Monday, September 5, 2011

Travels With My Camera: A Dream In Iceland

Travels With My Camera: A Dream In Iceland

It all seemed like a dream. In 2004, I became friends with a group of musicians that worked at the Neighborhood Theatre, a music venue in Charlotte, NC. Their band, which they had named Mar, after the singer’s late mother, had an ethereal, yet emotional sound. They grabbed from different influences, but they took many cues from the Icelandic indie scene, bands such as Sigur Ros, and Mum.

In the fall of that year, both Mum and the Album Leaf (led by Jimmy Lavalle, an American musician that had played and recorded in Iceland) came to play the Neighborhood Theatre, and Mar opened both shows. Both Lavalle and the members of Mum liked Mar’s sound, and they hatched a plan. If Mar could raise enough money for recording, the band could come to Iceland, and Lavalle and two members of Mar would produce their record. They would even record in Sigur Ros’ famous recording studio. One only other American musician had ever recorded there, and that was Lavalle. “This album is going to need some photos,” the band said to me at one point. “Would you like to come along?” How could I say no to this almost unreal prospect?

I rode up to the airport with some of the bandmembers up to Baltimore-Washington airport on February 14, 2005. The driver was another friend of the band that was going to shoot a documentary on the recording sessions. He tried to talk right-wing politics the whole seven-hour drive. By the time we got on Icelandic Air, it was a relief. We flew into Keflavik, the only airport in Iceland, at 5am their time on February 15th. Between the darkness, and our sleep deprivation, it felt like we had arrived on the moon, with fleeting glimpses of the barren volcanic rock going by our car. 

The following two weeks were a blur of photos and anxious discovery. The money that was supposed to be there for recording turned out to be less than promised, and the band was told that they only had enough money for four days of recording. But someone knew a benefactor, and they amazingly wired a generous amount of money towards the completion of the album. Sigur Ros was delayed in finishing their new album, and their studio ws not available. However, they paid to have Mar record instead in a studio in Reykjavik, the country’s lone metropolis. This turned out to be a blessing, as it meant that I had the chance to explore the city during the sessions, instead of being stranded out in the desolate part of the country that Sigur Ros’ studio sits in.

I quickly figured out a way to work around the musicians. I would go in quickly, getting my photos in moments that fit best, and tried to stay out of the way as best I could, especially if recording got bogged down. I also saw the rest of the country on two days trips, taking in the sights of geysers, ocean views, and lakes that were created out of long-ago meteors. I arrived at the largest waterfall in Iceland, and discovered that the path was a narrow, icy path along the mouth of the falls. I originally was going to pass on going further, and I suddenly asked myself, “Daniel, when will you get the chance to do this again?” I sat down at the top of the path, and slowly slid to the tip of the falls, taking photos as I went.

Song by song, brick by brick, the album was finished and was being mixed by the time I flew back on February 28th. Mar then returned home, toured for a week with Jimmy Lavalle, and then broke up. Too young, too much, too soon? I don’t know. The singer moved to Alabama, and released the album himself via Myspace. Drawings filled the album’s artwork, instead of my photos. Thankfully, I had gotten a few quick pictures of Sigur Ros in their studio while helping Mar pick up gear. A few magazines ran these photos later that year, which helped to pay off the money I’d put into the trip. I put the remaining 60-plus rolls from the trip into a drawer in my office. By the time I pulled them out again, six years had passed.

I look at the photos now, and they all seem like a dream. I see the hope, and excitement, the thrill of rushed discovery. Do I wish that things had gone differently for Mar? Of course. But I do not regret the experience. We often see ourselves traveling in our dreams, exploring places that are unknown to us. Dreams are indeed just a state of mind, a momentary belief that what we see before us is real, and that all things all possible. When I see these photos, I am reminded of that hope, of Iceland, of the people, and that fleeting moment in my own journey. 

-Daniel Coston
April 12, 2011

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