Italian photographer Irene Tondelli’s work has always focused on nature and how people connect to it. Her ‘1celand’ series explores the insignificance of humanity’s everyday experiences when compared to the greatness of the landscapes we inhabit, but often take for granted.
Looking at the expansive and somewhat lonely images from Irene Tondelli’s ‘1celand’ series, you’d never guess that the Italian photographer got her first camera thanks to her addiction to the Ninja Turtles cartoon – a childhood gift from her parents bought specifically because it featured Leonardo, one of the cartoon’s main characters, on it. However, that wasn’t her only early creative influence. “I have always been interested in images since I was a child,” Tondelli explains. “I loved drawing, reading comics, and I had fun visiting museums with my parents. Photography also interested me and I took pictures of my family or what surrounded me.”
Now a successful landscape and travel photographer, Tondelli’s work is “aimed at capturing the relationship between man and nature, landscape and memory”. She believes that when humanity and nature intersect there are endless opportunities for rumination. “Nature is a test to understand the human being. And by learning to know myself, I also try to understand the world a little bit more,” Tondelli says.
“If you want a beautiful landscape you have to earn it.”
Her ‘1celand’ series is no exception. Prior to visiting the country Tondelli knew that she wanted to test herself with a demanding journey that would put her in closer contact with nature than she had ever been before. At that time and, as she tells it, even now, she felt “the call of the deep north”. In many ways, she believes the trip was a manifestation of a personal desire for some sort of proof that she would be able to look after herself no matter how unfamiliar, uncomfortable and unpredictable the environment.
“We often look at breathtaking landscape photography on the web thinking ‘I would like to go there too’, but rarely people know what it really means to go there. Difficult paths, the cold, heavy gear, dirty clothes, etc. Today with money you can buy everything, even the ability to get to places that were inaccessible until recently. I don’t like this kind of tourism. If you want a beautiful landscape you have to earn it,” Tondelli says.
“Photography isn’t just an archive of memories. It must be an inspiration to preserve the present.”
So, with a small car, a tent and a minimal amount of photography gear (a light tripod, some fast lenses and one or two ND filters), Tondelli began her trip without any solid plan for the work she wanted to create. All she knew for sure was that she wanted to immerse herself in the solitude of the landscape. “I was aware of what I was looking for from a personal point of view, what I needed to feel good. But I had no photographic ideas,” Tondelli explains. “I let myself [get] deep into the journey … and started to shoot what interested me from day one. I did the real editing work once I got home. I wanted to enjoy the moment while I was there.”
“Traveling in Iceland, especially in some areas, you may meet no one for hundreds of miles. The non-interactions influenced me a lot … One day I visited a small village where private house gardens were decorated with mannequins, statues, puppets in a very curious way. I stopped to look at one of them in particular. The owners saw me and invited me to go in. They explained to me that it was a kind of town tradition. They were very curious and extroverted people even though they lived in a very isolated context. It made me think that the loneliness we feel sometimes has nothing to do with the place we are in. It is a question of harmony with ourselves.”
“What should nature do except take back what is owed to it without caring about us?”
Unencumbered by the need to follow a certain schedule or seek out particular imagery, Tondelli’s images have a travel-documentary flair to them that evoke contrasting feelings of something both mystical yet grounded. The mystery in her work is more dominant when viewing her images as single entities. The whale skull (Image No. 19) is especially hypnotising and, as Tondelli explains, that feeling reflects her own emotions while shooting the photo. “[It] was a very intense moment, even a dramatic one. It was taken in a cemetery dedicated to whales. I remember the silence, the cold air, the peace, the melancholy. I felt a strong connection with that place. I feel it now too”.
The latter concept of groundedness speaks more to the series as a whole. A sense that humanity is but a speck in time amidst nature’s vast existence. In that same vein, referencing famous Italian writer and poet Giacomo Leopardi, Tondelli describes nature as not necessarily indifferent towards humans but simply following its own path.
“In one of his works he describes nature like an evil woman. He is an author who has always fascinated me, since high school. I think a lot about him while I capture landscapes, she says. “Nature is not bad or indifferent. Human affairs are just foreign to it. It just follows its logic. If there is no dialogue, no understanding, empathy can’t exist. Nature is launching an alarm, a warning, and most people are not listening. What should nature do except take back what is owed to it without caring about us? But this does not mean that it’s evil,” says Tondelli.
“What I photographed may disappear in the future.”
And although connotations are naturally drawn between landscape photography and the climate crisis, for Tondelli that’s not what ‘1celand’ is about. “I called it 1celand with the number 1 because for me it was a new beginning, a restart,” she explains. “It is about the smallness of certain human themes [when] compared to the power of nature. With this series, I would like to remind myself and the viewers that sometimes we waste a lot of energy and time on useless things, on problems that do not exist except in our heads”.
However, Tondelli also notes that she hopes her photographs of dramatic landscapes do make people care a little bit more about preservation. “What I photographed may disappear in the future. Photography isn’t just an archive of memories. It must be an inspiration to preserve the present. I know it’s a very ambitious mission. I just hope to do my part, even if it’s little.”