape cut up by the fossil fuel industry, offering itself on the alter of capitalism so that metropolitan America may long shine. In one image of a neglected interior, a painting lies half-fallen, lying sideways on the mantlepiece, the fireplace below extinguished. It is as if this image suggests that the world out-there is one that has become unhinged with itself, increasingly alienated and altered by mankind. In another image of this sacrificial landscape, a levee precariously holds back the Mississippi River. A dirt track leads us to dark clouds clustered on the horizon, but one gets the impression that this storm has yet to pass. Perhaps we fail to realise that this coming tempest is one that mankind has summoned itself.


© Fridgeir Helgason from the series 'Southern Mood'

Fridgeir’s images also document the humble dwellings of this proletarian community, elevated upon stilts, their inhabitants prepared for the next surge. «The area of St. Bernard’s Parish was devastated during Hurricane Katrina and the industrial neighbourhoods were polluted so badly that many people were unable to return» he describes, once again drawing parallels with his own experience of the loss of his childhood home during the Eldfell eruption of 1973. Fridgeir’s images anticipate the coming apocalypse when the Gulf of Mexico can no longer be held back by the levees and these fragile Louisianan wetlands are finally surrendered to the sea. But there are reasons to be hopeful. As Louisiana considers one of the largest land restoration projects in history to restore these endangered swamplands, perhaps Fridgeir’s attention to a blossoming cherry tree is apt. It may well be too late, but with the large-scale efforts of man, it is possible that the un-presuming beauty of the Mississippi Delta can be saved.


© Fridgeir Helgason from the series 'Southern Mood'

Fridgeir's landscapes of his native Iceland are presented in contrast. Mankind has made its mark here too. It is interesting to note that the arrival of the Vikings over 1000 years ago left a previously undiscovered Iceland ecologically devastated, to such an extent that the effects can still be felt today. Though unlike his tableaux of southern Louisiana, he attempts to represent his homeland as virtuous and uncorrupted. They are images that affirm a yearning for his past, of a time before the fall. Ultimately, they are a tribute to the home he once knew. In Iceland, the photographer searches for a purer world, one that may possibly exist beyond the polluted peripheries of the petrochemical economy of the American South. But he struggles to find it.

In this collected body of work from his birthplace one senses the inspiration of Icelandic landscape painters such as Johannes Kjarval. Many of his images of Iceland show the country like we might imagine it, of a fertile and rich landscape of rivers, volcanoes, glaciers, fjords, and pastoral farmland, yet a sense of dislocation continues to pervade these cold scenes. In one photograph, clouds seem to appear on the horizon. It is a bucolic view in which wind-flattened grass dominates the foreground. But upon further analysis we realise it is not innocuous water vapour, but instead a massive cloud of ash rising from an erupting volcano. Does this eruption poison or re-fertilise the surrounding landscape? Either way, Fridgeir finds an Iceland that has changed. «When I went back to Iceland in 2008 right before the financial collapse, the country I had grown up in had vanished», he regrets. However, his continuing affinity with the landscapes of his homeland is clear. To Fridgeir, the wild terrain of this isolated North Atlantic island remains somewhat of an Eden, an utangard that must be protected from the hammer of the global economy.


© Fridgeir Helgason from the series 'Nordic Mood'

«A lot of my work is about simpler times before everything was controlled by all this insane greed that is ruining society today», he emphasises. Perhaps his rural landscapes of his homeland don’t just represent what the country once was or may even have to lose, but are also metaphors for the kind of society Iceland could one day be, the photographer’s vision of a future republic when the ideals of the Icelandic constitution are redeemed.


© Fridgeir Helgason from the series 'Nordic Mood'

Elsewhere in his work, Fridgeir turns away from these romantic sentiments of his picturesque homeland to reveal a more ordinary side of Iceland. It is as though Fridgeir now aims to challenge the myth of his homeland as a ‘semi-socialist utopia'. This critique of modern Icelandic society is most obvious in ‘Breidholt’, a series of seemingly mundane inner city landscapes of the Reykjavík suburb founded in the 1960’s in response to the nation’s post-war housing shortage. In this “ghetto at the end of the world” he once again investigates his past. It is a neighbourhood that would have been relatively modern when he moved into his grandparents house there in 1973. In this project Fridgeir turns his camera onto the graffiti-stained walls and the ageing banality of Reykjavík’s post-war social housing. It is with this work that the photographer reinforces his philosophy that photography can be used to make anything look interesting. «I like photographing places that are usually ignored, like places on the outskirts where you can find beauty if you just take the time to look for it», describing his process. But it feels as though Fridgeir’s greater message here is one that scrutinises the failings of the Nordic welfare state as well as our preconceptions, reminding us that things are not always as they seem, that this is what reality is like beyond the verdant vistas of glossy Icelandic tourist brochures. 


© Fridgeir Helgason from the series 'Breidholt'

From the deep fjords of the North to the shallow bayous of the South, Fridgeir’s landscapes occupy a time and space somewhere between a half-remembered past and an unwritten future where nothing is certain. His photographs are personal, political, and at times even biblical. As a bittersweet ode to places once known and those at risk of being lost, his work is a further investigation into mankind’s relationship with nature, bolstered by an ancient Nordic worldview of a cyclical universe in which nothing lasts. This is a philosophy that certainly seems to have been strengthened by his childhood experience of the Eldfell eruption of ‘73. By looking through his collected photographs of these altered topographies of Iceland and the American South, Fridgeir reminds us to enjoy the landscapes we know whilst they are still there. As the world changes, we change with it. While his message may be not be an overly positive one, the photographer’s landscapes encourage us to consider the future of a global society caught between its aspirations and its failings. Fridgeir ultimately asks: what kind of landscapes shall we preserve for the future?

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Fridgeir Helgason’s exhibition ‘Stemning / Mood’ is currently on show at the Reykjavík Museum of Photography until May 15th 2016.

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LINKS
Fridgeir Helgason
Iceland