Rossella Nisio

Estranged in Iceland

I’ve always felt a deep kinship with the character of Cosimo Piovasco in Calvino’s novel, Il Barone Rampante; as a born escapist, my selfish ideal was to find a tree to climb never to descend again. When I moved to Iceland in the midst of its financial crisis, I was eager to make it my tree and live forever in the caressing murmurs of its chill waters. At first it was pure bliss: I’ve never experienced such a perfect elation and fondness for any other place and probably never will.

With the post-crisis tourism boom, a gulf opened up: now that everybody was taking flashy pictures of waterfalls and rainbows over lava fields, I started to feel that the colorless melancholy of opaque windows, eroded boulders and seaweed suited me better. I was still trying to grasp at the essence of a territory whose ineffable nature was being assessed with cynical eye by its own inhabitants willing to sell the paradigm of perfect retreat for the cool and the well-behaved. My Iceland however was not cool and well-behaved; on the contrary, it was hushed, untamed and unapproachable. It defied the reassuring human need for acknowledgment, a need destined to remain a fleeting fragment at the mercy of the tremendous power of the elements and dissolving in forlorn light. The country I was experiencing was totally different from the one local and international media were so desperate to put on display. I started to feel stranded on unreal shores, thus growing more and more alien to my surroundings.

These photos were taken over a long period of time in different locations all over the country, although the majority was shot in the Reykjavik area. They are affectionate and schismatic mementos of an indistinct and tearing longing for a frontier on the verge of disappearing, swallowed by the growing appetites of a nation frantically looking for international attention, devoted to promoting and selling its distinctive features through loud headlines more than to protecting and enshrining them.

Before moving on, I felt the urge to make a posthumous evaluation of my Icelandic experience, to dispel some accumulated commonplaces and reassess my personal view over the strident refuses of the media. More time will have to pass before I can get at a purified and pacified perspective.

“All that remains in the inner recess of the ear is a vague murmur: the sea.” – Italo Calvino, Il Barone Rampante




RS Nisio is a graphic artist, photographer and writer currently based in Lisbon, Portugal. She studied cinema in Rome, before moving on to embrace photography and illustration as her primary vehicles of expression. She worked extensively with different media and for this reason she was able to develop an eclectic style that frequently incorporates digital montage techniques and heavily relies on creative photo editing. While she was living in Iceland, she worked as freelance journalist and concert photographer and published her work under different names in several accredited media, including Iceland’s national broadcaster RUV and MTV. She shares some of her knowledge and thoughts on mobile photography on the blog Appotography.


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Rossella Nisio



12 thoughts on “Rossella Nisio – Estranged in Iceland”

  1. Hmmm. I guess the P/N 55 test shots picked up off the studio floor esthetic was an artistic decision, but I’m just not getting it. Just looks like a string of rejects to me. Certainly distracted me from whatever the photographer was trying to say.

  2. Having looked at these photographs a few times number 7 strikes me as the most interesting one — I would say, “almost interesting” — but it doesn’t express nearly as much as some of the shots by Moriyama Daido that are in this vein. While I agree that the sort of exquisite photographs that one often sees of Iceland are essentially “pretty pictures of beautiful landscapes” and ultimately boring, I don’t see this series differently from what Jim Powers writes above, that is, they “certainly distracted me from whatever the photographer was trying to say.”

  3. I respectfully disagree with Jim. When I see these I think that the visual tools of the Provoke era are still alive, and that is a good thing. The processing and choices enhance the sense of melancholy and invite questions rather than telling us everything.

  4. Some quite excellent and moody photos that somehow seem to fit the image I already had of Iceland even though I have never been there and never seen it portrayed quite this. For me, there is one serious drawback on some, but not all of the images. I know it has become more popular to leave or even add dust to the final images. I have seen instances of this having worked very well. On some of these images, I find the overwhelming dust to be a major distraction that takes away from my experience with the picture. I experience the dust more than the picture. Living in a place where volcanoes now and then erupt and spew volcanic ash all over everything, it strikes me that maybe you want to give that kind of feeling.

  5. Dear Rossella, from a lifelong migrant worker that used to live in Iceland in the late 80s, I do understand what is behind those images. Many times I felt at home and at the same time wonderfully alone on those northern shores and in the eerie, magic landscapes. But even back then, the country was changing fast, and life in the city proved to be very different from what I had expected. And yet all the noise could not cover that magic darkness that even in the long light of the summer months is always lurking below the horizon. The trees in number 5 and the view on the sea made me tremble with the heaviness and beauty of those endless winters. Thank you for the trip back in my and your memory. Please do more.

  6. I enjoyed the essay though I confess my enjoyment was mostly on the level of “pretty pictures” and had I not known where they were taken would have probably guessed “Arizona.” I especially liked #5 and #9.

    And I thought the statement was interesting, one of the better pieces of writing I’ve seen here from a photographer about his or her photographs. I was also impressed with Lightwood’s comment. I think that said a lot about the power and emotional accuracy of the work.

    I know I should probably stop there, but occasionally I can’t help but piss into the wind. I’m totally down with the protest against “flashy pictures of waterfalls and rainbows over lava fields,” but kind of feel the same way about grainy black and white photographs employed to communicate feelings of estrangement. Sure, it works, but it’s been working for so long that it’s become tired. The trick I’d like to see is using flashy pictures of waterfalls and rainbows to communicate estrangement. Or something more like that.

  7. Jim Powers, I can only say that what looks like “a string of rejects” to you may be significant for someone else. As for what the photographer intended to say, it’s there in the statement. If it’s still obscure, perhaps it just means your sensibility lies somewhere else.

    For those who expressed some doubt about the treatment, yes, it may look overpowering. All sorts of treatments and post-processing to an extent are invasive, and so is the act of the fine artist who throws a bucket of paint on his otherwise perfectly fine artwork when it’s finished, or the one that cuts the canvas or pastes seashells on it.

    Lightwood, I am glad this brought back memories. In the 80s the country made a huge leap, as you recall, and the hard life of struggles they went through for decades really started to pay off at that time. Of course I wish the country all the best, and I hope they can satiate their thirst at some point, before they exhaust their resources. It’s always hard to make an estimate of your own richness, but too much validation from the outside can eventually lead you out of your own ways.

    Thanks all for the comments.

  8. Choosing a treatment over others can mean something on its own or it can mean absolutely nothing for the viewer. In every form of expression, you can communicate the same in many ways and the concept will be received differently if you use this or that style. Even the absence of apparent style is a style and it has supporters and detractors. So, for you scratches and dirt are distracting, for another they are just an irrelevant gimmick, for a third person they may be evocative, and so on and so forth. The same goes for any style, and it really is nothing new, is it? Still, it’s up the the person expressing this something to choose a way to say it that will meet his or her needs. The viewers are free to see nothing in it and they are entitled to say it if they wish so, but this doesn’t detract from the intentions of the creator.

    I want to add a brief reply to those who mentioned Provoke and Moriyama. I admire some of Moriyama’s photos, but I didn’t really look at his work in the course of my own development. I did look at the work of many cinematographers from the past though, so I suppose it’s natural that I may have absorbed a few notions from them.

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