Local photographer captures vanishing Iceland for Chazen exhibit

Michael Kienitz's work stunning, devastating

Here is one devastating takeaway from Madison photographer Michael Kienitz’s five years back and forth to Iceland: “Virtually everything people will be seeing at the exhibition is already gone.”

Kienitz — Mickey to his pals — is a decorated war photographer whose work has appeared in Life, Time and Newsweek. In 2013, he accompanied his wife on her business trip to Iceland.

“I said, ‘I’ll carry your luggage for that,’” Kienitz, 67, recalls. “I’d always wondered about Iceland. I’d seen beautiful pictures.”

Now he has taken many (14,000) of his own, in the course of numerous (“I’ve lost count,” he says) trips to the island country in the North Atlantic.

It was on an early trip that a tour guide pulled a smart phone from his pocket and encouraged Kienitz to look at a photo of a stunningly beautiful ice cave.

“That’s unbelievable,” Kienitz said.

The guide said he took the photograph two years earlier, right where they were standing.  

“I looked down and there was nothing but gravel and stones,” Kienitz recalls.

The country is melting.

“It motivated me,” Kienitz says, “to show that Iceland’s beauty is vanishing.”

Kienitz has gathered the most compelling of his Iceland images for an exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art titled, “Iceland’s Vanishing Beauty: Photography by Michael Kienitz.” The exhibit runs Sept. 14 to Feb. 3, and there is a preview reception and lecture at 5:30 p.m., Sept. 13. It is free and open to the public.

“The erosion is really dramatic,” Kienitz says. “Coupled with the beauty of what is left, what every day is changing — I just thought it would be a dramatic, completely unscientific way to illustrate to people what’s going on.”

Kienitz has spent his career taking people, through his imagery, to places they couldn’t or wouldn’t go on their own. In 2007, he published a book (there was also an exhibit at the Chazen) titled, “Small Arms: Children of Conflict,” that captured the images of the children he encountered in war zones worldwide, including Beirut, El Salvador and Northern Ireland.

Kienitz was an early utilizer of drone technology. He first learned of it as it applied to photography around 2012. He was watching a video of a drone being demonstrated at a Las Vegas convention. The drone flew out the convention door, headed for the strip. Mickey’s immediate thought: “Where do I get one?”

He had four when I spoke to him in 2014, after a trip Kienitz made to Ecuador at the behest of the Madison-based nonprofit Working Capital for Community Needs. He did have five, but one drifted off after capturing amazing images of how cacao beans are grown in the Amazon rain forest.

Kienitz brought a drone on an early trip to Iceland. “Hardly anyone had seen one,” he said. It helped him take some astonishing photos, but drones quickly became so popular in Iceland that they were banned in national parks unless you applied for a permit. Kietnitz was well enough known and his project so appreciated locally that he was granted a blanket permit over two winters.

Images Kienitz captured by drones will be among those in the Chazen exhibition. Kienitz says the museum’s emeritus director, Russell Panczenko, was an early champion of the Iceland project, encouraging Kienitz to make return trips to accumulate ever more striking images.

It is hardly lost on Kienitz that his photos showing the ravages of climate change on Iceland are going on exhibit when Madison has itself just been battered by unprecedented rains. The California lab where he got his images printed was itself threatened by massive forest fires.

If he can’t stop the onslaught, he can at least provide a record of what was. Kietnitz is especially glad that his Iceland guide will be in Madison for the preview reception, along with a Canadian geologist, Jack Ives, who made an expedition to Iceland to study glaciers in the 1950s.

“Let’s hope,” Kienitz says, “it creates a catalyst for people to finally recognize there’s a connection between the way we live and what’s happening on Earth.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.    

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