Ólafsfjörður is a small fishing village in northern Iceland with a population of fewer than 1,000 people. There’s a church, a few shops, a single gas station, a fish factory, a school, and not much else—which made it the ideal spot for an artist’s residency for Belgian photographer Bastiaan van Aarle. In July 2017, seeking a respite from city life, van Aarle spent a month in Ólafsfjörður working on a series of photographs that was recently published by Hatje Cantz.
Because Ólafsfjörður is very far north, the sun doesn’t set during the summer; on the longest day of the year, in late June, the sun touches the horizon a little after 1 am and immediately starts to rise again. To document this effect, van Aarle decided to take a photograph at 1:20 am every day of July. Each photograph depicts a different part of the town or surrounding countryside at the darkest point of the day. “Since photography is a medium created by light, I thought it would be quite fitting to do a series about the change of light in this town,” van Aarle explains.
Van Aarle spent his days exploring the town, scouting locations, and taking test photographs for his nightly shoot. To take each photo at exactly 1:20 am he needed to be in place with his Nikon 810 prepared. In a town too small to have any nightlife, van Aarle was usually the only one walking around so early in the morning. “At night there’s almost no noise,” he recalls. “Just the wind, and maybe a bird. Belgium is so heavily populated that we have no places of pure quietness, so being there is very special.”
Individually, the photographs capture the simple, austere beauty of a small Icelandic village. Taken together, the 31 images show the subtle change of light over the course of a month. And in their paperback book presentation, they are shown so that readers can flip through the pages and watch the light gradually dim. Van Aarle enjoyed making the series so much that he’s already planning to return to Ólafsfjördur for a project that will explore Icelandic folklore, much of which seems to have evolved to explain the features of the country’s dramatic landscape.
“The people I met in Ólafsfjörður were great storytellers,” van Aarle says. “A lot of the myths they told me reflect their relationship with nature, which fascinated me. Living there for a month, I began to see the truth in the legends.”