On photographing saga sites

The idea of site can be powerful. It implies more than a place, which can simply exist without context. A site is more specific. It relates to something external that has acted on that location therefore adding to the meaning of a place.

Making meaning visible is part of what photographers seek to do. In 1996, photographer Joel Sternfeld released a collection of landscape photographs, which he made at various locations in the US where crimes had been committed. On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam explores the banality of the settings where these illicit events occurred, but it also shows how landscape imagery has the power to engage the viewer in an act of contemplation. In this case, the audience is given the opportunity to imagine what may have happened there. Sternfeld includes text with this project, offering details of such events and providing a certain amount of context for the photographs, yet it doesn’t compromise the artistic approach of his work. His series reminds me of what I am trying to point to and what other photographers have already done in regards to saga sites: storytelling through landscape.

On this blog, I have posted photos of Drangey Island, where outlaw Grettir the Strong made his last stand, and Thingvellir, Iceland’s national assembly site, where several court dramas transpire throughout the sagas. But personally, my favorite saga site so far is Berserkjahraun (Berserker’s lava field). In the Eyrbyggja Saga, two Swedish Berserkers, insanely violent characters that could psyche themselves up for battle, are set to an impossible task by a farmer: to clear a passage through a lava field in exchange for the farmer’s daughter’s hand. Once the Berserkers succeed, the farmer who never intended to give up his daughter, murders the Berserkers by trapping them in a scorching sauna and slays them as they try to escape.

Though I have no idea where the sauna scene actually took place, I can still imagine two crazed men, blazing a trail through this lava field. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

For the photographer, artist or researcher, the idea may not be just about recording images of these sites and re-telling stories, but the experience of visiting them personally. In the summer 1897, British artist W.G. Collingwood traveled throughout Iceland on horseback, making drawings, paintings and photographs, which he later published as an illustrated account of his expedition. Between 2007 and 2009, at the same time I was photographing at L’anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Icelandic photographer Einar Falur Ingólfsson produced his series Saga-Sites, for which he followed in Collingwood’s footsteps, documenting saga sites with a view camera. And in 2011, the same year I first visited saga sites in Iceland, a 33-year old PhD student named Emily Lethbridge set out on her own pilgrimage to read each saga on location.

Photograph by Einar Falur Ingolfsson. Saga-Steads In the Footsteps of W.G. Collingwood, a photographic project (2007 – 2010).

So why bother to explore a subject that has been covered by others who have done it so well? Because each of us presents different perspectives on the notions of ‘being there’. In a short documentary on Einar Falur Ingólfsson’s saga project, he claims that he is trying to capture reality in an objective way, saying that a photographer should be there to observe and not force himself into the plot. In the meantime, I will continue to question how my presence at these places adds to the history of the site.

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On the idea of north

It is the last day of September and as I begin to travel back south, away from the Lofoten Islands and the Arctic Circle, I am scarcely conscious that I have indeed spent the last 8 days this far north. The temperature is balmy 8 º Celsius and has hovered around this point, day and night for almost the entire time I have been here. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the coast of Norway, even at 68º North, can barely be described as arctic. The leaves have turned yellow and orange but have not yet fallen and much of the grass remains a lush green. Despite the sublime setting, the islands and the rest of Nordland are hardly remote or inaccessible. I reached Lofoten by train and bus and will be leaving by boat and airplane. A nicely paved road connects the archipelago and extends to the very tip of Lofoten to a town simply named Å. After a few days I traded in my rental car for a bicycle, exploring the islands as a much slower pace.

When the largest Viking Age homestead was found in Lofoten in 1983, the archeological world was stunned, not only by the discovery of such a large home measuring 83 meters long, but by the fact that a politically and historically powerful household was being unearthed in the polar region. Like many other places in the northern world, Nordland had long been dismissed as a less important part of the country and so consequently this find gave new meaning to historical status of the area.

Borg seen from a distance. The Viking-age longhouse is located on a hilltop near the modern Borg church, overlooking a tranquil lake connected to the sea. Photo by Jessica Auer.

No one should be surprised that the landscape would have attracted a large and influential number of Vikings to the area. The deep fjords are the result of the past presence of enormous glaciers, which carved out the land that characterizes much of the North Atlantic. Of course the Vikings are not only linked to the north by their ability to travel throughout the fjords and across the sea but also their hearty nature and capacity to survive the cold winters in their turf-insulated houses.

A reconstruction of the longhouse has been built next to the museum in Borg. The turf siding is typical of most Viking-age steadings but the impressive wooden roof shingles are representative of Norwegian architecture, mostly seen on middle-age churches. Photo by Jessica Auer.

I mainly photographed the site at Borg where the large Viking Age homestead was excavated, as well as a presumed court site with the remains of several iron-age boathouses. However, most of the vestiges of the Viking age remain hidden under the ground and many grave fields are located further out on smaller remote islands. One has only read the landscape and make use of their imagination to figure out where these people once settled and traveled to. Archeologists and scholars believe that the Viking chieftain, who eventually abandoned his farm at Borg, moved west to Iceland, most likely to seek greater independence from the Kingdom of Norway. In my amateur opinion, I do not believe the ‘Lofotrs’ left to seek out better lands.

One of the more sublime-looking fjords in Lofoten, near the village of Reine. Photo by Jessica Auer.

On Gotland and cultural identity

I visited Gotland for the first time last year, when I ended my Scandinavian tour with an artist talk hosted by the Brucebo Foundation, the residency that sponsored my travel research. It was kind of them to welcome me again this year for another week of shooting throughout the island. My particular focus on Gotland may be strange considering my intention to follow the westward Viking routes. Sweden and more particularly, Gotland, are countries that face east and therefore have stronger links with Russia and even the Arabic world. But my story must begin somewhere, and Gotland has the highest concentration of pre-historic and Viking-age ruins throughout Scandinavia. Not to mention the world-renowned Gotlandic light, which has attracted artists to the island for centuries.

The Canadian cottage on the Brucebo estate in Gotland, Sweden (bathing in late-evening Gotlandic light). Photo by Jessica Auer.

Another aspect of Gotland that I find very attractive is its cultural identity and history of independence. Although Gotland is part of Sweden, the island was not subject to Sweden throughout the Viking age and earlier. Like Iceland, Gotland was not ruled by kings, but by the people themselves, whereby law and order was managed through Thing assemblies. This philosophy is still strong today. During a dinner meeting in Visby with a Norwegian writer, I asked him what it was like to be a Norwegian living in Sweden. He responded that Gotland is not really Sweden and that when Gotlanders travel to the mainland, they claim that they are going to Sweden.

Själsö fishing village on the west coast of Gotland. Gotland is located in the Baltic sea, just east of the rest of Sweden. Photo by Jessica Auer.

All the friends and contacts that I have made in Gotland are not native to the island. My archeologist friend Dan Carlsson has been living in Gotland for 30 years and has an extensive and intimate knowledge of the geography and history of the place yet acknowledges he is not a true Gotlander. This reminds me of Lucy Lippard’s book “The Lure of the Local”, where her focus on maritime New England proposes that some cultures are extremely protective of their identity. As an outsider ‘fitting in’ may seem impossible, yet I enjoy the exceptional parallel between the preservation of historical sites and of the island’s cultural identity.

A burial cairn found in the forest near Fjäle in Gotland. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Of islands and open sea

The open sea confronts us. It is ultimately the one place that we cannot dominate. We are as much at its mercy today, as we may have been during the time of the Vikings. But when we look out towards the sea, our imagination sparks fantastic questions. How far away is that horizon, is there anything past it and how can we go there?

The open sea taken from the high coastline of the Faroe Islands. Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer

Islands are an oasis. They conserve nature and culture.  We can intimately explore them, but we must be prudent as they are fragile ecosystems. An island in the open sea is a sanctuary, but don’t be fooled by its protection. Trust me, I’ve been to the Faroe Islands, host to some of the worst weather in the world.

I waited five days for the rain and fog to clear before I could make my first successful photograph. On Mikanes. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

The Faroes were used during Viking times as a staging point between Norway and Iceland. Located approximately 650 kms from the coast of Norway and 700 kms from Iceland, these islands are still used today as a stopover on the Smyril ferry line from Denmark to Iceland.

Many Vikings did settle here. The lush green coasts and sublime beauty will give you a hint as to why. The smallest capital city in the world, Tórshavn is still home to a parliament that was established during the Viking Age. On the rocks of Tinganes (Parliament Jetty) I found a Viking Age carving in a rock – a compass rose.

A rainy day find. A sundial or compass rose carved into the rock and dated 1569. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

The hostile weather was barely of consequence to the Vikings, who knew how to navigate in these waters with their karves and knarrs, different types of ships built for travelling locally among islands and fjords or overseas.

The fjord on the left of this image is essentially a Viking highway. Taken from Streymoy in the Faroe Islands. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Viking-age burial sites and pre-historic art

There is something magical about pre-historic sites. Perhaps it is the mystery behind these enigmatic locales, the collapsing of time one feels while visiting, or the atmospheric settings themselves. But something exciting and indefinable happens when you step into these time capsules, especially when you are all alone.

Lilla Bjärs cemetery in Gotland, Sweden. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer

There is no need to visit Stonehenge among a hoard of other tourists, or view the Nasca lines from a roaring aircraft. Just go to a Viking-age burial ground.

A favorite among my subjects, these sites are great for shooting with a large format camera. It is as though the grass and stones are simply waiting there for me.  They are one of the most patient subjects on earth.

Trullhausar cemetery in Gotland, Sweden. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

However I cannot help but consider my photographs as merely documentation of already existing artwork. Though these sites had a practical function, there was an art to sending off the dead. The Vikings practiced a variety of burial customs: burial mounds, ship burials, rock mounds, cremation rings, and standing or rune stones to commemorate those lost at sea.

A cremation ring at Lindholm Høje cemetery near Aalborg in Denmark. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

It is no wonder that prehistoric art has inspired many contemporary sculptors and land artists. Nevertheless, what does it mean to resurrect these monuments within a contemporary framework? I hope to delve into this question while reading Lucy Lippard’s book Overlay: Contemporary art and the Art of Prehistory. More on this at a later time.

The Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. An Earthwork created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970. I traveled there to make this photograph in 2004. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

From the homeland to new(found)land

The subject of westward exploration and colonization has interested me for as long as I have been working with landscape. In America, photography and the settlement of the West of have been long connected, as the medium was born during a time when documenting the landscape was of utmost significance.

One of my goals with this project is to retrace the steps of Norse explorers from their homeland to the New World, passing through Greenland and into Newfoundland and Labrador. The Viking homeland consists of the Scandinavian countries we know today as Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Typically, Viking explorers and merchants based in Sweden would travel east into Russia and down to Constantinople. As Norway faces west toward the open sea, these Vikings tended to travel west, towards England, Ireland, the Hebrides and Iceland. It is these lands to the north and west that Norse explorers are said to have colonized, settled, or even discovered (from a European perspective).

Map showing the westward voyages of Viking-age explorers. Islands such as the Shetlands, Orkneys, Faroes, Iceland and Greenland formed stepping-stones from which seafarers could travel. Map borrowed from an on-line source.

As a Canadian, I feel connected to their Westward travel routes as the Norse can be credited for being the first Europeans to discover and attempt settlement in the New World circa the year 1000, unlike previously documented history, which attributes that claim to Columbus in 1492. It is hard to believe that it was only in 1960, when a Viking-age cloak pin was unearthed at L’Anse aux Meadows that history was re-written.

More than a few circumstances made the discovery of the New World by the Norse a possibility. Combine the craftsmanship of Viking longships with political unrest in Norway, and a cultural resilience to the northern climate with a huge dose of chance, and voilà! Long story short, a Viking ship on-route to Greenland is blown off course and discovers new land.

The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway.  For more on Viking ships, see the Vikingeskibsmuseet in Roskilde, Denmark. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Of course, I can’t take my journey along these routes too literally. First of all, I am travelling mostly by plane and car. When I did travel by boat from Greenland and down the coat of Labrador, I was overcome with seasickness, making the seafarer’s reality that much more vivid. I am also visiting areas of the Nordic landscape in parcels, and not necessarily from East to West. In fact, my story began in Newfoundland, when I produced the series titled Unmarked Sites.

“Most Easterly Point” from the series Unmarked Sites by Jessica Auer.

The Sagas: part documentary and part fiction

Written accounts of life during the Viking era are presented in a collection of literary works known as Sagas. The Icelandic or Family Sagas are the chronicles that recount the settlement of Iceland and the voyages that eventually lead to the chance discovery of North America by Europeans. These sagas, which were written in the 13th Century, were first conveyed orally and then transcribed approximately two hundred years after they took place.

The Icelandic word ‘saga’ means both ‘history’ and ‘story’ – hinting at the documentary nature of the people and events from these narratives. But they are also works of fiction that include the author’s own style, exaggerations and interpretations.

Regardless, the sagas do convey a remembered history. They have been crucial to understanding the social and political structure of Viking life, and have provided archeologists with the essential clues (and inspiration!) to begin their excavations, including the excavation of the site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada (by Anne Stein and Helge Ingstad.) Moreover, the sagas helped to establish Iceland’s identity as a nation, one that is inextricably linked with landscape.

Norse site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Here are a few observations on the style of these stories in question. They are presented in an explicitly defined historical setting and sometimes provide an accurate geographical reference. The sagas are formulaic in language and structure. Written in a style that is stark, factual and vivid in detail, they present a coherent narrative. However, they are perplexing with their presentation of a timeline and often include descriptions of supernatural processes. Therefore the sagas present historians with the difficulty of accepting them as historical documents.

After all one must consider the subjectivity of their authorship.

Replica of a late Viking-age chapel. Experimental archeology uses replica construction as a form of educated guesswork, which demands a certain level of interpretation. Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Since it’s inception, photography has been considered documentary evidence. Photographs situate people in certain places and at specific events. By examining the evolution of the medium, we are able to date photographs, understanding changes to topography and architecture and tracing trends in fashion, economy and social life. Stylistically, documentary photography clearly identifies its subject, is usually quite detailed, and often accompanied by a title or caption that provides additional information. Up until the digital age, photography has been accepted as one of the most accurate mediums to represent the world. Yet even before the digital revolution, one had to question the subjectivity of the photographer. If the sagas contain everything from misinterpretation to outright fiction, so do photographs. It’s a matter of subjective authorship.

It is the ambiguity between actual history and the way it is told that interests me most and with this in mind, I hope to create a project that blends the fascinating aspects of documentary photography with the poetic nature of personal work.

A stone carving that I stumbled upon in the Highlands of Iceland. Viking-age art perhaps? Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.