Concerning the current situation: We did the interview with Martin Rietze a few weeks ago and also terminated the publication of this blog article. With a permanent view on the current development of the Mount Agung on Bali, we decided to publish it on the set date to also give some insights on the natural phenomenon of volcanic eruptions.
Exploring nature is in Martin Rietze’s blood. Martin (53), who lives near Munich, has been fascinated by astronomy and volcanoes since childhood. While professionally the electrical engineer works on the development and construction of astronomical domes and devices, he invests much of his free time in volcanology. He has been present at many volcanic eruptions, and not only does he watch them, but he also photographs them. Since 2004, Martin has been marketing his fascinating footage on Westend61, and we are happy to have him with us. But we wanted to know more
about what drives him and why he enjoys spending his free time a volcanoes. Is it the dance on the volcano or the curiosity of a passionate nature observer?
Martin, you have three passions that you always associate with each other: astronomy, photography, and volcanology. In this interview, I would like to talk to you about volcanoes and photography. How long have you been interested in volcanoes?
Since I was a kid, actually. Pictures of volcanic eruptions and also some brief lava flow from Mt. Etna during a short trip to Sicily in 1978 intensified this interest. But for decades I didn’t realize that this subject could also be intensively pursued.
When did you begin to follow the subject intensively?
Although trips to volcanic eruptions took place before traveling in 2002, such as visits to lava flows in Hawaii, the Etna eruption in November 2002, especially, marked the turnaround. Together with an experienced observer I spent two nights a few hundred meters from the huge lava fountain with an ash column 6 kilometers high.
How close were you to the crater?
About 430 meters away; the ash cloud rose to about 6000 meters.
How many volcanic eruptions have you seen in your life?
I have visited more than 30 active volcanoes many times during ongoing eruptions. In total I have definitely experienced and documented more than 100 different eruptions.
What fascinates you so much about volcanoes that you would travel almost anywhere there are volcanic eruptions, time permitting?
It is the unique mixture of aesthetics and violence, creation and destruction that captivates me. I can hardly imagine any other subject where you have to constantly find the boundary between ideal image position and the necessary risk distance. For me, this challenge is much more motivating and exciting than, for example, mountaineering or astronomy alone. They
are indescribably direct experiences.
How do you know when a volcano erupts somewhere in the world?
This has become amazingly easy these days thanks to the Internet. There are direct links to volcanic observatories, relevant sites, or instant local postings of people on social networks, so you can find out about a volcanic eruption within minutes. However, this does not solve the problem of how to travel to the outbreak site in real time.
When and where did you take your first volcano photos?
It was pretty classic – as with many others – at Stromboli in Italy, one of the few permanently active volcanoes that has been active for centuries. I spent an unforgettable night at the summit in 1985.
What was so unforgettable about it?
For the first time in my life, I was alone near an eruption site, which often throws glowing lava chunks – lapilli – 100 meters high under the right conditions. I had a camera with me so I could record it. I will remember this experience forever.
Do you need special technical equipment to take good photos of a volcano?
For photos, a conventional camera is sufficient, but the right time is much more crucial, which can mean days of waiting. However, if you specialize in structurally rich, detailed night shots, the latest sensor technology and ultra-bright lenses are good enough. In addition, of course, there is non-photographic equipment you need that lets you get close to the
eruption sites and survive.
What would that be?
Essential is a gas and dust mask, and less important, a helmet. This is greatly overrated, as it does not help in case of strong outbreaks, whereas gas is ever-present and accumulative. What one does not often consider is that the danger usually comes from the weather, since one is exposed to some volcanoes for days and nights in high mountain climate. So you need
full mountain equipment with water reserve, etc. I know of many tragic deaths where volcano observers froze to death or crashed in alpine terrain.
When I was in Sicily during my summer vacation, I took a guided jeep tour to Mt. Etna. This famous and really impressive volcano is 3,300 meters high, and we reached an altitude of 1,600 meters. This was a very special nature experience that I will always remember. That made me think about you, too. We know how dangerous volcanoes are when you get too close to them. How far away are you from the crater when a volcano erupts?
As I mentioned, the core challenge is finding the optimal boundary between risk and insight. And this is different for every volcano!
That means, at a calm, non-explosive volcano, I am standing in the middle of the crater and only the heat is between me and the lava that is a meter away; at some explosive volcanoes I feel anything but good at a distance of 10 kilometers.
Have you already been in dangerous situations during your photo expeditions to volcanoes, do you dance on the volcano?
Understandably, this is hardly avoidable in view of how many years I have been doing this. However, it should be mentioned that I have experienced more life-threatening situations while driving a car or climbing a mountain.
I have to ask: Off the top of your head, can you think of a dangerous situation that you would rather not experience again?
Several. There was a collapsed rocky bridge over a boiling lava lake. An earthquake that caused the volcano, which was standing only 3.5 kilometers away, to generate heavy pyroclastic currents – glowing clouds – that snapped down the slope at 100 kilometers per hour in our direction. Then a lava bomb over a meter flew over my head, and a collapsing hornito (lava cone) 20 meters away with lava 10 meters per second, 10 meters per cubic meter, shot at me. There was another very dangerous exerpience, though, compared to these others “trivial” which was suddenly fainting right next to a pond made of 250-degree hot liquid sulfur because of a defective gas mask.
My head is swimming. These are experiences that most people would rather do without, but for some great passions, you have to take certain risks.Let’s get to the next question: Which one is your favorite volcano and why?
Hard to say, but there are at least three: Ol Doinyo Lengai because of its incomparable aesthetic lava, Mt. Etna because of the enormous lava fountains that can often be experienced close up, and last but not least Stromboli, because there I was extremely fortunate to experience many beautiful and varied eruptions.
Is there a volcano you haven’t visited yet that you really want to see?
Naturally, it is the one you have never heard of, which, after centuries, if not millennia, suddenly awakens to intense activity, and suddenly you learn it exists! Many of the most fantastic volcano pictures – which I still lack – were taken from these newly awoken volcanoes, the dream of a volcano photographer.
Let’s get to the last question. Why is Westend61 the right home for your pictures?
In times of rapid change and an unmanageable, devaluing glut of images on the Internet, Westend61 has proven itself through reliable and stable marketing.
Thank you for this really exciting interview, Martin!
If your interest has been piqued, and you want to know more about Martin’s volcanic experiences, follow us on Instagram. Martin takes over our account for five days and tells us about some very intense and exciting experiences at different volcanoes around the world.