Many of the greatest visual artists in history have gone through prolonged moments of inspiration. Picasso had his “Blue Period.” And similarly, Chris Burkard, one of the most acclaimed surf and adventure photographers ever, has his “Icelandic glacial rivers” period.
For seven years now, Burkard, who also happens to be an amazingly nice guy, has been compelled to photograph Iceland’s drainages from the sky – which, from a bird’s vantage, have an abstract quality as they weave from ice to the sea, producing captivating hues. Flipping through Burkard’s latest book, you’d swear the images on the page were paintings or at least photoshopped in some way. Spoiler: they’re not.
More importantly, Burkard and his co-author, Matt McDonald, have a noble aim with their new tome, At Glacier’s End, that goes beyond beautifying your coffee table: first, pull you in with the beauty of these wild spaces, then promote ongoing local efforts to preserve them. As it happens, many are dammed to provide power for aluminum plants.
For more context on the project, we reached out to Burkard and McDonald to give us the scoop.
You’ve traveled to Iceland quite a few times at this point. Can you tell us about your first time there and how the place left a lasting impression on you?
Burkard: The first time was one to remember. We camped along the frozen shoreline in early spring and found what felt like a never-ending supply of new waves. The thing I will never forget was looking up at the Northern Lights while sleeping on a volcanic sand beach with no tent. I didn’t even know how to shoot them at the time. I just sat there in full amazement. Dumbfounded. I knew in this moment I would be back… many times.
When did you first get a glimpse of Iceland’s glacial rivers from above and when did the idea for a book devoted to that imagery crystallize for you?
Burkard: Having been to Iceland over 40 times over a decade, it was about halfway through that that I got a sneak peek of them out the window of a plane during a flight from Ireland to Iceland. I had no clue what I was looking at and just sat in full amazement at the beautiful patterns. I vowed that I would try and photograph these crazy river patterns and it sent me on a seven-year journey to document, understand, and advocate for them through photography, speaking, and making this book.
The book isn’t just about showing the natural beauty of Iceland’s glacial rivers, but also about giving them a voice and promoting an ongoing conservation movement. What, in your mind, are some of the lessons we all can learn from Iceland here and the need to preserve other wild places around the world?
McDonald: I think what’s so interesting about Iceland is that it’s a microcosm of the problem of humans trying to co-exist with their natural environments. Iceland is small and its culture is based on an ethos of respecting nature. So, while it has been exploited by heavy industry, the dominant emerging power is of conservation. It looks like the National Park there will succeed. So, following their lesson, and doing the best we all can to push forward projects – big or small – that stand up for the places we love and want to save. It’s easy to paint a picture of hopelessness for environmental causes these days, but Iceland has very much shown us there is hope to make lasting change.