By: Shannon Gallagher
John Vlahakis’ artwork acts as a vessel, transporting the viewer’s mind to the center of the dramatic landscapes depicted in his photographs. His goal is to capture movement in the composition, for the viewer to imagine the salty air blowing off the coast, the feel the magnitude of a mountainous terrain and moving glaciers, or to hear the sound of a rushing stream or river. He has traveled the world with his camera. In the upcoming Iceland Inspired show at ZIA Gallery, several of Vlahakis’ works that were taken in the country will be featured.
When asked what drew him to visit Iceland, he mentioned the notion of a ‘bucket list.’ “As a photographer, the allure of the extremes in light and dark was enticing,” he said. “The winters have only 2-4 hours of sun, while the summer can provide as many as 21 hours of light.” This contrasted light is especially prevalent in several of the black and white photos in this grouping. Vlahakis, who first learned black and white darkroom photography, has a fondness for the medium. “The excitement of seeing an image emerge from the development process is enthralling, so I’ve never given up on black and white. It provides a tonality that color cannot provide.” Perhaps his fascination with black and white also stems from his dreams as a youth. “One of my passions as a kid was the idea of being a photojournalist. I had fantasies of globetrotting to hot spots and winning a Pulitzer,” Vlahakis mentioned that as he gets older, he still ponders pursuing the dream. “That would be a great way to go out,” he said.
The photographer is not done checking off items on his bucket list. He has a very strong desire to visit the Falkland Islands, which are located in the South Atlantic Ocean. It is a group of islands that are in contention between England and Argentina. “There are very few people who live there,” Vlahakis explained. “There is a large bird population, including penguins, and many species use the islands as a migratory point.” Although he said that the landscape is perhaps harsher than Iceland’s and getting there is difficult, he believes it would make an interesting trip because it would allow him to shoot landscapes, and due to the political history of the region, it could lead to a black and white photojournalistic opportunity.
The first time Vlahakis visited Iceland, he immediately noticed a plethora of differences in the landscape of the Iceland versus the United States. “One thing that is immediately noticeable is the lack of trees. It is not all ice, as the name implies. There’s a lot of green there, but it’s not in the way of trees. The country has a remarkable topography, and the weather is in a constant state of flux, but it’s not the cold, forbidden place that it has the reputation of being.” The photographer was particularly drawn to the moving glaciers and volcanic activity (Iceland boasts one of the top three largest volcanoes in the world). “In some respects, the landscapes in Iceland are primeval- you can imagine what it looked like prior to man. Nature puts a force of power around the island; the waves crash, the climate changes. One minute it’s sunny and warm, then all of a sudden, there’s sleet, hail, snow- and that can all happen in fifteen minutes. Nature puts on an amazing show.”
Vlahakis is particularly excited to be showing some large scale pieces from his travels to Iceland. He credits the country with giving him confidence to pursue his images on a larger scale. These works are in an area of Iceland near a town called Vik. “The ocean shots, in particular, are outside of this town. There is a very rocky promenade, and the power of the waves is awe inspiring. It’s the kind of power in the sea that clearly makes you think, ‘Stand back.’”
Compositionally, Vlahakis spends a lot of time waiting for the right shot. “I look for motion. I don’t want to show everything in a state of stationary existence,” he said. He takes a lot of time evaluating the light and contrasts that he observes. “I’ll take different angles, walk around, come back to it, and visualize it in different perspectives, different lenses. I’ll decide if it justifies a wide angle or more of a cropped shot. The way I work isn’t technical, it’s more emotional. I see something that moves me and makes me want to photograph it.”
“I want the viewer to see it as more than a stationary snapshot. My aim is for the work to convey a broader sense of our existence. So from an aesthetic standpoint, I like to see, in my landscapes, a sense of life.” Life, which Vlahakis notes, is constantly evolving. “That’s something I want to evoke with my imagery, the change in life and the impact man has had on the landscape. I want to capture the raw power of nature transforming.”
A powerful drive in Vlahakis’ life is his fondness for the environment and his ongoing efforts to be kind to it. It is natural, then, that this passion for the earth compels his artistic vision. Initially, he thought of his landscape photography as something that adds to his blog writing http://www.earthyreport.com but has since evolved into a fine art, and a method for furthering his devotion to protecting the environment. “I’m trying to communicate the majesty that we sometimes take for granted. I want to remind people of the grandness that nature offers us, and I hope that my photography can inspire me and others to treasure these landscapes and protect them.” He notes that his reason for often working at a large scale is to allow the viewer to be immersed in the photo, to “see what I saw, and appreciate the natural wonders that we can (but don’t always) experience.”
In addition to the volcanoes, waterfalls, and lagoons that dot the country, Vlahakis enjoys many other aspects of Icelandic culture. He describes the Icelandic people as “warm, interesting people” and is fascinated by their architecture, cuisine, and folklore. Interestingly, elves are widely believed to be real within Icelandic culture. “People build what look like dollhouses in their backyards, which are meant to be homes for the elves as they travel. One mountain that stands alone, almost a large butte, surrounded by fencing, is the mountain where the queen of elves resides. The Icelandic government has a minister of elves and a department which needs to be consulted with prior to any construction project, in order avoid interrupting the lives of the elves,” he said. The entire country runs on geothermal power, gasoline is only imported for vehicles, and the water quality is excellent. Icelandic wild horses also roam freely throughout the country. “Of course, they’re looking for a handout, but they’re very friendly animals. They’re not afraid of people,” he said.
Vlahakis’ two visits to Iceland have been during colder months, once in February and once at the end of March. Although he would like to visit during the summer months, the advantage of shooting in winter is that the island is less populated with tourists during the winter. “Lack of humanity is something that I look to take out of these images. I need to visit in the summer, but I really dread going at the height of tourist season. One of the funny stories they tell you in Iceland is that when you pass another car on the road, you’ve just experienced your first Icelandic traffic jam. I love that aspect of visiting the country,” he stated. “I’ve found that personally, when I’m out shooting alone in a wilderness, a few things happen. Beyond the serenity of the moment is this amazing recognition that the world’s problems have disappeared, I’m in the moment, and I’m not thinking of anything other than what I’m experiencing. Sometimes that can be nothing- it’s a thickness in the air that you have to experience to understand. You realize how insignificant you are when you look out and see nothing but endless landscape and wildlife. You’re there for the moment, surrounded, a small passing in this earth’s life, and it puts things very much into perspective.”
Several of John Vlahakis’ works will be on display in the Iceland Inspired show at ZIA Gallery, opening on Saturday, March 22nd from 5-7 pm.