Lottie Davies is a UK-born photographer who is based in London. Her series North features images from Iceland, Finland, Greenland, Svalbard (Spitzbergen), an Arctic archipelago that belongs to Norway, and the UK.
What can you tell us about your process of choosing locations? Were you on assignment or were they personal trips?
“It’s a mixture; mostly commissioned trips but some personal. Certainly quite a few were with Lonely Planet. Greenland was my first job with them and it was great. Remote, cold, a bit weird, just the way I like my travel! I’m attracted to the ‘far away’, anywhere where cellphones don’t work and you may need to sleep in a tent. It’s not that I enjoy being uncomfortable, it’s more that places which are hard to get to are less changed by humans, and I can imagine those landscapes being the same now as they were thousands of years ago. I like that.”
One striking thing about this series is how colorful the photos are when many photos of the Arctic are washed out grays or blues. Was this because of a certain time of year, time of day, and/or specific subject matter that you prefer to shoot?
“My visits so far have not been in winter, generally because it gets very dark later in the year and practical considerations make the warmer seasons a more sensible option. So, given I’m not there in snow season and if I’m lucky I get a clear blue sky, the sun can be gloriously bright, and the air and water are very clean and clear – hence more saturated colors. I like to use a polarizing filter to cut through the distance haze and bring the sky in.
“In Iceland there are volcanoes that spit out lava beds and peculiar colored mountains of rhyolite and other minerals. In some areas like Landmannalugar there grows a brilliant, bright green moss that makes the whole place look like an alien world; it’s fabulously beautiful.
“In terms of colors and subject matter, generally there isn’t much time on a travel assignment; there’s often a distance to cover and many things to shoot in a short time, so I try to pack everything in. I often get up before dawn to make sure that I have at least one shot of a landscape before the day’s weather comes in. If it rains the rest of the day, at least at dawn you always have a lovely soft cold light which I love. If it’s sunny later, then you’ve got two options, but often by then you’ve had to move onto a new place. I always think ‘shoot it now, you don’t know if you’ll have another chance’.”
The above shot is stunning, where was it taken?
“It’s in Svalbard, in the Arctic Circle. I was on another ship traveling from Longyearben to Pyramiden, a recently abandoned Russian mining town which boasts the northernmost bust of Lenin in the world, at 79 degrees north. The water is incredibly clean and the wind was bitterly cold. We were served gin and tonic with glacier ice pulled up from the water about 10 minutes after I shot this. In Svalbard there is very little vegetation as it is so far north, so the striations you see in the mountains are in fact ancient seabed silt deposits which have become rock and been pushed up above the water by the movements of tectonic plates.”
What are the challenges that you have experienced shooting in locations with cold temperatures or limited light during the day? What are some of the methods you’ve used shooting in locations such as this?
“Cold temperatures are fine providing I have the right clothes. It’s taken me a while to work out my perfect kit, but lots of layers, thermals, and really thick socks are central to comfort. If I were to travel in winter I would have to watch out for frostbite and such, but I’ve yet to face those temperatures. Generally though, I’m more comfortable in colder climates, I don’t deal with heat and humidity terribly well (I’m a Welsh/Scots redhead so you can imagine I’m pale and burn in ten minutes).
“Camera-wise, I try to keep spare batteries warm, and lots of them, and have enough card-space to shoot all day without having to download. I like to keep the laptop and hard drives somewhere stable and safe during the day and download when it’s too dark to shoot. I shoot my personal work on film, which handles the cold much more easily than digital systems.
“My shoot in Finland was exclusively on 5×4 at -20 degrees and snow. For that trip, as I knew I would be shooting long exposures in cold temperatures, I took a Wista field camera made with brass and rosewood, which doesn’t freeze. My breath was making pretty frost patterns on the backplate which made it a little unusual for focusing, but apart from that it worked perfectly. No batteries, no electronics, just a box, a lens and a cable release; lovely. And I had my snow boots and Arctic parka – toasty warm all day.”
How much do you plan your itinerary and subjects when you are shooting on assignment and how much do you rely on chance or serendipity?
“A great deal of the time the itinerary isn’t up to me, it’s set by the commissioning magazine, but I do have some input. Mostly, the outline is set and within that I try to maximize the opportunities for chance to be in my favor. I use maps a lot, rather than satellite-navigation. I’ll look at a map of the country or area beforehand, have a look at where the mountains lie and which direction the sun sets, etc. You can never over prepare, because when you’re there, time and light are short and you need to maximize shooting opportunities. I will also ask local people where their favorite spot is, which is the best beach, the best restaurant, who is the most interesting person in the town, and so on. Local insight is invaluable.”
Can you share more about how you came across and photographed this scene?
“This is in a little place called Rodebay, in Greenland. Rodebay translates as ‘Red Bay’, and it is so-called because it was a big seal-hunting town and the blood of the seals would run down the rocks into the sea. Greenlandic dogs are working animals and spend their adult lives either chained up in the summer or working in the winter, but puppies run free for the first five months of their lives.
“The time I visited, there were masses of them jumping around being bouncy and furry. I came out from having lunch to find a group of them eating this seal head which they had stolen from a bucket on a boat; bloody paw prints everywhere. They were having a great time, but they got chased off pretty sharpish by the guy who caught the seal.”
Can you tell me more about the images of sheep in Iceland in the series?
“The latest trip I did was to Iceland in October of this year. It was great, a highlight of this year. Marcel Theroux, the writer, and I spent a few days with a group of Icelandic sheep farmers who round up their sheep on horseback every year, bringing them down from the mountains for the winter. We both spent some time on horseback ourselves, and really got to take part in the whole thing, which hasn’t changed much in a few hundred years. And the weather was just glorious; clear blue skies and shining sun for four days, so the amazing landscape was clear all around us.”