How far will you go for a photo project? For Virginia-based photographer Tim Henshaw, distance or the cold are the least of his concerns. What matters more to Tim is the chance to tell the story of a man and a place that people most likely won't hear of—until today. Exploring people's lives is at the core of Tim's philosophy as an artist and his project about one of Iceland's oldest bell ringers is a thing of beauty.
Join us as we learn more about Tim, Jon Ben Gufjonsson, and the church of Hvalsneskirkja.
Hi Tim, and welcome to the Magazine! Please introduce yourself to our readers.
My name is Tim Henshaw. I live in Roanoke, Virginia. I had an interest in photography when I was in college but didn’t keep up the hobby until about five years ago. At that point I took up oil painting and photography was a way to further that interest. Right now I enjoy photography for the art itself. I develop my black and white at home. I shoot about 10:1 black and white over color film.
Please tell us more about this project. What is the story behind it?
My wife and I traveled to Iceland last December to visit friends. We arrived on the crest of a Covid wave that largely shut down the country. I had brought cameras and film without a specific subject in mind. We were staying near the Hvalsneskirkja church. The church seemed a likely subject for photography and then I found out about the gentleman who had been ringing the bell in the church for fifty years. My friend is the organist in the church and he set up the interview.
What made you choose this subject?
I have an interest in exploring people's lives. It is difficult to capture the huge range of meaning in a person’s life so I decided to do what amounts to a short documentary on individuals. There are also some places and events which are laden with meaning and those are attractive to me as well. I think there is art in all of the places we visit and all of the people we meet. I want to capture some of that.
Why shoot with film?
Film photography is a tool for expression and I find it lends itself well to my subjects. Film versus digital is a huge divide of course and I do use digital cameras. I think of it kind of like this: there are computers now that can be programmed to carve a sculpture. On the other hand, some people have the skills to carve a sculpture. The art produced by the person is usually seen to have more value because the artist has allowed something of himself into his piece. The film photography process is a bit like this. There are more points at which the photographer can influence the final result. Film photography is also a more physical and hands-on process rather than existing solely within a computer.
What gear did you use to capture these images?
I used a Nikon F100 with three lenses: an 85 mm, 35-70 mm zoom, and a 24 mm. I love Kodak Portra and use that film whenever I can. I also had a couple of rolls of Cinestill 800T which was very useful for the special effect around lighting. HP5 is my go-to black and white but I also shot some Kodak p3200.
What made you choose these cameras and films?
I have a physical handicap and I find the autofocus of the Nikon to be very helpful. Also, the conditions in Iceland in December are rigorous. Low temperatures, high winds, and blowing snow. The amount of time I could stand to spend outside was limited. Having the ability to quickly compose and focus was very helpful.
There are only four hours of daylight in Iceland in December so the faster film speeds were useful. I also like to overexpose film when I am able so starting with a higher-speed film is useful.
Iceland is a country with around 350,000 inhabitants. There are usually over 1.5 million visitors to Iceland each year. Most people go to the same places and take the same (digital) photographs. Going to black-and-white films gave me a chance to have a different look at the pictures.
We love how interesting and specific the subject is. What made you want to pursue this project?
There is meaning in Jon Ben Gufjonsson’s face. When you go to the place where he has attended church for fifty years, everything just seemed to fit. There are many places like this in our lives. Often I am just too busy to think about these relationships, both between people and the places they go to.
What are your favorite photos from this series?
I have two top favorites. The portrait of Jon outside of the church. The other I really like is the landscape of the rock cairn with the church in the distance.
Any plans for new projects?
I am currently working on a portrait of a blacksmith who is also a blues musician. This past summer I made a second trip to Iceland and I will be working on a piece about the rettir. Rettir is the event during which the sheep are brought down from the mountain pastures so that they may be cared for during the winter. It is a family event that has been taking place for around 1,200 years in Iceland.
What advice would you give to photographers who wish to pursue a documentary-style project like this one?
Make sure you take enough film. I only had a vague notion regarding what I wanted to do during my first trip to Iceland and I shot every roll of film I took with me and wished for more. On my second trip this past summer I shot 21 rolls. There is no possibility of purchasing film in many places. Also, don’t be afraid of talking to people and asking them if they would be willing to sit for a portrait or an interview. They can only say no and, more often than not, they will say yes.
We would like to thank Tim for sharing his story with us.