Iceland Visual History Blog

Crossing The Volcanic Wasteland With A Camera And Polished Shoes

March 17, 2014• BY

Horace Dall (1901-1986) lived on a hill in Luton, England. He pointed telescopes towards the stars and photographed the planets of the outer region of the solar system. He was an optician and an innovator of scientific instruments.


But he was also interested in this planet and travelled all around the world with a camera. In the summer 1933, he made an impressive bicycle trip around Iceland. Travelling in Iceland was a different experience in the 1930s. Roads were bad and there was almost no infrastructure for tourists. A cyclist had to cross very difficult terrain practically everywhere, and especially in the mountainous regions.


Iceland’s Forgotten Zoo and the Toothless Wallabies

December 20, 2013• BY

Exotic animals are a rare sight in Iceland. Once upon a time, however, Icelanders could visit lions, monkeys, polar bears, orcas and other creatures at the Hafnafjörður Aquarium, which opened in 1969 and—despite the name—did not limit its menagerie to marine animals. Unfortunately, conditions for the aquarium’s animals were generally poor. This desolate scene was captured by a photographer for the newspaper Tíminn in 1988.

Historical hipsters

December 13, 2013• BY

Hipsters have been an Icelandic fixture for decades. Just consider these photos we found in an old family photo album of hip young people in Ísafjörður in the 1920s. We don’t know who they are, but they seem pretty happy.

The Graf Zeppelin Visits Reykjavík

September 15, 2013• BY

“On Thursday, July 17, at around 11:00 AM, the citizens of Reykjavík looked up at the sky in astonishment as the magnificent German airship Graf Zeppelin sailed towards the city. Slowly and majestically it approached, its grey body shining in the sunlight. It flew very slowly over the city in a circular pattern and its beauty captivated everybody who witnessed this great sight. It was a truly unforgettable scene as Iceland has never had a more distinguished airborne visitor.” (Fálkinn, August 1930)

Reading this caption today, it’s as if the small village of Reykjavík had been visited by an alien spaceship. In 1930, Iceland was still a very remote and obscure island nation struggling to keep up with the pace of modernisation in Northern Europe. Pessimism was on the rise as Iceland’s fragile economy had been severely affected by the onset of the Great Depression the year prior. Airplanes were an uncommon sight, so it must have been “a truly unforgettable scene” when that elegant German airship appeared above Reykjavík in July 1930.

The Zeppelins navigated the globe to demonstrate and test the airships. The Zeppelins transported passengers and mail on transatlantic flights in the 1930s before the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, and other political and economic issues, which hastened the demise of the airships. Iceland was visited a second time in 1931. TOP: LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin flying over the statue of Ingólfur Arnarson on Arnarhóll hill in central Reykjavík in July 1930. Photo by amateur photographer Ingimundur Guðmundsson.


roe-3520 zeppelin


Viking Life in the Storm-Cursed Faroes, 1930

August 9, 2013• BY

“The Faeroes [sic] remain practically unchanged by modern civilization and untouched by the tourist. Modern civilization can find no foothold on their windy cliffs; there life can exist only when modeled on ancient, primitive patterns. And so the islanders, forever wrestling with waves and winds, have little time for the tourist or his money. Like the giant battle fleet of some latter-day Thor, The Faeroes ride the stormy  Atlantic, straining each at its anchor.”


So does the Danish photographer Leo Hansen describe the Faroe Islands, in an article in the National Geographic from November 1930. In the article, Hansen writes about his frequent trips to the Faroes to take photographs, and introduces the magazine’s American readers to the islands’ culture and nature and the islanders’ struggle for livelihood. The article is illustrated with a treasure trove of Hansen’s own photographs, some of which you can see here below.


The captions are taken from the original article. Read the full article here (PDF document).


Celebrating One Thousand Years of Alþingi in 1930

August 8, 2013• BY

In the summer of 1930, 28-year-old Swedish photographer and scholar Berit Wallenberg travelled to Iceland where she spent a couple of weeks. She was a member of the Wallenberg dynasty, a prominent Swedish industrialist and banking family. The most famous Wallenberg is Raoul, who is believed to have saved tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, but Berit became well known in her own right, particularly for her archaeological research and work in the field of photography.


In a collection of 25,000 photos that she gifted to the Swedish National Heritage Board are the ones she took in Iceland on the remarkable occasion in June 1930 when Icelanders gathered at Þingvellir to commemorate the thousand-year anniversary of their national parliament Alþingi. Founded in 930 at Þingvellir (“the parliament plains”), Alþingi is considered the oldest extant parliamentary institution in the world. Although parliament no longer convenes there, Þingvellir remains a popular tourist destination located about 45 km east of Reykjavík.

The Shock of the Century: Faroe Islands 1-0 Austria (1990)

August 4, 2013• BY

Faroe Islands shocked the football world when they beat Austria 1–0 in their first ever competitive international game in September 1990. The game, a Euro 92 qualifier, was played in Landskrona, Sweden because there were no grass pitches on the Islands. The goalscorer was Torkil Nielsen, a timber salesman and chess player from Sandavágur. Goalkeeper Jens Martin Knudsen had a great game and made a series of fine saves. His white, bobble hat was his trademark.


“I thought a lot about taking off the hat because I would have been the world’s biggest laughing stock if we’d lost 0-10, but it’s good to wear something on your head when you’re in a new world,” he later told Rund. “There are plenty of good ‘keepers in Europe, but they don’t wear hats so they’re not remembered. Maybe that was my good fortune.”

Coca-Cola in Iceland in 1944: Come, Be Blessed And Be Happy!

August 4, 2013• BY

A Coca-Cola Company ad campaign from 1944 is evidence of the far-flung places that World War II took American soldiers. In the series of ads, the soldiers are not only shown bringing safety to the locals, but also the most important gift of all—Coca-Cola.

In the Icelandic edition, a soldier brings carbonated joy to a hard-working fisherman and his family. “Come, be blessed and be happy,” reads the headline, a very literal translation of the Icelandic greeting, “komdu sæll og blessaður.”

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavik Summit, October 1986

August 3, 2013• BY

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik in October 1986 to discuss nuclear disarmament. Sadly the talks collapsed at the last minute.


The superpowers came close to agreeing on total nuclear disarmament but the proposal stranded when it became clear that President Reagan was unwilling to scrap his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – often nicknamed Star Wars. Some progress was made, however, and the summit is often regarded as one of the last steps in the Cold War. The meeting also had great significance for Iceland, which became the focus of world attention while hosting the leaders of the two superpowers.


Map of Reykjavík, 1909

August 3, 2013• BY

Around 1910, Reykjavík consisted only of a couple of streets in today’s central area of the capital. This map showing Southwest Iceland and Reykjavík was published in 1909 in a German travel guide for the Nordic countries.


Reykjavik (‘smoky bay’), the capital and chief market of Iceland, with 10,300 inhab., lies picturesquely in a hollow between two hills on the S. bank of the Faxafjord. Most of the houses are built of timber, painted white and grey, with red roofs of sheet-iron. Most of the public buildings are built of stone. The town is the oldest settlement in the island, but only attained its present importance in the 19th cent. It is the seat of government, of the supreme court, of the bishop, and of several good schools.


Iceland map 1909