by Luca Fiore
Ólafsfjörður is a fishing village in northern Iceland, at the mouth of the Eyjafjörður fjord. It is home to 800 souls. In summer, in this region, the sun does not set: it approaches the horizon, but never disappears fully. This phenomenon reaches its peak on July 1; then, gradually, darkness reconquers the night. In summer 2017, the Belgian photographer Bastiaan van Aarle – class of 1988 – went to Ólafsfjörður and took 31 photos; one of each day in July, all taken at the same time: 01.20 at night, the least lit moment of the day. With these images, he composed his first book, published a few weeks ago by the German publisher Hatje Cantz, entitled “01:20”. The minimalist but elegant design, with a paperback cover, befits the profile of the newcomer van Aarle, who required an online crowdfunding campaign to help cover publication costs. The book’s subjects include typical Icelandic houses with corrugated sheet roofs, a church by the port, the village’s shops, a gas station, a fish processing factory, a swimming pool and a school. Next to the homes are parked cars; all around are mountains with the last snow of the season, and rivers running through the valleys. The streetlights, needlessly lit, are the only hint of the nocturnal hour. There is not a single soul on the streets. At that time, even in Iceland, the world is asleep. Everything seems to resound with a complete silence, perhaps broken only by the wind.
Leafing through the book, one sees days pass, and the sky darkening continuously: it is as if we are complicit in a sunset which, in reality, never happened. In the first photos, one perceives an unreal atmosphere; yet this is fruit of the mind’s short-circuiting, informed in advance as we are of the time of shooting. As light progressively leaves the images, page after page, so too does the village itself, with the collection closing with shots of almost night-time countryside.
This collection calls to mind the series of photographs of white nights shot by Joel Meyerowitz in Saint Petersburg at the start of the 90s. Images which cannot help but recall us to Dostoevsky: “It was a wonderful night, such a night as is only possible when we are young, dear reader. The sky was so starry, so bright that, looking at it, one could not help asking oneself whether ill-humoured and capricious people could live under such a sky”. The American photographer lingered upon the decadent beauty of the mansions along the Neva river, the classical columns, the reddening clouds, the reflections of monuments in the fountains. The white night was a place of dreams. Unlike the story Van Aarle is telling in Ólafsfjörður.
The melancholy of the Icelandic nights appears more bitter. Symbols of daily life – the simple geometry of the houses, the small and austere Nordic settlements, the odd crumbling wall, rust attacking the sheets of metal on the roofs – this all suggests a shadow of solitude. Any road, seen at night and void of any human presence, offers a similar impression. Yet here, the light gives a definitive note to this sense of abandon.
In a passage in the volume, the Belgian poet Bob Vanden Broeck writes: “The power of this artist lies in uniting two contrasting elements in a single photograph: beauty and sadness. This is poetry, and is what makes Ólafsfjörður a fascinating place. Here, in a single day, one can weep both from seeing a stunning landscape, and for a future void of hope, resting here like a rusty shed”.
Yet this book also offers something else. A white night – the surprise of light which, by all accounts, should not be there. Where we expect darkness, light fights back. Each of us can contemplate our own darkness and shadows. Those which we might prefer to keep hidden. It is a small yet great lesson. To learn it, someone needed to take the trouble of travelling to Ólafsfjörður. To take 31 photographs.