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Northern Exposures: photographs from a Winter in Iceland

As Watt Space begins hosting its new exhibitions this year, Sarah Webb chats with Fine Arts student, Scott Probst, about his photography in Iceland.

Artists and photographer, Scott Probst, has been photographing urban and natural landscapes for over 20 years in Newcastle and surrounds, and clearly, his experience shines through his work. With a special interest in exploring a vast range of mediums such as textiles, writing, painting and drawing, his artistic endeavours eventually took him to the sublime towns of Iceland, where he began employing more abstract forms of photography.

During their northern Winter from December 2015, to February 2016 – for almost three months – Scott spent his time at the Skammdegi Residency in Iceland. It provided Scott with the opportunity to experience an environment alien to not just him, but to the 20 other artists who shared the Residency.

“I always wanted to go [to Iceland],” Scott said. “Through a series of coincidences, a chance came up to go to the Residency and I thought it’d be crazy to turn it down. Fully thinking that I wouldn’t get a place, to my surprise, I was actually offered a place. I had to go!”

Town of Olafsfjordur, where Scott stayed at the Skammdegi Residency.

‘Skammdegi’, in Icelandic, literally means ‘dark Winter’ or ‘short sunlight Winter’. For Scott, this mean that that creative and technical challenges were to be expected. With a lack of sunlight, 90km winds and freezing temperatures, the Icelandic environment proved a strong foe for artistic motivation.

“Iceland has such a long Winter,” Scott said. “They only have a pretty dull twilight for about four hours [each day] and no direct sunlight. I didn’t see the sun for about two months. And because you’re standing still when photographing, it can get very cold. It’d be minus five or seven degrees, so you’d start to lose feeling in your fingers.”

Though Scott endured these rough conditions, it still remains obvious when talking to the enthusiastic photographer and artist, that he is very passionate about his work. And sometimes, these challenges present inspiration.

“Then when the sun comes up, the town Olafsfjordur, looks golden. There’s this river of gold and it’s just incredible when you see it after 12 weeks of indirect sunlight.”

To my amazement, Scott took over 2000 photographs during his time in Iceland (some of which he’s still working through), with only eight selected for the final exhibition. Scott said he wanted to have a mixture of photos that showcased the place in some sense.

“For instance, the ‘Red Raven photograph,” he said. “We think that during night, nothing is happening, but the town has this real energy about it. When I arrived at the ‘Red Raven’ picture, that what it was like; it was strange.

‘Red Raven’ in Northern Exposures: photographs from a Winter in Iceland

The ‘Red Raven’ soon became a kind of emblem for Scott. Though it may seem like just a simple photograph of a raven, the over-saturation of the sky really contrasts with the reality of a wintery Iceland, which offers such a surreal juxtaposition. What gives this image more meaning, however, is the fact that it is extremely rare to photograph a raven.

“With the Red Raven photos, they’re really smart birds and they’re really hard to take photos of, because they know what a camera looks like,” Scott said. “As soon as you lift your camera, they fly away.

“I spent hours at different times trying to capture them. They’re so smart, it’s phenomenal. They’re really amazing birds.”

Scott’s other photographs in the Watt Space exhibition show more of what was there in Iceland, such as a landscape of a snowstorm in neighbouring town, Siglufjordur, or fish drying racks, or the Olafsfjordur harbour. “I wanted to have a mixture of those kinds of things,” he said.

‘Olafsfjordur harbour’ in Northern Exposures: photographs from a Winter in Iceland

“This photo is fantastic,” Scott said. “I was trying to pan the camera. That’s one of about one billion bird shots I took and the locals quite liked it.”

‘Sky and snow’ in Northern Exposures: photographs from a Winter in Iceland

Ultimately, Scott wishes for his audience at the exhibition to get a really strong feeling for the place. “Also, I would like – independent of the fact that it was in Iceland, which is a really fantastic place and its really amazing scenery – I hope that they’re grabbed by the images themselves.”

There’s lots of different approaches to photography, but one of the foremost concerns for any artist or photographer is just creating an image that just really stays with people.

“You start things and you just never know where they’re going to go, then you end up doing something that’s interesting. Whatever you start just becomes another idea, or something in itself.”

Scott is currently trying to organise some time back in Iceland again, but as he returns to his studies, he has one piece of advice for aspiring artists and photographers alike: “get your work out there”.

“One of the things we’re encouraged to do is to have an Instagram account, print our photographs, and show them to people. At UON in particular, have exhibitions. Very few universities have a dedicated student gallery like Watt Space. It’s just doing the work – it really makes you think about what you’re doing.”

Scott Probst’s exhibition runs from Thursday, March 16 – Sunday, April 2 at the Watt Space Gallery at Northumberland House in Newcastle CBD.

To see more of Scott’s art and photography, head to his artist profile online.

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