Photographer Jordan Sullivan embarks on an Icelandic #trip of life, love and loss
After artistic endeavours like capturing New Mexico’s Indian summers for The Ghost Country, Jordan Sullivan’s latest project saw the Houston-born photographer leave behind the desolate American desert for the scenic splendour of Iceland.
The resulting volume one of his Wandering Days book series, A Young Earth, mixes Sullivan’s evocative landscape imagery and voyeuristic portraits with poetry, prose and historical fiction anecdotes. The photo-text novella tells the story of two twenty-something Americans attempting to come to grips with their own mortality, friendship and destructive love triangles of the past - all whilst trekking through the idyllic Icelandic landscape.
Dazed Digital caught up with Sullivan to speak about the recreation of forgotten family photographs, car breakdowns in the middle of the Nordic mountains and trips from heaven to hell and back.
Dazed Digital: Where did your inspiration for the story come from?
Jordan Sullivan: I don't usually work from inspiration, I just work every day. I do follow paths and ideas, and have always been interested in the idea of ending at another beginning - the end of youth, the end of love, what comes next, the new worlds we discover when we finally move on. I knew this story needed to deal with death, specifically dying young. My friends and I were confronting some of the same things the characters in my story are, at least with regards to getting older. The specifics of the story were a little hazy until I started shooting it and looking at the images. I tried to let the feeling I got from the final pictures guide me when writing the text, though I did have this dream of a guy driving his friend to the afterlife. They get in a car and drive to this dead end, the man drops his friend off and then drives back to earth.
In some ways The Young Earth feels like that, like this trip to heaven and hell and back.
DD: What were the most memorable moments during the production of this series?
Jordan Sullivan: Sleeping on the sides of roads, watching the yellow moon rise, running out of gas in the mountains in a snowstorm 200 miles from the nearest town, being in one of the most strange and beautiful places in the world with my best friends.
DD: What compelled you to create a novella as opposed to a photography-only book, and how did the creative process differ when thinking about the combination of text and image, as opposed to just the visuals?
Jordan Sullivan: I have always had an interest in the interaction between image and text. I love stories and fiction. Growing up, I was always reading and watching films. I sometimes feel more like a writer or storyteller than an artist or a photographer. The Young Earth is as much a novella and a poem as it is a photography book in my mind. The challenge was to create images that illustrated the feeling of the story rather than just the action or the plot. The book needed to flow like music in that way.
DD: How did the surroundings of Iceland inspire you as an artist and why did you decided to set the story in this specific location?
Jordan Sullivan: Iceland is one of the youngest bodies of land in the world, so it seemed to have potential to act as this mirror for the inner lives of my characters, both of whom were leaving their youth. The story needed to be shot in an empty and open space, as well as a very beautiful space, and I didn't want to shoot it in America. I wanted these men to be in a completely foreign place. I wanted to go somewhere I had never been before as well, a place I couldn't imagine. Iceland is a place one would go on vacation and that was important because the two men in this book are very much on vacation in some ways, albeit their last. Iceland is a realistic place that they would visit, and realism is at the core of all my work.
I remember getting back roles of film after family vacations and being drawn to the ones that didn't come out right - the blurry ones or the ones that may have been taken by accident with light leaks.
Those were always the most beautiful to me. In some ways I imagine some of the pictures in The Young Earth as those photographs - the forgotten ones, the ones that didn't make it in the family or vacation album. I wanted this story to sort of be like this mundane document of a vacation that turns into this whole existential and tragic thing. I really love that film Gerry by Gus Van Sant, where these two friends just go hiking and get lost and the film becomes this massive portrait of life and death and survival, but in this really quiet and understated way.
DD: Does shooting the images in 35 mm and Polaroid as opposed to digital film make the process feel more precious in a way, or was there another reason for choosing this medium?
Jordan Sullivan: When I shot this a year ago, I didn't really know how to use a digital camera and didn't own one. 35mm was all I really knew how to shoot. Also, my vacations with my family were always shot on film, so I wanted to bring that quality to the book. Both the characters in the story are children of the film era, children of the 90's.
DD: In the images human and nature, the tiny object and the panoramic landscape appear to contrast one another. What was your intention when using these two ‘opposites’ throughout the series?
Jordan Sullivan: I wanted the pictures to seem as if they were shot from multiple perspectives - first, second, and third - so I needed vast, intimate and omniscient views. Some pictures could be from the narrator's perspective, others from the earth's perspective. There's very much a back and forth between the portraits and landscapes. I wanted the images in the book to sort of grow like a vine, tangling all these people and places together. The characters in the story are trying to connect with themselves, the world and their past. I wanted to express that pictorially through all these different juxtapositions of people and nature. Also, the idea of time in a landscape is very interesting to me. My friend Emma Phillips, who is a wonderful landscape photographer, introduced me to this, and I really thought about it a lot when making The Young Earth, as well as the ways in which a place or a person can trigger a memory. A place can very much embody the feeling of a person and vice versa. We are always existing in so many places at once; the present and the past, our internal and external spaces, are constantly colliding wherever we are. The narrator of the story is simultaneously exploring all these parts of the world and himself. He's coming to grips with the inevitable death of his best friend, looking at this foreign place, roaming through landscapes, investigating the history of that land, and recalling his own history, the things he's buried, forgotten and been too afraid to confront.
DD: How do you see the overarching themes of mortality, friendship, love, youth and beauty portrayed in the final images?
Jordan Sullivan: The last chapter of the book is my favourite. It's filled with light and joy. It's a beginning of sorts. I wanted the end to be a celebration filled with hope and light and colour. I love that scene in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams where the funeral procession is a parade with singing, dancing and laughter. The Young Earth is in many ways a celebration of endings and death.
DD: What can we expect next from the Wandering Days series?
Jordan Sullivan: Wandering Days is a quartet of books. The second I finished shooting in NYC recently, the third will be shot in Naples, Italy this summer, and the fourth will be shot in the southern United States. It should keep me busy for a while.