Book release: Ragnar Axelsson – Arctic Heroes

Book release: Ragnar Axelsson – Arctic Heroes

With his “Arctic Heroes” series, the Icelandic photographer was shortlisted for the LOBA 2020. His tribute to the sled dogs of Greenland has now been published in a marvellous photo book.

For over four decades already, Axelsson has been taking photographs in the far North, publishing books on the Arctic and the glaciers. In doing so he has been directly confronted with the increasing effects of climate change. “Something is not right. The big ice is sick.” This remark, made by a Greenlander speaking about the fundamental changes in the icescape, was the initial spark that motivated the photographer: “I began to perceive how a creeping change was turning the lives of these people and their dogs upside down.”

“Without the sled dogs, there would be no Inuit on Greenland. The culture and coexistence between the people and their animals has always been tightly interwoven.”

For over 4,000 years, the sled dogs of Greenland have formed a living and hunting community with the Inuit. According to Axelsson, however, the continued existence of the “true heroes of the Arctic” is threatened by the consequences of dramatic global warming. Sled dogs are required to have enormous physical and mental abilities. Under the toughest conditions, they not only need to understand the commands of the hunter, but also be able to independently find the best way for the team to cross the deserts of ice. They attack polar bear fearlessly, and in doing so sometimes save the lives of the hunters – as described in stories shared with Axelsson. In the foreword to his book, he explains, “I can safely say that it was just as difficult to squeeze stories out of these hunters, as it was to photograph them out on the freezing cold, sea ice. Little by little, however, they opened up to me, and with each story my appreciation for these hunters and their dogs grew.”

“My photographs are rather like a time capsule containing a lost world.”

The idea to dedicate a book to sled dogs originally came from two women: Axelsson’s wife, Björk Hreiðarsdóttir, and the photographer colleague, Mary Ellen Mark. He was reminded of their encouragement every time the adverse conditions almost made him lose all his strength and the ability to take pictures. “Don’t stop taking pictures. You don’t know when you’ve got the frame right. Keep going.” The feat was enormous, but the results are impressive. The selection of 137 black and white photographs, each covering a double page spread in the large-format book, not only provide impressive insight into the lives of the dogs – from puppyhood to the time when they become experienced companions of the Inuit –, but also portray the fascinating icescapes of the North, in grandiose pictorial panoramas.

Axelsson always had his Leicas on hand, and the motifs he captured for this impressive black and white project were taken over a long period: from 1987 to 2019. He photographed with both analogue and digital Ms, while the most recent pictures were taken with a Leica SL, a Leica SL2 (he was one of the first photographers to try out this camera), and a Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246).

“There is something inexplicable about the Arctic that speaks to you; a force that draws you to it like a magnet. I feel I have to tell this story about the heroes of the Arctic for the whole world to see.”

“Arctic Heroes” presents sublime landscapes; but, above all, it deals with the hunters and dogs destined to live together in community. “The days of these hunting-based communities are numbered, however, with the total of hunters dwindling as the ice grows ever thinner and recedes,” the photographer explains. “What’s more, the sled dogs are being supplanted by snowmobiles and other vehicles. Ten years ago, there were 30,000 dogs. Now there are only around 12,000. Young Greenlanders have no ambition to become hunters; though there are still a few who choose this path. But it’s a brutal life. With the wind chill factor pushing temperatures down to -49°C, the cold on the sea ice sinks its teeth into everything – except the dogs. They never seem to feel cold.” Against the march of time and climate change, however, even they don’t stand a chance.

Ragnar Axelsson
Arctic Heroes. A Tribute to the Sled Dogs of Greenland

Essays by Ragnar Axelsson
Designed by Einar Geir Ingvarsson
290 pages, 137 tritone illustrations
25.2 x 34.8 cm, English

“Ragnar Axelsson: Where the World is Melting” will be on display at the Reykjavik Art Museum until May 9, 2021. The exhibition will also be shown at the Versicherungskammer Kulturstiftung Munich in the Spring of 2022.

Ragnar Axelsson (RAX)

Ragnar Axelsson was born in Reykjavík in 1958. He borrowed his first Leica from his father, when he was ten years old. When he was 18, he became a photographer for the Icelandic Morgunblaðið newspaper, and since then has been documenting nature and the lives of the people in the far North. His pictures have been published in Life, Geo, Polka, Newsweek, Stern and Time, among others. His numerous books include “Faces of the North” (2004, new edition 2015), “Last Days of the Arctic” (2010), “Behind the Mountains” (2013), and “Glacier” (2018). In 2001 he received a Leica Oskar Barnack Award Honourable Mention; in 2020 he was shortlisted for the LOBA.

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