Summer is drawing to a close, and the festival season along with it. But a town of diehards continues to celebrate photography. Every year, the commune of La Gacilly, Brittany, hosts a unique festival. Its brilliant, outdoor scenery offers a refreshing break between visits to the exhibitions. The viewer isn’t overwhelmed, but savors the photographs in the context of the landscape. To celebrate its 18th anniversary the festival takes the visitors on a trip to the Far North.
Olivier Morin, extreme surfing
While some people dream of burying their toes in warm sand, all Olivier Morin is waiting for is bitter cold, snow, and ice. Morin is photo editor-in-chief at Agence France Presse (AFP), and could be called the ambassador to the Far North. He is lucky to have been able to combine several of his passions: photography, the great northern expanses, … and surfing. An official photographer for the discipline at the Tokyo Olympics, he is now exhibiting in La Gacilly his pictures of some “badass athletes” who tame the ice-cold waves of Norway.
Meet the ice surfers. It all started in the 2010s, with a glance at a magazine page. Tom Curren, a surfing legend, is talking about an unforgettable session, beyond the Arctic Circle, on the coasts of the Lofoten Islands in Norway. Surfing in Scandinavia? The practice of surfing is not new, as Olivier Morin explains: “The pioneer of Norwegian surfing is 77 years old today; he built the first surfboard in 1962, using the cover of the album Surfin’ Safari by the Beach Boys as a model.” It’s a juicy little story, and the legend is indeed true. As soon as Morin arrived, the photographer-surfer was captivated by this unreal spectacle. The water was 37.5°F and the atmosphere was indescribable. “This was just the sort of paradox I had imagined. In terms of waves, Lofoten is comparable to Hawaii, just 63ºF cooler!” Welcome to a surreal land that makes you feel like you’ve landed on a “different planet.”
Morin is immediately overcome with the desire to turn these sensations into images, to document the lives of some of the daredevil wave climbers. “I discovered a whole community.” Women and men, these surf riders are, in real life, veterinarians, teachers, doctors … who are brought together by the same passion. In one of the photos a man in a hooded wetsuit is biking along the beach with his surfboard strapped to the bike. Rather than on sand, he is riding along a path of snow and ice, with white mountains towering in the background. It is a magnificent juxtaposition.
Olivier Morin is always torn about whether to wield his camera or mount his surfboard. It’s also frustrating to be able to capture only a fraction of the beauty around him in images. “There is the smell of iodine, the cold, the sound muffled by the snow…” recalls the photographer. Throw the magic of the northern lights into the mix, and you’re transfixed. “We are in another world, half entranced. I can’t put it into words. It’s a feeling, pure magic. I’ve yet to take a picture of what I have in my mind.”
Surf photography is thankless. You must be totally committed to staying two to three hours in 37.5°F degree water. Wearing a hooded wetsuit, hoisting two housings, you must gauge the wave to get into the right position. Get ready to go through an icy spin cycle. “We endure the waves. That’s why it’s important to take ten minutes and clear your head before going in, to put yourself in a receptive frame of mind, so you can be focused on the photo and alert to any error.” And sometimes all this is for nothing. “A drop of water might end up clinging to the lens, or the surfer is poorly framed….” This perpetual frustration has the photographer coming back for more. Next winter, Olivier Morin will be trying again, and this time he intends to immortalize Norwegian surfers who have set out to surf on the ice. Totally nuts!
Secret lands, sometimes austere people, a magnificent and hostile environment. Scandinavia is fascinating. And its photography is very rich. La Gacilly gives it full light, whether it is from Norway, Finland, or Sweden, pushing even further into the Nordic territories.
Devoted to his native country, Norway, photojournalist Jonas Bendiksen, a regular contributor to National Geographic and a member of the Magnum agency since 2004, has returned to his homeland. He brings back with him a precious document on the populations of those distant lands who live in harmony with nature. This intimate work was made for a local newspaper and an exhibition put in parallel with his reports on the ecological disaster that threatens the Himalayan regions.
An intimate diary of Sweden is delivered to us by Sune Jonsson. This Swedish photographer is said to have the emotional acumen of Robert Doisneau or Willy Ronis. Deceased in 2009, Jonsson has left behind a work of memory on the rural society of native province of Västerbotten, located in the North, far from Stockholm. It comprises portraits of farming families, weddings, and innocent childhoods spent in a landscape of fir trees and lakes.
Pentti Sammallahti’s poetry in black and white paints a portrait of Finland, its inhabitants, its cities, and its nature. His father a goldsmith, this child of Helsinki offers a jewel of composition with each photo filled with humor and tenderness. Tiina Itkonen, also Finnish, wanted to see other worlds, even further north. Itkonen left for Greenland in the 1990s to meet the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Her first photo book is dedicated to the Inughuit, a Greenlandic Inuit minority from the Thule region. Through her images we discover life in this hostile environment, and the changes linked to global warming.
Ragnar Axelsson was born in Iceland, and for decades he has been documenting the life of the northern peoples. In vivid black and white, his photographs of sled dogs and the traditional way of life of the Inuit, 4,000 years old, are breathtaking. His photos seem to be taken through a filter of ice, and show the harshness of life in these latitudes.
Since its inception, La Gacilly has been forward-thinking, particularly on the subject of climate change and the environment. A series on the world of tomorrow, the one after the health crisis, alerts us to the challenges that are to come. Issues such as climate migration and drought are illustrated by the work of Mathias Depardon in Iraq (The Tears of the Tiger). Pascal Maître’s photos of monarch butterflies in Mexico resonate with Nick Brandt’s committed project for the protection of wildlife in Africa. As usual, La Gacilly circles the globe and once again offers us a fine selection of the best of photography framed by a beautiful and unique setting.
By Michaël Naulin
Michaël Naulin is a journalist. Having worked in regional and national newspapers, he is above all passionate about photography and more particularly reporting.
La Gacilly Festival, until October 31, 2021.
Free admission. Outdoor exhibits.