It’s not that I don’t like vacations. It’s that I don’t like the sort of vacations normal people like.
Normal people like to fly somewhere far away. So far away that the destination qualifies as exotic. So far away that one full day is forfeited to the act of traveling there, and a second is lost to jet lag recovery. Normal people, once acclimated to their destination, have a mere four days to experience whatever it is they hope to experience before losing two additional days to the return journey.
Normal people believe it would be an act of sacrilege to pay so much and travel so far without seeing everything they bookmarked in the guide book. So normal people fill their days with numerous pre-fab excursions — thus achieving freedom from the pressures of interpreting road signs, or figuring out which combination of indecipherable coinage constitutes “exact change” for toll road passages.
Normal people, having willingly traded all autonomy for the privilege of letting others do their thinking, are rarely given more than 20 minutes at any one tourist destination. That’s just enough time to file off the bus, walk up a hill, snap a few photos identical to those snapped by 50,000 other tourists that day, then file back onto the bus for the drive to the next destination.
None of this is anything I particularly enjoy. I prefer to absorb a place rather than simply gaze at it — an experience unlikely to be achieved in a mere 20 minutes, nor within a 100 meter radius of the parking lot.
When vacationing, all I want is to wander aimlessly, get purposely lost, and really experience my locale — the way it actually is, and not the version presented by the local tourism board. My fondest vacation memories tend to be those trips on which I’ve failed to visit a single tourist mecca.
This past winter, I vacationed in Iceland — a place where normal people don’t usually go in the winter. But destination and season not withstanding, my Iceland trip still contained a heaping helping of normalcy: tour buses, museums, architectural sites and regional activities all found their way into my four day sojourn in Reykjavik.
Normal people consider such vacations to be ideal photo opportunities. For some, it’s a chance to point their cameras at something other than themselves. For others, it’s a chance to place something more compelling in the background of their latest selfies.
But for me, such tourism is like a forced exile from photography. Pre-chewed, pre-sanctioned and pre-vetted photo sites are the antithesis of my own photographic tendencies. Each time I point my camera at one of these spots, a piece of my soul gets taken away. But being a photographer means that friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances expect me to take these photos. Even worse, they expect me to enjoy taking them. Obviously none of these folks are ULTRAsomething readers — or they would know I’d much rather photograph just about anything else.
To prevent myself from stumbling into a quagmire of photographic depression while dutifully photographing every hackneyed scene, I decided to counter each expected photographic maneuver with the unexpected; to muddle that which was clear; to yin every yang.
The most obvious yang to be yin’d was the witless snapping of vapid tourism shots. So every time I took a photo in the expected direction, I would turn and search for photo opportunities that might lie in the opposite direction.
The second most obvious yang to yin concerned photographic fidelity. Travel shots are expected to be vivid and colorful. So I brought along a sack of B&W Tri-X film and my Hasselblad Xpan to counter those expectations. But then, travel shots are also supposed to be sharp and dramatic, so I also brought the Olympus Pen EE–2 — a half-frame, fixed-lens, early–1960’s point-and-shoot film camera (a.k.a. “The Are-Bure-Boke-Matic”). It’s pocketable, impervious to the extremes of an Icelandic winter, and it’s pretty much incapable of rendering anything sharply or dramatically.
My plan worked perfectly. Unlike most vacations, in which I arrive home without a single soul-satisfying shot to commemorate it, I managed to escape Reykjavik with several shots that I actually liked. Not surprisingly, the majority of these were taken with either the Xpan or the Are-Bure-Boke-Matic, and with an idiosyncratic eye that’s firmly at odds with what normal people would consider “proper” travel photography.
Unfortunately, my collection of Reykjavik photos likely means I’ll fail to find any “takers” should I decide to lead a photographic workshop in Iceland. Which, strange as it sounds, is actually a workshop I’d quite like to host. Iceland is a truly beautiful country. It’s a place where a devout, anti-landscape photographer could find himself converting. But such religion is not to be found in the heavily photographed tourist sites. Instead, it’s within all the little things: a fence post; a gravel road; a sudden white out. All are things I witnessed from inside a small tourism van. And all are things I would have preferred to photograph instead of the eventual destination. It makes me want to go back and hire my own driver, who I will force to pull off the road at what, to most, would appear to be the most pedestrian of places.
An Iceland workshop for ULTRAsomething readers. Did Iceland’s gale force winds blow away too many of my brain cells, or is this something people would be interested in?
Part 2 of this article will switch direction, and discuss a topic more appealing to most readers: photo gear. Specifically, I’ll discuss my decision to pack some of the world’s most normal photographic equipment on my Iceland trip — discounting the Xpan and the Pen EE–2, of course.
©2015 grEGORy simpson
Not surprisingly, given this article’s directive, all the accompanying photos were taken on film — definitely not what normal people would do in 2015.
The first two photos in the article are a perfect example of “yinning the yang.” “Through the 5 O’Clock Slot, Hallgrímskirkja” is a shot of Reykjavik from the top of the stunning, expressionist Hallgrímskirkja church — the tallest building in Reykjavik. A popular tourist destination, one ascends an elevator to the top of its clock tower, leans out a little opening and snaps a shot of the city. Rather than taking great care not to include any of my surroundings in this shot, I chose to frame Reykjavik within the actual context of the clock tower itself. Grainy, blurry goodness compliments of having shot it with my Olympus Pen EE-2 half-frame camera, using Tri-X at ISO 400, which I developed in HC-110 (dilution H). “Downtown Reykjavik” is exactly the sort of shot a normal person would take from the clock tower — assuming said normal person was shooting a Hasselblad Xpan, fronted with a 45mm f/4 lens and loaded with Tri-X, which they exposed at ISO 400 and developed in their kitchen using a solution of Kodak HC-110 (dilution H).
“Traffic Jam, Iceland” was taken on the drive to our first “official” stop on a tour of Iceland’s southern shore. To me, this shot feels more indicative of the journey than anything I shot at one of the tourist destinations. As with all my Hasselblad Xpan shots, it used the 45mm f/4 lens (the only Xpan lens I brought to Iceland), and was exposed on Tri-X (the only film I brought to Iceland) at ISO 400 (the only film speed I shot in Iceland). Like all the Iceland photos, it was developed in HC-110 (dilution H).
“Leifur Eiriksson, Reykjavik” is, by far, my favourite shot from Iceland. Perhaps that’s because it’s the sort of shot you don’t have to travel to Iceland to take — meaning it’s purely a product of my own predilection. It was taken in front of the Hallgrímskirkja. While everyone was struggling with how to photograph such a tall building, I was gobsmacked to be the only one bothering to photograph this particular scene! It’s not panoramic, so you know it was shot with the half-frame Pen EE-2. Tri-X. ISO 400. HC-110 (H).
“Church, Hvolsvöllur Iceland” What can I say? You spend enough time in Iceland, you get a bit overly sentimental. Sorry about that. Xpan. 45mm f/4 lens. Tri-X at ISO 400. HC-110 (H).
“Implied Blue” was shot at the Blue Lagoon — the one place I swore that no one could pay me to visit. Turns out no one did pay me. I paid them. If I would have seen more shots like this one, I might have been more inclined to actually want to go. Pen EE-2. Tri-X. ISO 400. HC-110 (H).
“Roadside, Southern Iceland” is exactly the sort of scene that reveals itself continuously while you’re busy driving to someplace else. Frankly, I could spend hours just walking along the roadside, looking at the invisible sites, like this one. Xpan. 45mm f/4 lens. Tri-X at ISO 400. HC-110 (H).
“Driveway, Reykjavik” is, quite obviously, the yin to the previous photo’s yang. Rather than driving 100km for this photo, I simply walked outside the hotel and photographed its driveway. Pen EE-2. Tri-X. ISO 400. HC-110 (H).
By the way, if you experienced a profound sense of déjà vu while reading this article, there’s a very good reason: It’s not the first time I’ve discussed this very topic. Vacate Shun, written way back in 2010, touches on exactly these same travel-related photography issues — proving that I haven’t evolved one iota (and also that I don’t take vacations very frequently).
If you find these photos enjoyable or the articles beneficial, please consider making a DONATION to this site’s continuing evolution. As you’ve likely realized, ULTRAsomething is not an aggregator site — serious time and effort go into developing the original content contained within these virtual walls.