Out of smoke and ashes

The eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland launched a 6km-high ash cloud into the sky, leading to a standstill in flight traffic over Europe for several weeks. That same year, in 2010, Theo Elias was rejected from photography school, fired from his day job, and saw a long term relationship come to an end. “I felt like what was happening in Iceland was corresponding with my own life,” says Elias, who, armed with a camera, dozens of rolls of film, and nothing left to lose, decided to go to Iceland.

“I thought, if photography school doesn’t want me, I’ll just go there and learn it myself,” says Elias, who spent a month hitch-hiking through the country, climbing misty mountain ranges, and approaching strangers outside bars in Reykjavík. The name of the project, Smoke, comes from the combination of these two elements: the extraordinarily smokey landscape of Iceland, and the people that he met and photographed during late nights drinking and smoking endless cigarettes.

© Theo Elias

Elias returned to iceland five times, until his final visit in 2016 when he met up with old friends and photographed new ones. “It was an adventure for me in so many ways,” he says. But, in 2016, aged 30, Elias no longer felt the urge to discover himself as a person or photographer, and instead began to curate the images into a dummy book.

Smoke was shortlisted for several dummy awards last year, including the Kassel Dummy Award and Self Publish Riga. Earlier this year, it won the La Fabrica and PhotoLondon Book Dummy Award, and is now available from the Spanish publishing house. The images in Smoke are dramatic, captured in high contrast, grainy black-and-white, a style Elias developed during his teenage years of looking at Swedish documentary books in the 1970s, but also because it was so much cheaper to develop his own black-and-white film.

“Reality is boring, black and white photography takes the edge off it in a good way,” says the photographer, who is pleased to see his project, which developed out of a time of chaos, create so many new opportunities and friendships. “Photography is like life in a way. It’s about trial and error, trying to live it,” he says. 

Smoke by Theo Elias is published by La Fabrica

© Theo Elias
© Theo Elias
Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner worked as an editor at BJP between 2018 and 2023. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.