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Calico Hills — An Interpretation

January 19, 2013

This coming July, I eagerly anticipate co-leading a small group of photographers to amazing locations in one of the most magical places I’ve ever experienced — Iceland. Markéta Kalvachová and I will team up with a group of 8 tour participants, and we will experience 10 days of summer light. And quite the light it will be — at that time of year we’re talking about roughly 19 hours of sunlight per day, and then several hours of sweet twilight conditions. If you’d like to experience some of the most fantastic photography locations anywhere, bring your camera and join our tour. But come well rested. 🙂 Spaces are still available; see my tour announcement post for details.

People who know that I went to Icelend in June 2012, or that I’m planning to return this coming July, have been asking where my own Iceland images are. The answer is, sitting safe & sound on my hard drives, where they’ve been since I got back from the trip last year. 🙂 I’ve been so snowed under with other projects that I’ve not made much more than a dent in the basic cataloging of the roughly 10,000 frames I took on the trip, let alone developed the best of what I photographed. I even had to skip out on participating in the Iceland e-book produced by fellow traveler Stephen DesR0ches, of the oopoomoo team whose Samantha Chrysanthou and Darwin Wiggett organized the group.

But the snowpack of overload is thawing, however slowly, and recently I’ve begun to chip away at the mass of Iceland imagery waiting for me. There’s a lot of work in there that I really want to get into! I posted my first take from the trip a few weeks ago — see some crazy clouds and wind-blown lupins over at

Today I’m showing two different renditions of the next image I’ve developed from the Iceland set — I call it Calico Hills.

Calico Hills, Landmannalaugar, Iceland

Calico Hills, Landmannalaugar, Iceland — color

Calico Hills, Landmannalaugar

Calico Hills, Landmannalaugar — monochrome

I appended the title of this post with “An Interpretation”, for several reasons. First & foremost, it’s because for me photography is not just about documenting objective reality. Rather, it’s about presenting my interpretation of reality. That’s why I place myself on the “art” end of the photography spectrum, not on the journalism end. In this case, the colorful rhyolite hills in the Landmannalaugar region of southern Iceland are a popular and much-photographed location. I’d seen many photographs from this place and knew it would be a fun and visually compelling stop on our trip. But I also knew it would be challenging to photograph it in some way that represented my own take on the place, rather than just show images that said little more than “I went there and this is what it looked like”. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but it’s not at all the primary reason why I make photographs.

While on location, I started my interpretation by experimenting with various compositions — horizontal and vertical, wide angle focal length or telephoto. I shot from farther away, and close up. I tried including a foreground view of the lava field on which I’m standing, or removing it as shown here. I made photographs at the beginning of our stop when the sky was clear blue, and again before we left when clouds had begun rolling in. Most of those frames are still sitting on my hard drives, and a few of the others may yet see the light of day. But this is the one I started with.

I picked it because of my second reason for calling this post an interpretation. One of the impressions I came away with, having stood in this place, looking at and experiencing it wrapping around me for 360 degrees, was that the multi-colored warm earth tones were incredibly inviting, and that the soft rolling flanks of the hills had a different character than the more rugged volcanic terrain of much of the other places we visited. I developed an understanding that all of Iceland is a dynamic place because of the incredible effects of its weather, volcanic activity, geothermal features, and so on… but to me these hills seemed more organic somehow. More intimate and alive, not so much outgrowths of massive effects of geology and time that dwarfed our human experience.

When I started reviewing image files, this impression remained, and I decided I wanted to emphasize that organic, living feel. As I started dialing in on some of the telephoto compositions that extracted just a portion of the scene, an image came into my head of a calico pony. Not because this scene specifically looks like an image of a horse; it was more a subjective leap due to the flowing, graceful lines and the mix of white snow and darker colors of the hillsides. Even the fact that I used the word “flanks” in my description of the place made me think of horses.

Mentally cross-wiring the idea of a calico pony resting on some arctic tundra with the reality of the volcanic mountains in the scene is an example of what my friend Colleen Miniuk-Sperry calls “conceptual blending” — pulling an idea from one context, and mixing it into a different context in a way that triggers the imagination. Successfully pulling this off creates layers of interpretation about what is shown, going beyond the literal facts of the subject. I had conceptual blending in mind because it was one of Colleen’s topics in a joint presentation we did in July of last year, about telling stories through photographs. Upon reviewing my images now, I find this concept is giving me some interesting ideas. When I posted this pair of Landmannalaugar images to recently, one of the early viewers commented “Beautiful scenery! It’s like a brown arctic animal with white spots on it lying on the ground!” This was based on nothing more than the image and the title “Calico Hills”. Exactly! See, it works! 🙂

The final reason I wanted to mention interpretation is that I’ve been doing a lot of black & white work lately. I do like the color rendition of this scene a lot, but the monochrome version works very well for me, too. For the most part I’m drawn to warm-toned B&W, a sort of classic sepia look. Partly it’s a nod to vintage film photography, and partly it’s just that I personally respond more to warm tones… I like the emotional under-tone that warmth adds to a lot of my work. It fit well in this case because the natural coloring of the terrain here is a spectrum of earth tones. Even though I wanted to go monochrome to emphasize the structure of this scene and the dark & light tones, I didn’t want to completely neutralize the sense of warm glowing browns, reds and yellows. A warm B&W interpretation gives me my cake and lets me bite into it, too.

So there you have it: “Calico Hills — An Interpretation”. If you’d like to take your own shot at interpreting some iconic Iceland locations, why not join our group in July? Even if the tour isn’t your cup of tea, keep thinking about how to add interpretation to photographs through techniques like compositional choices, conceptual blending, and toning. Interpretation is a key component of creativity.

What’s your take on interpretation — do you look to see it or place it in photography, or are you expecting “just the facts”? Do you see a calico creature here, or something else? Does color or monochrome speak better to the scene for you?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. David (yes but what IS art?) permalink
    January 20, 2013 07:43

    I find it interesting how the B&W “flattens” the image, making it even more two dimensional. The colour photo at least hints at the potential of depth – one can imagine walking through the gaps between the hills. The B&W actually looks to me like a B&W photo of a painting – two dimensional picture of a two dimensional rendering of a view.

    • January 20, 2013 21:15

      Yes, you’re right. A side effect of the monochrome treatment was a bit of flattening to the depth of the image. I like to live with certain images for awhile, and potentially adjust my treatment of them over time. This type of characteristic is something I might revisit as I think about what the image shows, or seems to show, vs. what I experienced or what I want to portray…

  2. January 20, 2013 09:49

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts behind this image and the choices involved Royce. For me, it also works both ways as color and B&W (I am also a fan of warm toned B&W). It would be extremely difficult for me to pick which I like best. It is a beautiful landscape, I can certainly see why you paused to develop this one.

    • January 20, 2013 21:17

      Thanks Mark! I’ve been reading Ansel Adams’ “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs” again recently. It influences my image-making… and also my blogging to some extent. 🙂

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