Review by Lauren Buchholz
For Erik Stensland, nature photography is more than a passion: it’s an antidote to over a decade of living and working in a region besieged by poverty, upheaval and the scars of war.
After finishing university in the early 1990s, Stensland moved to Europe and began assisting local churches and development agencies throughout the Balkans. He dedicated himself to supporting community growth following the fall of communism in Bulgaria, Albania and Kosovo, where projects included building a remote airstrip and providing aid and shelter to Kosovo refugees. Stensland became close with many members of the communities in which he lived, but as a foreigner living in a politically-unstable and lawless region, he was also on the receiving end of death threats. “I carried a letter in my pocket for my wife, Joanna,” says Stensland, “in case something happened to me.”
Stensland and his wife found their situation ever more precarious following the 1997 Albanian civil war, when a series of Ponzi scheme failures toppled the government and resulted in more than 2000 deaths. On New Year’s Day 2004, the couple permanently left Europe and moved to Estes Park, Colorado: the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Stensland, who spent several years of his youth living in the mountain landscapes of Montana, found restoration in the area’s towering peaks, glacial rivers and light-flooded landscapes. His lifelong affinity for hiking and exploration naturally lent itself to opportunities to capture his surroundings on film. “I was trying to think of how I could get paid to hike,” laughs Stensland, “and that’s where I came up with the idea of becoming a professional nature photographer.”
After building a following selling his work at art shows, Stensland opened his first gallery — Images of Rocky Mountain National Park — near Estes Park’s main thoroughfare in 2007. The move was risky: he only had enough money to cover one month’s rent, and the building’s owners were debating tearing the entire shopping centre down. Fortunately, the gamble paid off and the gallery celebrated its 10th anniversary in April 2017.
Stensland’s work is characterised by the vibrant alpenglow colours which accompany sunrise or sunset in the mountains. Images like Morning Surprise and Drama at Bear Lake are named for these fleeting, exceptional moments — sharp contrasts to the grey shades which defined the photographer’s decade of living in post-communist Europe. Yet, Stensland is also drawn to quiet, more intimate landscapes which reflect the beauty and solitude of Rocky Mountain’s many moods and seasons, as evidenced by prints like ‘Into the Mystery’: a subtle, wide-angle image of an alpine hiking trail wandering off into sunlit mists. For Stensland, the moment became a metaphor for “that mysterious diffused light that calls us onward to something hidden, something healing, waiting for us at the end of it all.”
Stensland’s journey as a photographer has taken him throughout America’s southwest and Pacific Northwest, as well as Iceland and the UK. In addition to two galleries dedicated to Rocky Mountain National Park, (a sister gallery to the Estes Park location recently opened in Grand Lake, Colorado), he owns and operates a small gallery highlighting desert scenery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Yet, Stensland is constantly drawn back to Rocky Mountain and the myriad landscapes which transformed his life. He continues to rise long before dawn to hike into the backcountry, seeking to capture the beauty of the park in ways that resonate with him — and, he hopes, with those who view his photographs.
Visit Stensland’s online gallery: http://imagesofrmnp.com
Erik Stensland Gallery
203 Park Lane
Estes Park, CO 80517