Behind The Mountains (Fjallaland)

Last year, Ragnar Axelsson released his 3rd photographic book. I was lucky enough to pick up one of the first copies while in Iceland running my yearly September trip there.

I'm a big fan of RAX's work (as he prefers to be called). To my eyes, he is more a photo-journalist than a traditional landscaper - someone who is more interested in the people and their mark on the places they inhabit. I love many types of photography - not just landscape, and RAX's work is interesting because of his reportage style, his use of black and white, and of course, his deep connection with the subjects he chooses to photograph.

This new book has been given two titles. In his native Icelandic it is simply known as Fjallaland, because it is about a very special region of Iceland - the Fjallaback nature reserve. The english title for this book is 'Behind the mountains', because I think it would have been hard to market a book about a relatively unknown, specific region of Iceland outside of the country. The title I might add, is very appropriate, because this book observes the farmers on their yearly roundups, gathering sheep, in one of the most difficult but also magnificent grazing terrains of the Icelandic wilderness.

I loved how this book begins. Instead of being immediately greeted with the signature style of RAX's black and white 'fly on the wall' reportage photography, we are instead prompted to look at the Fjallabak region from space. There are a number of very high quality, satellite images of the region, showing the complexity and composition of the land here. Fjallabak exhibits a range of colours from greens to reds to yellows. This is because the land is made up up Ryolite, Obsidian as well as volcanoes, rivers, sands and lakes.

As we continue to delve further into the book, the images change to ariel views of the Fjallaback region. More of a birds-eye impression that shows us how large these mountains and their valleys are. This slow zoom-in from space to the region where the farmers work is an effective introduction to the book. I liked this very much as I felt the stage was being set for RAX's photographs of the farmers working in this remote landscape.

So what of the subject matter of this book? Well, it's really an essay of images, garnered over a span of several decades about the yearly sheep rounding the farmers do up in the hills. For many of them, it is a special occasion and one not to be missed.

My own impressions of this book was that it is RAX's best to date. Whereas his other two titles were broad in their scope of subject matter - be it faces of the north, or looking at the problems faced by the Inuit of the arctic, this book is more tightly focussed on one region of Iceland. It's clear to me that this is a work of passion and love. RAX has a deep connection with his subjects and is on personal terms with many of them. He has been part of this yearly round up for quite some time, and the images convey this very strongly. I also felt that because the subject matter was more specific than his previous work, that so too were his images and his essays.

If you have an interest in reportage photography, or an interest in the life of people in Iceland, or even like me, if you just feel you have an affinity for the place, then this book should be on your bookshelf. RAX's text is often brief, but when he does speak to us, we learn a lot about Icelanders and how they view life, and how they think and feel about their own little back-yard.

If you wish to see more images from the book, they are on RAX's site here.

Behind the Mountain is available in the UK at most book stores, or online, but if you wish to own a signed copy, I believe Neil at Beyond Words book store has a limited number of copies available.