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Released this year, the stunning photo book Svartmálmur is a rare glimpse into the burgeoning Icelandic black metal scene, a work that offers both a strong aesthetic vision and an unique insight into this close-knit community. This dark tome is the creation of one Verði ljós, better known to many as Hafsteinn Viðar Ársælsson, the name under which he has contributed to black metal projects such as Wormlust, Ljáin, Martröð, Myrk, to name a few. It is likely the fact that he is a part of this underground metal circle within Iceland that has allowed him to capture such a raw and intimate vision of the bands involved in the project, giving the work a collaborative feeling, something underlined by the inclusion of a number of lyrics and texts within the book. Limited numbers of the book are available to order here.

Cult Never Dies: Congratulations on the success of your first photo book Svartmálmur. Let’s start at the beginning: How did you initially discover and become interested in photography? Is this something you studied or are you entirely self-taught?

Verði ljós: “I studied photography, starting from 2014, at the Icelandic School Of Photography, I applied with this project in mind. I knew what I wanted to do visually but technically, and to some degree artistically, I had a way to go. Most of the study there was structured almost like a Jungian self-study, so there was a lot of self-teaching by error for sure. Before that I had taken one course in film photography in high school but that had all faded from my mind, so coming into this project I was basically starting from zero.” 

What sort of equipment do you generally use for your work? Are you shooting entirely digitally or are you ever involved with darkroom alchemy?

“It kind of depends on the band; for example, the Núll photoshoot was done with a disposable camera because of their nihilistic themes. Mostly I shoot digital because I like to shoot a lot and learn from my mistakes with the technical stuff. I am more about mirroring what the shoot is about than being orthodoxical about format for format’s sake. I am also proficient at the darkroom, I did a year of working in it solely but it didn’t resonate with me like I guess it does some people, it felt bit like carrying around a rotary phone in this day and age. I record myself at home and working on photos there feels like an extension of that.”

Have you had any particular visual influences would you say in terms of other photographers and visual artists?

“When it comes to band photography probably Anton Corbijn and Dean Karr. In our particular genre the biggest bands usually have some photoshop-textured green screen horror which perplexes me. The Nuclear War Now site has some great artefacts from back in the day, things the bands were sending their penpals etc. I am into the Japanese photographic style of harsh black and white but my internal vision is always kind of cinematic, so to me someone like David Lynch [is significant] – you can take each frame of Eraserhead and it’s the same a masterful photograph. Tetsuo:The Iron Man and films of that style.”  

As well as photographing other musicians, you yourself are active with a number of musical projects, including the international black metal project Martröð and your ambient black metal outfit Wormlust. What is your background musically speaking? In particular, how did you discover underground metal and at what point did you begin making music yourself?

“I’ve been into it since around the cusp of 14; growing up, my friends had bands and I starting practicing in hopes of being able to join those. For a brief moment I was in the biggest black metal band here at the time, Myrk. But going into high school I kind of just started making things for myself. I don’t work well with band dynamics and having someone else have veto power over something you slaved over has always been strange to me. That’s probably one reason why I started photographing the bands, that mind-melt of creativity is fascinating.” 

Was there a particular reason that triggered you to begin photographing the Icelandic black/underground metal scene around you and did you have an end goal in mind with the project? What has been the response from your subjects?

“I saw that nobody was documenting what I saw as a unique and important cultural moment, so I decided to take that task upon myself. Well, I never explicitly said I was working a book until the final stage, I felt that would deliver an unwanted energy into the project. They were just content in getting decent photos of themselves I think at the time, the more non-band like things I kept aside for the book. I know how it is being photographed as a band since I lived through that. It’s the last thing you think about doing and the least favourite thing to do as a musician, but on the flip side very important to the overall aura. My remedy to that was to mirror what the bands were about thematically and try to break down that dynamic.”  

The Icelandic black metal scene has really exploded in recent years and the strong debut records and relative isolation have really captured the imagination of many in the international underground. Naturally this has proved divisive, with some even comparing it to the 90s glory days of the Norwegian scene, while others consider it somewhat overhyped and one-dimensional. As someone operating musically and visually within its epicentre, how do you view the health of Icelandic black/extreme metal?

“I don’t see how anybody could see the bands as sounding similar to each other. To me that Norwegian comparison is probably apt, but more in the sense that each band has their own school of sound. I think you have to take into consideration that almost all the bands have only released one LP, so the future is really unwritten in terms of where it is going. The next two years will be interesting because I think pretty much all the bands will be releasing their sophomoric albums, then we can look at the health chart. We could also talk about that there are bands like Vonlaus, Endalok and Andavald that are sprouting up, so there is still growth outside the garden.”

The finished Svartmálmur book is a very impressive and cohesive piece of work, how long did it take to create and how does it feel to have the finished work in your hands?

“The actual edit and look of the book probably took about a year, Ditto did the editing which made it into an actual book rather than just a prolonged project. Before that I had thrown out what I considered essentially bad photos but that left thousands of options on the table, so there was that process of whittling down to what was essential and spoke together. It was very rewarding to actually hold the object for the first time, it’s one of those books where photos of it don’t really do it justice.”

That is usually true of art and photography books, but certainly true in this case, not least due to the unusual choices in paper and printing methods. Can you tell us a little bit about the specific presentation you chose for the book – for example the unusual cover design and the stunning use of gold ink within the book itself?

“The intention at the beginning of my discussion with Ditto was to have the book feel like a book of occult magic, a kind of spell book from the outside. One Icelandic book in particular, The Sorcerer’s Screed, was an important influence in its early stages. I went deep into research for books of that ilk and art in that vein and this design was the outcome of that. Half found art, half something new, brought to life by the artist Roisin Dunne. Ditto brought in the idea of using leather like books used to be bound and I think I suggested gold since that has ties with the esoteric. The gold pages were originally supposed to be silver, since I work in black and white, but it didn’t go with the gold cover aesthetic. So the end result is very much the result of back and forth over a long time.”

SVARTMÁLMUR is available to order now HERE
Self-portrait by Verði ljós