A volcano’s colors can be felt as much as seen. At the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland, about 19 miles from the capital, Reykjavík, the hottest lava radiates whitish yellow but cools to orange, red, and eventually midnight black. This “extraordinary dynamic range” is one of many colorful phenomena that photographer Stephen Wilkes observes in his May image of the eruption.
The image shows the landscape transition from day to night in a single frame. Wilkes created the effect by compiling 70 of the 1,123 photographs he took from a single vantage point over 21 hours. The composition starts on the lower right with a photo taken at 1:54 p.m. and progresses diagonally to the upper left, blending together Wilkes’s favorite moments. “I’m re-creating my memory, in many ways,” he says.
The process of making the image was a whirlwind. After an overnight flight to Iceland, Wilkes passed a COVID-19 test and ate a quick lunch before boarding a helicopter to scout sites. He chose a steep hill to the east of Fagradalsfjall; from there, by his calculations, the setting sun would line up with the fiery volcanic peak. Steady 45-mile-an-hour winds buffeted Wilkes and his team as they drove stakes into the ground to anchor the camera’s tripod. Then Wilkes settled in to track the ever changing scene. The precariousness of the rocky slope underfoot forced him to stand the entire day and night—but tired legs and frigid fingers didn’t distract him from the volcanic light show. (How volcanic eruptions help nourish the world)
As the sun sank toward the horizon, the volcano fell quiet, and Wilkes watched with rising concern: “I do all this planning,” he notes, “but at the end of the day, I just have to react to what’s in front of me.” Just when it seemed his plans were foiled, the volcano sputtered back to life, and Wilkes got the much anticipated image.
Watching the deepening colors of the sunset above the golden lava from the volcano—a union of forces that have shaped our planet’s surface since its infancy—he says he felt an almost spiritual connection: “That is where it all began.”