Shot in the Dark| September 20, 2022
Miki Spitzer braves extreme conditions to shoot his spectacular nature prints, but never loses sight of the Artist behind the beauty
Text and photos by Miki Spitzer
The Dutch air outside is cool from the night chill. It’s still very early, but I’m out hoping to catch what professional photographers term the “blue hour” — the twenty minutes to half an hour before sunrise. I’ve chosen the location after scouting out the area the day before, and now I position the tripod across from a field of tulips. Rows and rows of flowers are lined up as far as the eye can see, melting into a thin mist that lingers over the horizon with delicate pastel shades. Only the arms of a lone windmill rise in the air toward the rising sun.
I feel a sense of mission. My pictures bring the beauty of Hashem’s creations to those who aren’t there to see it, or weren’t blessed with the gift of discerning potential beauty in nature. We’re always surrounded by beauty — we just have to keep our eyes open to see it.
I began my photo journey in the colorful salt formations of the Dead Sea. From there, I continued to Dubai (this was before the Abraham Accords, when it wasn’t simple for an Israeli to get in). Then I moved on to the grey, misty mountains of northern England. National Geographic was impressed by the photos, and that’s how I became the first chareidi photographer to have my work published there. Later, my photos were also displayed in prestigious international exhibits and forums.
Getting the perfect nature shot can involve intense effort, even risk. When I was trying to capture the Milky Way in the middle of the night from the Nitzana Hillocks, near the Israeli-Egyptian border, I found myself pursued by a posse of border smugglers who probably weren’t enamored with the idea of a photographer in their territory.
Another time, I was searching for a waterfall in the Dolomite Mountains in Italy and got lost. I wound up spending the night up on the mountain near a locked hunter’s cabin in teeth-chattering cold. But I did get some fantastic sunrise shots the next morning.
Land of Fire and Ice
I’ve always been drawn to dynamic scenery, where every day, every hour brings a new song with it. Iceland, with its volatile elements of fire and ice, always held a certain mystique to me. As the world’s largest volcanic island, the fiery furnaces of creation are constantly producing new terrain. So the news report in March 2021 that a huge, underground crevice, 215 meters long, had opened up in the Fagradalsfjall plateau, with showers of fire and lava bursting forth, intrigued me. Scientists said it was the first volcanic eruption in the Reykjanes Peninsula for seven or eight hundred years.
The eruption zone was just thirty kilometers from Reykjavic, Iceland’s capital, adding a dimension of drama to the event. It also meant the site was relatively accessible, compared to other volcanic sites scattered throughout Iceland’s remote terrain. I resolved to take up the challenge; I was going to Iceland.
Heading toward the volcanic site, the Icelandic wind whips at me with such fury you’d think I had invaded an area not meant for human settlement. Tiny grains of tephra, fragmented material produced by volcanoes and carried by the wind, sting at my face like countless volcanic mosquitos. I know it will take me hours to get those black grains out of my nostrils, ears and any other orifice, but right now, I have no time to think about that. I’m busy with survival.
Green trails of light from the aurora borealis marbleize the black sky, illuminating the scarred scenery with an otherworldly glow. Strange shadows dance between the sharp rocks that are colored with a thin coating of snow. I walk along a row of wooden pegs that demarcate the trail, and feel like an astronaut lost in the alien landscape of a different planet.
Eye of the Eruption
The eruption’s dynamic nature means the mountain’s topography changes from day to day and that a map won’t be reliable. I find a good local guide who is up to date on the mountain’s latest shenanigans, and return to visit the Fagradalsfjall area four times over the subsequent weeks, at various hours of the day and night.
I also closely track scientists’ reports regarding the eruption’s expected lifespan — which can range from a few days to a few hundred years. The last time there was volcanic activity here, it lasted about 300 years. Now, in the nine weeks since the fissure first opened, the site has changed its appearance and character drastically. In the first month, eight craters opened up, which were given names such as Nuorori (northern) and Suouri (southern.) Since the beginning of May, the crater simply named number 5 has become a breathtaking geyser of fire that spews lava hundreds of meters into the air. Since then, only Crater 5 continues to bubble incessantly.
As we walk, the sun disappears and the wind picks up. The rocky terrain is completely bare. There are no trees growing in this part of Iceland. To my right, a frozen waterfall of black lava has created a steep slope. If I lose my footing, I’ll take a fall of twenty or thirty meters strewn with sharp pieces of burning basalt, not a pleasant thought at all. In the background, the wind continues to howl like a jet engine gone amok.
Finally, we reach the latest lookout point. The crater is just 200 meters away, at about eye-level. It makes deep hiccupping noises, as if digesting a satisfying meal. The lava field looks wrinkled and squashed, but upon closer look, you can see that it’s rubbery and soft and has not yet taken on its final form.
Someone shouts “Here it comes!” and a geyser of fire erupts over the lip of the crater. For a moment, it seems suspended in the air, as if it’s reached an agreement with the force of gravity that it will not draw it back to the ground. Then it slides down the crater wall and joins the thick, fiery ketchup that is pooled at the bottom like a river of fire, chunks of crust floating around in it like black fragments of ice. A huge boulder, whitened from the heat, is tossed in the air, and then it rolls down the slope and gets stuck in the river of lava. Within seconds, it’s covered with a layer of ash and loses its fiery color. Even from hundreds of meters away, the heat hits me in the face like a ferocious fire.
After extensive preparation and research, I’m finally ready to take my shots. Panting and covered in perspiration, I stand on a small island of solid ground that emerges from the rubbery ground. Fiery sparks are rising in the air and melting the ice on which they fall, but I don’t pay attention to them. I’m too busy. In a few moments, the first rays of sun will break through the dimness at an angle that will not repeat itself, and I need to be ready to capture the moment. Many hours of extensive study, careful planning, and Sisyphean work have all been channeled into this one small click, which will justify all the effort or chalilah, prove it all a waste of time. The earth beneath me is grumbling and growling, emitting impolite hiccups of malodorous sulfuric acid as I click on the shutter, and I allow myself a small smile of satisfaction. I’ve gotten to the right place at the right time, and with siyata d’Shmaya the photo will come out perfect. It’s involved tefillos, toil, and even some tears, but I have no complaints. No one promised me that it would be easy to capture the Fagradalsfjall.
I take aerial photos as well, with a drone I send over the lava pools. Taken from a height of 200 meters, the photos look like they were taken in one of the fires of Gehinnom. When the drone comes back, its parts are fiery hot, and I almost get a burn when I touch it.
And the drone doesn’t always come back. A few days later, I travel to take pictures of a dormant volcano in the northern part of Iceland. I send the drone up 400 meters, but when I try to bring it back, I see the battery is fading fast. Wanting to prevent a crash, I lower it to the ground, until it disappears from view and lands in a huge hardened lava field. After two and a half hours of searching and lots of Tehillim, we find it resting peacefully on a bed of a few branches that somehow found their way there. All the photos are safe and sound in the drone’s memory.
Keep Your Eyes Open
I don’t conceal my approach from other sponsors I work with. “Nature photographers usually have a highly developed aesthetic sensitivity and an ability to draw out the beauty that hides in the world of nature,” I explain to them. “But my sense of aesthetics is first and foremost a Jewish one. When I study nature, I look to marvel at the miracles of the Creator, and as the Rambam says, ‘When a person looks at Hashem’s deeds and creations, which are so great and miraculous, and will see His wisdom… he will immediately love, praise and glorify Him and feel a strong desire to know the Great Name.’”
Here in the Holy Land, there is no lack of places with simple beauty, perhaps even in places that we pass every day. We’re all photographers, I think to myself. We all absorb constant impressions and images that surround us. It makes no difference if you’re photographing the Kirkjufell under the midday sun, or if you’re just looking out onto a small patch of nature from the balcony of your home. Either way, you’re gazing at the craftsmanship of the Creator of the world.
The Master Artist
When people study my photos their instinctive reaction is sometimes “Mah rabu ma’asecha Hashem!” That’s exactly what I feel when I photograph a stunning scenic view, and it’s reflected in the sense of mission I feel to share the beauty of Hashem’s creations with others.
One day, I had the idea of incorporating a Jew wrapped in a tallis against the backdrop I was shooting. The tallis has a strong spiritual statement of prayer and dveikus: “Oteh ohr kasalmah, noteh shamayim kayeriah, — You enwrap Yourself with light like a garment; You extend the heavens like a curtain.” And from a photography perspective, the waving fabric of the tallis and the tzitzis blowing in the wind not only blend in with the scenery. Sometimes, they even intensify and sharpen the picture. To me, a Jew wrapped in a tallis facing a vast expanse symbolizes how a Jew stands in front of his Creator, the greatest Artist.
I started doing this regularly. When the area and the scenery are suitable, I photograph a “tallis photo.” Passersby sometimes stare, wondering what the unusual pose is about. Sometimes they realize that it’s a Jewish article, and even seem to feel a moment of spiritual uplift.
I believe that art has to serve the spiritual values I believe in, not the other way around. When I learned that an Israeli media outlet was planning to air my Iceland photos on Shabbos, I told them I couldn’t cooperate. A nature photographer depends on publicity and recognition, but I didn’t have even a moment’s deliberation.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 929)
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