June 7, near Reykjavic, Iceland. A post from Redding photographer Brian Rueb:
“So this happened tonight.
Then on my drive back, I got pulled over and given a random Breathalyzer test at 2:30 a.m. I was the only one on the road and (shockingly) I WAS OBEYING ALL TRAFFIC LAWS… I guess I got selected by default. The cop was super nice and I was back on the road within 45 seconds. Blew in a device. He apologized for the inconvenience. We shook hands and that was it.”
This encounter with the police was, I’m sure, a memorable way for Rueb to begin his annual 10-day Icelandic Photography Workshop. The photo adventure is part of Apeture Academy’s Sojourn Series, digital photography safaris into some of the world’s most scenic places. Thankfully, Rueb’s subsequent Facebook posts reveal a mostly-event-free 10-days photographing Iceland’s mountains, waterfalls, geothermal areas and deep valleys, aided by 24-hours of sunlight and sunsets that fade into sunrises.
A solo hiking odyssey through this terrain in 2010 for his book project makes Rueb the only guy I’d tromp Iceland with. But his gentle demeanor and level of knowledge about his craft make him one of the only people I’d trust to teach me about extreme digital photography.
I caught up with Rueb, post-police-encounter, to talk about his work and his life, 4,000 miles from Reykjavic, in the North State.
So, how was your interaction with Icelandic police?
First off, it scared the hell out of me. It was 2:45am and there was not another soul on the road. I was coming back from shooting the waterfall Gulfoss. When the cop flipped around to pull me over the only thing I could think of was maybe I had hit a speed bump a little too hard. He just pulled me over and asked, “Do you have anything in you?” Kind of an odd question, but I got the gist and answered “no.” He asked me to blow into a little machine, looked at the screen, then thanked me, apologized for the inconvenience and sent me on my way. It rattled me though, and I was having such a fun night shooting. He was as pleasant as could be.
What do you have a view of right now?
I’m sitting just outside the town of Akureyri in northern Iceland on a horse farm called Skjaldarvik. I’m looking out the window on a fjord framed by snow capped peaks, and a field of horses. Because I don’t have to drive, I am having a local beer.
Give us a sense of the Icelandic landscape. What attracts you to it?
The landscape here just feels wild. Even close to towns and cities it always feels raw and wild. I just like that quality in whatever I shoot with the camera. I’m always drawn to shapes, and light, and during the summer, there isn’t any shortage of light here to chase.
What makes Iceland a good place for photography?
Light…during the summer finding a good sunset can last up to 2-3 hours, even more. In the US, photographers are used to trying to fit in a lot of shooting in to this 15-20 minute window of magic light…Iceland has it in spades and it makes it possible to see more with better light. Then you add in the bizarre and powerful elements of nature here and you have a perfect recipe for amazing imagery. There are also no predators in the country that could possibly attack you, so there’s an added feeling of safety when you’re out alone….some of the places in the US or other countries you always have that risk a bear might maul you…and not having that fear helps me focus on shooting rather than figuring out where I’ll run if a bear wanders in.
What makes it a good place for photography workshops?
The same things as I’ve mentioned above…the light and the landscape. I think with the popularity of digital photography more people have access to seeing images…and I think the images from Iceland are always such that people say, “Where is THAT?!” Then with peaked imaginations that look for trips that will take them to these beautiful locations. Movies like ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (though the movie has a lot of flaws about Iceland)’ and Prometheus, Noah, Game of Thrones TV Show, and such also peak people’s curiosity…It’s become one of those ‘must-see’ locations for photographers…and being that I lead classes here, it’s good for me. Despite the new crowds, I still find Iceland to be this remote location with few people. In the past 5 days of the workshop we’ve seen only a handful of other photographers because we’re out in the times of night when most tourists are sleeping. It never gets dark, and the best light is between 10pm and 4am…so that’s when we’re out with the cameras, and luckily that’s when the other 99% of the other tourists are not.
Walk us through your Iceland workshop. Where will you go? Do you have an itinerary of scenic places?
Our tours are 10 nights of shooting with people arriving the morning of day 1…acclimating to the travel, and we depart to relax in the famous Blue Lagoon the first night before a couple of shooting locations, we end on night 10 shooting some spots along the Golden Circle route before people depart on day 11 for home. In between we visit a number of locations along the southern coast of the country including giant waterfalls, black sand beaches, iceberg lagoons, red roofed churches in fields of lupine and much more. We spend 3 nights in the north on a horse ranch where we visit a number of other iconic locations including Europe’s most powerful waterfall, and some of the amazing geothermal parts of this volcanic landscape. We also live for 3 days on a working horse ranch, and there are no more photogenic horses than the ones in Iceland…and here we have full access to photograph these horses during our stay. We also spend two nights on the Snaefellsness peninsula which is about 2 hours north-west of Rekjavik…here we photograph mountains, waterfalls, coastal scenes, and some of the other beautiful sections of the country. It’s a FULL itinerary, and we spend about 7-10 hours a day out with the cameras shooting and traversing the landscape in our van looking for the good light. Due to hotel accommodations we have to keep a relatively organized schedule of what area we’ll be on what night, but during that time we’re able to have some flexibility within the evening on what we shoot…depending on where the good light is.
What is the travel like?
Travel for me versus group travel is somewhat different. With our groups I have a van, we stay in nice hotels and guest ranches. Everyone can have a nice meal and shower every day. We’re never far from the comforts we’re used to. When I travel alone, I’m usually sleeping in the vehicle, hitchhiking, sleeping in tents, and trying to keep to a tight budget. I keep the flexibility to move where the best opportunities for light exist. I’m more of a hobo than a human when I travel alone or on strict photography expeditions. Teaching means I need to smell somewhat respectable, change undies, and, y’know, do those little things people appreciate.
Tell us about your new book.
Calling it a new book is a bit misleading. The book is actually about my first trek here 5 years ago, when I came with a very limited budget, no car, and a grand scheme to see as much of the country in 3 months as I could. A lot of fun and crazy things happened to me during that experience, and the book details that journey. It’s not so much about the photography aspect as it is about doing something crazy like setting out on this grand adventure, at the age of 36, not really knowing what to expect, and how to handle something of that magnitude. There is a photographic element to the book for sure, and I’ll put some photos in it…but it’s more of a story you would read rather than a book of photos people would look at.
What are some of your favorite images from the book?
I think I’m very partial to a lot of those images from the first trip, because having no vehicle meant I had to work harder to get to the places (even the iconic ones). A couple of images stand out because I was in locations I had not scouted or planned on being, the sky exploded with color, and I was forced to go find something interesting to photograph when no location was planned. There’s a shot of a little house on a lake I took in the eastern fjords of Iceland I like because I had spent all day hitchhiking to get out of this tiny town in the northeastern part of the country. I was in a town of about 70 people, and I literally got the LAST car leaving that town in the late afternoon. They dropped me off in a larger town with a camping area, and after having a few drinks and getting ready to grab a nap, I noticed the sky was starting to light up. I had no idea where to shoot, so I just started walking. About a mile later I found this little house along a lake and got some nice images that really remind me of that whole day. That photo really kind of became a good summation of how the whole trip worked out.
Is all of your work related to photography?
Almost 75% of it is directly related to the education side of the business. I have a teaching gig at a local high school teaching digital media – photography and other computer based creative projects. I also do a great deal of teaching photography workshops with the Aperture Academy, a photography education company I helped start about 7 years ago with my friend Stephen Oachs. I needed a job to help supplement my teaching income (still do) and because I love photography, and teaching this made the most sense. I find leading these workshops allows me to really immerse myself with people who are passionate about learning, and treat my knowledge and skill set in a way that really makes me feel great about teaching, and keeps my battery charged.
Have your photos been in national publications?
I’ve had work in a few photography magazines and corporate websites. That requires a lot of work that I’m not that great at, and as a result I don’t get many things in magazines. I’m horrible at marketing.
Tell me about some of your other workshops.
I teach a lot of 1-2 day workshops during the school year in places like San Francisco, Yosemite, Death Valley, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Big Sur, Bodie, Mono Lake and Mt. Shasta. During my longer breaks, I head abroad to other locations. I teach Iceland every summer, and next summer I’ll be teaching a class in Scotland before heading out to Spain and Portugal for a month to scout that region for future classes.
I’ve got a few ongoing ideas for book projects on local regions and always keep my eyes open for any opportunities I can to take my camera and head out to teach a class, or help a company tell a story with my pictures. I’d go anywhere that would have me, as long as I can get out and make a few nice photos along the way. I don’t need to be comfortable, or even clean for that matter.
Photos: Courtesy of Brian Rueb, via Facebook.