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Little Purple Flowers

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An insect alights on a clump of little purple flowers on Aðalvík, Hornstrandir, Iceland. (Photo by Annie Griffiths, National Geographic)

“Just look at this light!” exclaims Annie, amazed by the unfettered arctic sun. We are lucky with the weather.

Our ship has landed in the empty bay of Aðalvík, in Hornstrandir, the remote northern tip of Iceland’s West Fjords. On a map, we’re at the top of the world, far away from any cities or cars or noise.

Not so long ago, this place was inhabited by a handful of farmers, but now it is entirely empty except for a few miniature summer homes on the green hillside. Along the rounded coast, just above the smooth stone beach like a burst of summer blossoms, all yellow and purple.

I had plans to hike long and far—to show Annie the vastness of the landscape and the marbled snow mountains, but instead, we are crouching way down in the flowers. In the past two days, we have spent a lot of time crouching.

My pants are getting wet but Annie doesn’t seem to mind one bit.

“This reminds me of trying to shoot on the prairie—trying to find a composition!”

She offers it as a kind of open challenge and I wonder at the difficulty of that assignment—photographing a prairie. It almost pains me—how tricky would that be, to photograph something so unfathomable?

But Annie can fathom the prairie quite well—she grew up in Minnesota.

“I love flat land—because you can see!” Annie tells me, still smiling as we crouch into the flattest part of the land.

I never thought of it that way. I thought that the place I grew up (Ohio) was the flattest place on Earth. I despised the flatness—found it so boring and oppressive. Now, years later, Annie is showing me a different angle. Flat places let you see forever.

“I started at The Worthington Daily Globe, right out of college . . . “

I listen to Annie’s story, how she began working at the Midwestern paper in 1976, the second of two staff photographers. Her older colleague became a mentor, and she talks about him like you would an older brother.

“It was like a master class,” she remembers, “There was never any whining.”

“We used to have to shoot the used car ads—but we made a game of it. We would time one another—one of us shooting all the cars, the other in the dark room. He taught me that you can make any assignment fun.”

Annie pauses in the flowers, then repositions herself and begins clicking away at the mass of purple in front of her.

“I miss the dark room,” she offers from behind her camera. Click, click.

“I just smell fixer and I get floods of memories,” she adds, and then, ““Isn’t this fun?”

“. . . just going around and trying to find some sweet little composition?” Annie is joyful at this tiny world we have discovered. The whole of Iceland is around us but we have descended deep down into a world that is flooded by purple. Right now, purple is the only color in the world.

Annie reminisces about the other great northern place, Minnesota—how she was only 25 when she picked up the ringing phone and found herself speaking to National Geographic photo editor Bob Gilka.

“ . . . and that was serendipity. Just talking to him gave me the confidence to put together a proposal and contact him directly one year later,” she remembers.

And the rest is history. Annie Griffiths has been shooting for National Geographic for 35 years, but all of it started on a faraway prairie with a flat patch of flowers like these.

For fifteen minutes, Annie likes on her back, enjoying the flowers that she’s been shooting with her camera. She is smiling behind dark glasses, enjoying a brief connection with a piece of earth that is no less exciting than anywhere else she has been in her life of travels.

But then, the clouds come, as they do in Iceland. The clouds move in and the tiny arctic insects become silent.

“We lost our light,” declares Annie, and she is right. The sky has vanished into bleakness, all the greens and bright purples have merged into a dull dark grey. The wind feels colder, too.

So we head back to the ship.

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National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths shoots flowers in Aðalvík, Hornstrandir, Iceland (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

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