An Interview with Photographer Martin Cox – Iceland, Outerspace and Humanity

Martin Cox is a well-known fine art photograper based In Los Angeles who has created work across a plethora of avenues, exploring what landscapes are and what they mean, and how objects impact each other. His latest body of work ‘Far Away Right Here’ takes him away from rainy England and sunny LA, and puts him in the cold town of Húsavík in the North-East of Iceland.

The main part of the exhibition, a large collage of Húsavík’s harbour made up of hundreds of hand-printed photographs, shows over a number of days and in varying Icelandic conditions. Extending time through the past and present as well as the future, Cox tells a story of the port, its’ surroundings, the mix of industry and nature, and the ever-changing light.

Alongside the collage is a series of white landscapes of the surrounding areas. His series ‘Snjorteikning’ (‘Snow Drawing’ in Icelandic), shows the almost dystopian minimalism in the town’s landscape when covered by heavy snow. Scale, proportion, colour and the ‘unknown’ are explored in the final set of photos, taken at twilight on the town’s snow-plowed streets. As the sky darkens, the street lights provide vibrant and varied colours and pathways of lights, something that could have been seen and sent back to Earth by the Casini space probe.

“I work with landscape to better see it. Landscape is us and our activates projected onto a larger time scale; erosion, land use, agriculture, geology, weather, industry and plate tectonics all unfold as clues around us, and quite likely provide the chief undercurrent of emotion in our daily lives…Landscape is as a map of the past, a reflection of now and our future.” – Martin Cox

I had the opportunity to ask Martin about his new body of work, why he chose Iceland and collaging, and how he feels about the clashing of the man-made and natural worlds, as well as what he wants to show to the public.

How did you adjust to the climate while spending a month in Húsavík?

My inexperience with the winter temperature in North Iceland had me concerned, but I prepared. I brought many cameras in case of trouble with cold, including some alternative cameras and even some prepared cyanotype papers to make images in case I had to work without a camera.

I have lived in Los Angeles for a long time and the cold was a concern. I am from the UK originally so I am used to chilly and damp, but for this trip, I asked friends how they dressed for the serious cold. I went to a well-known outdoor and hiking store and bought many layers, some hi-tech fabrics, some serious footwear, and double hats. I borrowed a coat from a friend in Hollywood which had been worn by crew on the set of the film ‘Alien vs. Predator’ in Antarctica and in the French Alps. I was ready for the part.

What drew you to Húsavík in particular out of all the Icelandic towns?

I had applied to do the residency at Fjúk Art Centre because it sounded like an interesting artist run space, and because it had a connection to an old port. The studios were right on the harbor front, and I love ports. It was something very opposite for me too, I live in a hot dry place [Los Angeles] with millions of people, here was somewhere cold, wet, remote and with few people but also some history. My exhibition at the Húsavík Museum this summer is drawn entirely from the work I made on that art residency, and thus is site related.

The ‘Snow Drawing’ series came about organically but follows my interest in looking at what landscape is, and what it means. I went exploring the nearby valleys and I was really struck by the light that created an effect where the reflected snow on the ground matched the tone of the sky – suddenly all questions of scale and distance became arbitrary, and the horizon vanished. The only clues were man-made structures, or rocks and trees not covered in snow. Landscape is often in a tussle between culture and nature and here that was stripped back to the smallest hint, with both man’s activity and geography overwhelmed by a flat white tone. I had never seen anything quite like it. This series also reminded me of drawing, how a two-dimensional mark defines a three-dimensional space on the page.

Collage is a very different process for a fine art photographer, were you looking for a new angle to your work?

The collage idea had come to me when I was asked to propose a piece of work for a big wall at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum. It was a way of expanding time and talking about the act of looking. I shot images over a period of time at different times of day and so recorded varying light and different weather. With the Húsavík collage I wanted to capture the multitude of activities in the harbor, and also the changing light and colour, and to include a greater stretch of time than a single photograph, by incorporating a few images from the museum’s own history collection of images taken in the port, particularly some labour practices from another era. I also made an attempt to stretch the time frame in the opposite direction by asking some local people I had met during that month, to take some images of their children around Húsavík for me to include in the work, I wanted to include a new generation of Húsavík dwellers.

Your Twilight series of photos of Húsavík is absolutely stunning and reminds me of infrared photos of Mars and other planets. Was this feeling of ‘other- worldlyʼ exploration something you wanted viewers to feel?

You are right, as with the alien landscape photographs taken from spacecraft, Húsavík’s snow piles could be vast ranges or quite small piles, when we look at the photograph, is this a mountain or a mound? Scale is in question once more. The title of my exhibition, ‘Far Away Right Here’ refers to this phenomenon that I experienced in a number of ways in the Icelandic landscape. The title was inspired by the last line in a poem by Danish/Icelandic interdisciplinary artist Julie Laenkholm in her limited edition book ‘Húsavík’.

Heading out to photograph after sunset, I noticed how the twilight lasted an incredibly long time, quite the opposite of Los Angeles, where night falls quickly like a car crashing.  The deepening blue in northerly latitudes is a wonder to see.  Then there was the snow clearing; snow ploughs pile up improbable shapes at the side of the road as they clear the streets, then the municipal street lighting steps into light the scene. With many technically varied lamps that all vibrate at different wavelengths you see some cast in orange, others purple or pink, even green and yellow. There is a strong municipal cooperation in this piece.

You are right about other-worldly, I had been thinking of the Casini project where that spacecraft gave us all kinds of alien landscape images in recent years, and it made me think how looking at the landscape is the first thing we know about what the alien landscape are like, we imagine ourselves there. I also wanted to show something perhaps overlooked, that is right before us. The brain has a tendency to want to see snow as white, to ignore the temporary hue provided by the lamps, yet here is a town steeped in glowing vivid nocturnal color.

Having spent so much time in Iceland in various locations, what effects of climate change and nature/industry clashing did you see, and did that affect what you wanted to present to the public?

I did notice, in reference to the question about industry, that from outside the country, I had formed the impression that the entire nation was in perfect harmony with nature, with natural resources being wisely and fairly harnessed and preserved. After I spent time here, I noticed more familiar division and clash that I see elsewhere with environment and industry in conflict with one another. However, until my museum exhibition I had been in Iceland only five weeks, so I cannot claim to have experience of climate change personally, yet it was clearly on people’s minds, and the topic was often discussed. This is a topic of huge concern and will be part of a new project starting while I am in Iceland this year. If there were a message in my work about that, it would be simply to look. Look at the landscape, see what is there in front of us, and what is happening and perhaps what is not there.

Would you go back and create more work in Iceland?

Like many others, I am enthralled with Iceland and its’ people. I did not expect to become so fascinated so quickly, but yes, and once I open my exhibition at the museum I will be off to start new projects as soon as I can.

Whatʼs next for you?

Lenscratch, (founded by Aline Smithson – Los Angeles – one of the most highly rated U.S fine art photography blogs) will do a feature on my ‘Snow Drawing’ series shortly. I am also working with Fabrik Media (Beverly Hills) on a limited edition book on the series that will include a special signed edition print. With 101 numbered copies, I expect the book will come out by August 2017. A catalog of ‘Far Away Right Here’ should be out in the summer.

Another new project I have been keen to start will connect landscape work I have been shooting around the San Andreas fault in California, with the tectonic plate margin landscapes of Northern Iceland, this will likely mean returning to Iceland again. I am researching for another project that will combine landscape images and maps in, retracing an eccentric British author who, like me, was fascinated with the big landscape east of Los Angeles, and wandered the high and low deserts in California about 100 years before I began that journey.

Martin Cox’s exhibition ‘Far Away Right Here’ is open at Húsavík Museum from 3rd June through to 1st September 2017.

Photo By: Martin Cox