Photographer Morgan Levy’s images of Iceland
Interview by Janna Washington
Upon graduating from the Department of Photography and Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in May of 2007, photographer Morgan Levy was awarded the Daniel Rosenberg Fellowship. The fellowship was established in 1989 by Irwin and Civia Rosenberg in memory of their son Dan, who received his BFA from the Photo Department in 1988. The fellowship enables one graduating senior to pursue a project involving travel, which will later be shown in a one-person exhibition at Tisch.
With the fellowship, Levy was able to return to Iceland, which she had visited and photographed once before. The body of work she created there, entitled “A Strange Sound In The Deep Silence,” may be viewed on her website.
JW: Most of the projects of yours that I’m familiar with center around people, often children. What moved you undertake an extensive landscape project?
ML: While, yes, much of my work centers around portraiture, landscapes have occupied a part of my work for quite some time, either serving as backgrounds for portraits or as separate entities. [Regarding my work with children,] those were the images I showed more often. I had difficult time making sense of my landscapes and my first trip to Iceland changed that. I went initially as a tourist with a camera and knew quickly after arriving that this was a place I had to return to. Fortunately, the fellowship afforded me the opportunity to make a second trip to do some more serious investigating.
JW: Do you see these landscapes as an extension of your portraits of humans?
ML: I don’t think of my landscapes necessarily as an extension of my portraits but I certainly don’t think of them as entirely separate either. For a portrait, my model’s role is to serve as a metaphor or idea, and in Iceland I fully understood that I could exploit the landscape in a similar fashion, but to an even greater extent. Though the subject matter varies, my interests are relatively consistent throughout both my portraits and landscapes, and ultimately I strive to convey similar ideas. Confronting personal fears is predominate in both veins of work, as well using fantasy and alternative realties as methods of escapism from those fears. Though there is a lot of overlap, I think of my landscapes and portraits existing parallel to one and other, informing one and other, occasionally intersecting, but ultimately on different planes. For now at least.
JW: Why Iceland?
ML: Iceland is a natural fantasy world. Only a mere five hours from New York, upon landing you feel immediately transported to a place light-years away from home. The quality of light is unlike any daylight I have experienced otherwise. It’s as if a thin coat of silver glazes all of the surfaces. It enhances the pervasive magical feel of the country. There is little semblance of the familiar and one must quickly surrender control to the natural geological forces at work. I have issues relinquishing control, and a trip to Iceland is a good exercise in letting go. On my last night I climbed to the summit of an active volcano due to erupt within the next year.
JW: How did you get around?
ML: I rented a car (really two because I tore out the rear suspension of the first car trying to ford a river) as it’s really the only way to fully explore Iceland. Certain parts of the interior are only accessible by car and, as I learned twice, should only be attempted with a serious high-rise 4x4 vehicle. The Icelandic Mountain Guides rescued me twice. When photographing on Vatnajokull, the glacier, I had an incredible mountain guide, Einar, who taught me to walk on crampons and use an ice pik. But otherwise, just a map and tent, no guide.
JW: To which parts of the country did you travel?
ML: I made a full loop of the country, including the Western Fjords, and I also drove the Kjolur Route which cuts through the interior of the country.
JW: Any plans to go back?
ML: Sadly I have no immediate plans to go back despite my strong desire to do so. To console myself I have been fanaticizing about jumping on a plane and going for a long-weekend to see the snow and the darkness, and justifying this irrational act by telling myself it’s cheaper there now due to their own serious economic crisis.
JW: What did you shoot with?
ML: I traveled with four cameras: a large format field camera, two 6x7 cameras—one more conducive to shooting in precarious situations, and a small digital point-and-shoot for fun.
JW: In your artists’ statement, you talk about “geology as a metaphor for psychology.” Can you talk a little about the psychology of Iceland, and how you think your project reflects it?
ML: I don’t think that Iceland has one predominate “psychology” as you’ve stated it. What I hoped to convey in my statement is that Iceland is a place where I was able to project my own psychology and it is a place that elicits a different response from everyone. The way I would discuss the “psychology” of the country would be a projection of my own thoughts and sentiments. But so it won’t seem like I’m dodging the question, I’ll answer thus: I think Iceland has a frenetic and malleable personality. Because of the constant changes and shifting below the surface the country always seems to be in a moment of transition. Each region of the country, topographically speaking, seems to have its own identity as well. Nothing ever appears to be the same.
JW: How did you become a photographer?
ML: The story of how I became a photographer: Age nine: go to family friend’s house. The daughter shows me a video of her and her friends smoking. Become convinced that making videos of friends hanging out is incredible. Beg for video camera. One year later receive said camera, make videos of dog and baby sister. Get bored. Decide still-images even better yet. Another year spent pleading for camera. Age thirteen go to used camera store with Dad and proudly go home with a Cannon AE-1. Have been photographing ever since.
JW: Which artists (photographers, painters, writers, whoever) inspire you and inform your work?
ML: For various projects I find inspiration in different places. Before going to Iceland I read a lot. I spent a lot of time with the Prose Edda, a historical document, which recounts much of Icelandic mythology. I read W.H Auden’s account of his trip to Iceland. I reread Freud’s essays on the uncanny. I purposefully did not look at others’ photographs of Iceland before or after my trip. I mostly read for inspiration, but Rodin and Frida really get under my skin and inspire me to make work.