Jeffry Spekenbrink is a photographer, filmmaker and visual image artist whose works are the result of a very long and dedicated process involving his camera and the unremitting power of earth’s multifarious landscapes. Using his photography to create time-scapes, Jeffry’s works transform the everyday into an otherworldly representation of stunning visuals, perspectives and pure cinematography, often captured in the space of a few minutes.
In 2014, Jeffry graduated from the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Enschede and was a finalist in the TENT Academy’s Film Awards for his hugely successful time-lapse film, Part of the Empire/Plague. His video presented a six-minute compilation of the many highlights captured on his journey that stretched between the uniquely desolate environs of Iceland to the densely populated French capital of Paris and with it, the realisation of a growing population living in social isolation.
Jeffry’s accompanying music adds an extra exciting, slightly unnerving feel to the film and the sheer spectacle of the entire video is incredible to behold. I caught up with the man behind the lens to find out more about his journey.
How did everything begin for you? What inspired you to start making time-lapse videos?
I bought my first DSLR in 2010. Shortly after I saw a short time-lapse video from the northern lights shot somewhere in Norway. I was really touched by this phenomenon, but also by the way it was shot. It gave me a very calm and serene feeling and I realised that, although it looked very surreal, this was a real life phenomenon, captured by just a camera. From that moment on I began to experiment with my own camera as often as I could.
With every meteorological phenomenon that I was able to capture around my house, I began to wonder what it would look like in a time-lapse video. Just like analogue photography, you could never tell what the actual footage would look like until the process of digital developing… making a video out of the few hundred pictures that you take.
A time-lapse video can also create a very different perspective…
I love the perspective of the time-lapse medium… it’s almost as if you are looking at the world from another sense of time. It’s the perfect medium to let people realise what their civilisation looks like from an outsider’s perspective. I didn't realise this until I started shooting cities. This changed the composition of a wide-angle view to a shot of the people from above. I wanted to give the people a look at our world from a slightly different perspective.
A lot of your shots capture scenes without people…
I have always had some kind of curiosity for desolate places. I lived my life in the countryside in the east of the Netherlands, but there weren’t really any desolate places here, I was always wondering how it would feel to be in a place where it was just you and nature. I liked the nights because they were quiet and nobody was ever around to ruin the shot.
What was the inspiration behind Part of the Empire/Plague? Were there any main themes that you tried to incorporate within your images?
At first I just wanted to capture the feeling of serenity that I got from watching night skies and empty landscapes, but I also wanted to add a subtle storyline. I started writing ideas on paper for a short film. That's how I came up with the idea to contrast an empty landscape with a big city. I had lots of ideas but no budget, so I had to make choices… my priority was to show the biggest contrast possible.
You must have travelled quite a bit for this project…
I didn't have much of a budget, so I saved and made a shooting list with all the shots I needed. My first priority was to look for desolate places. The Northern lights was first on the list, which I knew would be difficult to capture. So after doing some research, it came down to Iceland in April.
Had you visited all of these places before?
I had never been to Iceland. For the cities, I had been to Rotterdam and Paris before but not to the places I needed to take the shots from. So again I had to do some research before I went.
Iceland has a very unique and various landscape with volcanic activity, glaciers, moving icebergs… its sea with black beaches. In the summertime it doesn't get dark in Iceland… that means there are no Northern lights to see and in the wintertime it stays dark, so not ideal for landscapes. That's why I wanted to go in April, the last month that you can see the northern lights, and experience Iceland with a day and a night.
After Iceland I needed city footage. I went to stay with a friend in Rotterdam to practice and shoot footage for the film but was looking for a bigger city like Paris or Berlin to shoot from a higher perspective.
Is digital manipulation a strong element of your work?
The film consists of 12.406 21-megapixel images from the 23.807 pictures shot in total. Because it is made out of 14 bits RAW-images you get the possibility to pull great details and beautiful colors out of the image. I also used filters whilst shooting to level the contrast between the sky and the ground - this is how you get more details in the clouds.
In some shots I removed smaller elements such as dust and birds… these were distracting because they were moving too fast. I wanted the viewer to focus on the slow movements that become visible due to the acceleration of time, like the movement of the clouds and the water.
Digital manipulation is an important element, but it has to remain the reality. With every shot, I experienced the environment and tried my best to express the feelings I had at the particular place through the image. I did that separately with every shot of the film.
There’s been a lot of interest recently in nature and the man-made. Do you think that your work reflects this through the contrast of rural and urban landscapes?
I think so, yes. It was my meaning to show people the contrast between the rural and urban from an outsider’s perspective, in combination with my view of the places.
The whole experience of traveling has been very important for the end result. During the city trips I experienced something really different to that in Iceland. It takes up to a few hours to take one time-lapse shot so during that time I was able to observe my surroundings very well.
Whilst I was looking around in the big cities I felt proud to be a part of a successful society. At the same time I felt a part of a huge growing population in which nobody really cares about the individual. I experienced the same in Iceland… I’d expected to find a lot of pristine nature, which we found, but it turned out to be pretty touristy.
Can you tell me about some of your favourite photographs captured within this time-lapse?
Technically, the first shot from the Eiffel Tower in Paris is my favourite, because that was number one on the list for Paris and I was quite happy with the end result, despite the challenges. I chose the Eiffel Tower because it has a fence at the top instead of windows. Taking pictures through the window of a high building brings more complications like reflections and limitations in focus length. The movement of the top of the tower caused by the win, for example. I wanted to take all of my shots at night which meant that I needed to use as much wide angles as possible and keep the shutter speed as short as possible to avoid blurry images.
Emotionally, both the Northern lights and the church are my favourites. In the two weeks that we were in Iceland, there was only one clear night when we the Northern lights could be seen so I was quite lucky to have experienced that. I drove my car up to the highest mountain in the area and aimed both of my camera’s at the sky. I go my own lightshow, which was stunning. And because I had to use exposures of 8 and 10 seconds, I had to stay there for 2.5 hours for less than 40 seconds of video, so I watched it from beginning to end. For me this was a very special moment, all alone on a mountain with a personal lightshow brought to me by nature.
After that, the northern lights only showed up once, barely visible with the naked eye, which became the shot with the full moon.
How do you capture your chosen landscapes? What is the process?
I was well prepared before the traveling. I had already made a shooting list and decided the composition. It's always different when you get there but most of the time I stuck to the plan… that worked out pretty well, especially in the cities. For Iceland we planned the route. I had all of the spots marked on the map but I could never tell when I would see that thing on the list. The best shots were the spontaneous ones, and that's most of them!
Were there any challenges you faced along the way? Any freak weather conditions?!
Technically there were a few struggles like dust, but mainly the cold… harsh winds all of the time, blizzard, roads blocked with huge piles of snow… The shot with the wavy clouds under the orange sky, for example. I had wanted to shoot it from the top of the highest mountain on the map but that didn’t work out because of the weather conditions. I saw these clouds when we were in a village and they were pretty far away but I just had to make that shot, so I used a telephoto lens… slightly different than expected but in the end everything went well, we were pretty lucky I guess…
Timing is obviously a huge factor within your works... How long does a time lapse usually take to photograph at one specific location? The Northern Lights, for example, you capture them so beautifully!
In the daylight the interval between the pictures can be very short, but I used intervals of 4-6 seconds most of the time depending on how fast the clouds were moving. In the cities I chose to shoot everything at night. I think cities show their true beauty at night, when you see only the things that matter and all the movements become visible in lights.
With the Northern lights it was really dark so I had to take exposures of 8-10 seconds with a high ISO. For 10 seconds of video in 30 frames per second you need 300 pictures and the actual time to take the shot varies between 20 and 75 minutes.
And I understand you composed the music by yourself? (which is stunning!) What was the process? The film’s sense of discovery and wonderment is just incredible.
In my opinion music is a piece of art on its self, that's why I didn't want to use the music of another artist. Music is very important for guiding the viewer through the images. To me the choice of music is responsible for half of the emotion you are trying to express through the film. Because the whole film is a very personal work to me, I couldn't think of another way than to make my own music for it.
I play guitar and I also took it with me to Iceland. There were a lot of moments when I could play the guitar and so I began to come up with the basics of a song for the film. The guitar at the beginning of the song was recorded at home and I went on from there digitally, using the same chords for the other instruments.
I then categorised the shots and adjusted the music to that. Basically I worked the other way around… the images were most important and the music had to bend and support the images. That’s a really satisfying thing to do because you’re not able to do so with the already existing music.
Is music making something you intend to pursue?
Yes, at the moment I am quite busy recording my own guitar playing and singing to improve the quality of my music for my next work.
All images © Jeffry Spekenbrink