By B.J. Burton

Places! The Bistro at People’s Light & Theatre Company has something to cool you off this summer besides adding a few extra ice cubes to your cocktail. Displayed on the walls are photographs depicting icy glacial streams, misty tumbling waterfalls and snowy mountainous terrain — the landscapes of Iceland by photographer John Welsh.

A professional photographer of 17 years, Welsh, of Jenkintown, has made six trips to the North Atlantic island in two years. Altogether, he estimates he’s taken over 7,000 photographs; 25 are on display at The Bistro.

Welsh didn’t plan on becoming a photographer of landscapes. His day-to-day work usually involves photographing people. “It’s not that I chose Iceland particularly,” he said. His first trip during winter of 2001-2002 was planned for vacation. “I took one bus trip outside the city

[of Reykjavik]. It was dark for all but two hours, three hours a day. And I thought, ‘I bet I could do some interesting work here.’”

During one of his trips, he’s discovered turbulent rivers cutting through canyons, fluorescent green moss clinging to edges of jagged cliffs and beams of sunlight melting into a somber sea.
After one of his exhibitions, a representative from an Icelandic book printer approached him. With a book of photographs in mind, Welsh returned to Iceland. On that trip, he planned to include people in his work, but again he felt the pull of the land. “I shot more landscapes,” he said. “And I thought, this is what I have to do. I can’t explain it. It’s an obsession — in a good way.”
A country of striking contrasts, Iceland is often quietly serene, sometimes violently in motion. Most areas outside of Reykjavik are rough and sparsely populated. With his Nikon in hand, Welsh has driven across lava fields, walked next to hot springs and climbed along the edges of mountains to capture images that are rich in texture.

With long summers of almost 24 hours of daylight, the winter is opposite. There is little sunlight and the light that’s available can suddenly disappear. Conditions are also harsh, with quickly changing weather. “The whole island — it’s an unusual place,” he said.

Discussing the unique lighting often found in his photographs, Welsh stated, “It’s not just the landscape, it’s the way I shoot it. I’m not spending hours or days hiking and waiting for the perfect moment.”

His scenes often depict landscapes in muted grays, browns and greens. “You won’t see a lot of blue skies or sunsets,” he continued. “I’ll shoot in the rain, I’ll shoot under gray skies. I adapt to the conditions.” During an early exploration, he said “When I arrived, I didn’t know the ‘right time’ of day to shoot, and maybe I missed opportunities because of that, but I wanted to photograph what’s real.”

When shooting in Iceland, he often doesn’t see anyone. “It’s different when you are shooting a mountain,” he stated. “You can drive for days with nobody around. Once you’re out of the big city, there’s not much out there. And that’s also part of the focus.”

Often hearing only the sound of his own footsteps, Welsh said, “Sometimes you don’t hear the wind. Sometimes you hear nothing.” In the rugged, desolate terrain with few trees and little vegetation, there is only land and nature, so focusing on his subjects becomes more intense. Even when coping with severe elements of weather like freezing rain, pelting ice and blowing snow, Welsh said, “I enjoy it because you’re seeing something that not everyone sees.”

Welsh’s photographs are presented in long panoramic views, giving the observer a sense of the vastness of the terrain. In capturing Iceland’s stark isolation and ominous beauty, his images are sometimes haunting, often mystical, which lingers long after viewing his work. While something real is being expressed about the connection to the land, sea and sky, something almost spiritual is being expressed as well.

When asked about his creative influences, Welsh said that at the beginning of his career another photographer said to him that he should shoot what was important to him. Welsh added, “I did, and that’s when I made my best photographs.”

Welsh’s upcoming projects include exhibitions, speaking engagements, including ScanFest on Sept. 5 at the Expo Center in Edison, N.J., and a self-published book.