Benny Borell has a photographic studio in Solleftea in Sweden. Solleftea also has a huge, eye watering liquor store and an elegant cafe with good coffee and overpriced open sandwiches. Benny Borell is a professional photographer and I enjoyed meeting him. I wish I could forward this note to him to tell him so but he has no computer. That says a lot, these days, about a professional commercial photographer.
Benny’s studio is full of cameras with bellows and beautifully crafted Hasselblads carved out of solid pieces of aluminium. He has a darkroom that smells of chemicals and an anti-room where enlargers of complex shapes and designs are stored. Above the darkroom is a framing workshop with the same pile of strewn about mouldings that can be seen in any framing studio anywhere you look.
On the front of Benny’s work brochure is a black and white photograph of people dancing in front of a well dressed fiddle and accordion band. The photograph could have been taken any time in the late 1940’s or the 1950’s but it has Benny Borell’s name at the side of it crediting him as the maker. Benny would have been a very young photographer indeed to have made the photograph at the time it seems to depict but he has, underneath the picture, a quote from Edward Weston which encourages you to think about the photograph’s honesty.
The quote, roughly translated from the Swedish, reads, “Only if you strive may the camera be forced to lie.”
Amongst the work of Edward Weston, a wonderful American photographer, is a series of images which I have always thought of as erotic vegetables. Beautifully rendered images of peppers with languid curves and shadows which immediately take your mind to the human body. He was working at a time when there was surprise in finding sexuality in flowers painted by his friend Georgia O’Keeffe.
There isn’t any lying in those pictures, just looking closely, but about a decade before Robert Frank took off on his road trip which became ‘The Americans’ photo series, Edward Weston took a similar trip with the aim of making photographs which would sit with Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’.
Weston’s wife, who accompanied him on the trip, complained to him that he was too fond of seeking out the unusual, visually stimulating and extreme parts of American life and that his pictures didn’t show what they claimed to, the ordinary experience of Americans, at all.
I think that, if they ever existed, the days of working hard, striving, to force the camera to lie are long since past.
Photographers have always, like Edward Weston, chosen which bit of the truth to tell, which bit of reality to show, which part of an event or a scene to frame, which moment to expose an image. These things define the narrative of an image and establishes its truth. Added to this sort of choice it is now easier than ever to alter reality in a digital file and represent your experience in your own chosen way. This is the photographer as artist showing the world not as it is but as he or she feels it to be.
Is there anything wrong with being comfortable with the fact that cameras lie? Absolutely not. Most photographers are no more documentary makers than most poets are journalists.
The problem is that many of us believe photographs to be recordings of the real world and, at a time when it is no longer required to have to strive too hard to force a camera to tell a lie, it is important to strive to make the camera tell the truth when the truth needs to be told.
I enjoy the idea of Benny Borell seeing the world through ground glass and chemicals and keeping far, far away from computers. I like it that he might be interested enough in whatever meaning photography has wrapped up in it to add riddles into his commercial brochure.
There seems to be a little more chance of somehow making honest photographic images with cameras, lenses and film than with digital files. That may be an entirely romantic notion but I’m looking at some of the lovely instruments I have in my room tucked in beside the screens and thinking about the work and ingenuity that went into making photographs with them. I have some unpredictable, out of date film to load into them so thank you Benny Borell for the interesting little thought journey that our short meeting inaugurated.
Gamla Uppsala sits in layers of time which have been marked, in the 2000 years since the land rose above water, by the burial of people.
It is said that under the church, which was once the Archbishopric of Sweden, lie the remains of the great temple of Uppsala and that Odin himself resided nearby far back in the mists of time.
In the second half of the Eleventh Century, Adam of Bremen told that every nine years in the temple of Uppsala a festival was celebrated when nine of every kind of male creature were sacrificed to old and dangerous gods.
Near the temple, in a large grove, stood a great tree with outspread branches which were green in both summer and winter. What sort of tree it was no-one knew but from its branches, and from the branches of other trees in the grove, bodies were hung to rot. Dogs and horses were seen to hang beside men. Seventy two corpses had been counted hanging together.
At Gamla Uppsala kings are buried under great mounds with treasure and fine things for company. And it was here, on such a burial mound that Pope John Paul Ⅱ chose to stand, elevated above his people, to perform a great open air mass in 1989.
In the church today a red carpet fills the floor leading to the alter and under it, under the floor and, perhaps, within the foundations of the ancient temple, is a tomb containing the remains of Anders Celsius, the temperature man, who died in 1744.
At the Northern tip of Jutland, in the town of Skagen, the artists Michael and Anna Ancher gathered around them a community of painters.
In their house in Skagen they painted light filled canvases showing the grace and strength of the community clinging to the coast of that sun bright place.
Strangely, though, their house is dark and lightless. Even the studio Michael Ancher built for himself in 1913 is dark. The rooms are small and crammed with furniture and paintings and the sun seems never to penetrate through the small windows.
Anna Ancher made a painting in about 1886 called “The Girl In The Kitchen”. It’s bright and beautiful and we look into the light over the girl’s shoulder as she prepares a meal. Her stance and the way we are spying on her without her knowledge remind me of the Copenhagen painter Vilhelm Hammershoi although Hammershoi seems to occupy a tonal landscape somewhere between the Anchers’ light filled paintings and their dark rooms.
There is a photograph of Hammershoi made sometime between 1898 and 1909. In it he stands in a courtyard which has recently been swept after heavy snow. He has his hands in his pockets and he casually watches us watching him from a distance of a hundred years.
Above him his wife, Ida, stands looking out of a high window.
I love Hammershoi’s work for it’s stillness and quiet.
Many of the works, made in the apartment he is standing beside in the photograph, have Ida in them but she is almost always seen from behind like Anna Ancher’s girl. We watch her as she gets on with her life or marvel at the line of her neck as she looks out of windows: looks out of the window she fills in the photograph so that what we see is the front plane of a scene Hammershoi studied over and over again from within the house. He put what he saw then and what it meant to him onto canvas for us.
The apartment is at Strandgarde 30 in the Christianshaven district of Copenhagen and we must have passed it during our first walk around the city. We had to drive there again to see the place and reclaim Hammershoi’s calm.
Our first visit had taken us into Christianshaven to Christiania or Freetown Christiania as it is called. Searching for a remnant of good old 1960’s Hippy culture we slid through a market of drug sellers on the aptly named Pusher Street.
The trade was tolerated until 2004 since when attempts at introducing measures to normalise the neighbourhood have led to conflicts and police raids which seem to have had questionable effect.
In 2005 one resident was shot and killed and others injured in a gang attack over the control of the Copenhagen cannabis market. In 2009 a hand grenade was tossed into the crowded Cafe Nemoland and in 2016 someone who was resisting arrest for cannabis sales pulled out a gun and shot three people.
There was a pleasant cafe. Beyond the cafe people yelled at each other and young, purposeful, men stopped tourists, spoke quietly to them and watched as they deleted photographs from their cameras. I made a couple of photographs with the knowledge of the minders speaking to them with a lightness I did not feel.
It was all a matter of yards and years from Hammershoi’s door and the memory of those still, quiet interiors.
Most of the time, when you reach the edges of countries, it’s hard to identify the furthest point of land but Denmark ends, on it’s Northern shore, in a sharp little point.
It’s a point where two seas of different densities meet and refuse to mix but perhaps the most important thing about these seas are their names. When you stand on the point you have the Kattegat to your right and the Skagerrak to your left.
The Kattegat washes down between Denmark and Sweden whilst the Skagerrak flows agains the shores of Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
Kattegat and Skagerrak. You find yourself looking for things to say about them just to feel the taste of the words in your mouth. We sailed from Denmark to Norway across Skagerrak and returned from Sweden to Denmark across Kattegat.
We added to our collection of words and water as we went North.
Just outside Bodo is Saltstaumen, the maelstrom. A force of fierce nature created when the waters of Saltforden and Skjerstad Fjord push through the narrow opening between the islands of Straumoya and Knaplundsoya.
Edgar Allan Poe describes the experience of his hero in ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’ just offshore from where we stood ….
“Never shall I forget the sensations of awe, horror, and admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon, from that circular rift amid the clouds which I have already described, streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss.”
And Herman Melville throws Saltsraumen into the mix of the world’s difficulties and perils which he would overcome in pursuit of his whale.
“Aye, aye! And I’ll chase him round Good Hope and round the Horne, and round the Norwegian Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.”
And what did we find?
Kattegat and Skagerrak, seas with different densities meet with an even greater density of human tourists who take turns to stand on the sand of the sharp Grenan point to photograph themselves in front of a slight disturbance in the water behind them.
There is a discernible straight line between the seas and on a good day I reckon it would be spectacular. On the day we visited I looked around for whatever straight lines I could find.
At the maelstrom, no whales, no imperilled sailors but a few fishermen with rods and lines and a few hopeful tourists like us clinging to the tourist information tide tables in case they flew into the biting wind into the freezing air under the bridge and into the current sketched on the surface of the water by small waves.
But what a fantastic experience, to be able to feel those words in your mouth and imagine.
For many many years I have made hundreds of photographs which, whilst giving me enormous pleasure, have singularly failed to make me rich and famous.
I look at hundreds of photographs too and, increasingly, I find it difficult to find new and exciting work. We are so much in debt to the great masters of photography that there is little to be seen these days which does not have a reference to some particular style of subject which has already been developed and often, as in the case of the genius Robert Frank, moved on from, leaving his followers making honourable but familiar new work.
I’m in that category I think. My photographs have a style and choice of subject which is recognisable if you are familiar with the work of photographers I revere.
Well, I may have made a breakthrough here. These photographs were made about three years apart, one in western France and the other in northern Denmark. One is a death mask and the other is a camel. So far so obvious.
The thing is that the death mask is Napoleon’s mother and the camel is the very fellow Napoleon used at the beginning of the Egyptian campaign which, as soon as he was off its back was shot, stuffed and sent back home as a memento.
I know it’s a grand assertion but I truly believe I may be the only photographer on the planet to have made a collected series of photographs featuring Napoleon’s mother and his camel together and I claim this as a unique event in photographic history.
In 1969/70 I lived and worked in a crafts community at the edge of Durness in Sutherland on the North coast of Scotland. I lived with the family of David and Lotte Illingworth at the community which still exists and is called Balnakiel. Lotte, who has reverted to her maiden name, Glob, still works nearby making beautiful sculptural ceramic pieces.
Lotte’s father was P.V. Glob an archaeologist who was Director of the National Museum in Copenhagen and Director General of Museums and Antiquities for the state of Denmark. It was in this capacity that P.V. Glob made his investigations into the life and death of Tollund Man, the perfectly preserved remains of an individual from the Iron Age found in a Danish peat bog in 1950.
Living alongside and talking with these remarkable people had a profound effect on this 20 year old naive young man and shaped much of what I still think of as among the most important things. The sense of David Illingworth’s precision and creative energy. The organic nature of Lotte’s vision and the force of her workmanship. The excitement of P.V. Glob’s investigations and how they brought the past to life. The fact that people could live lives which were of their own choosing in places which many others might consider hostile environments was new to me.
We had many conversations about Tollund Man and the other remains which the bogs released over the years and I read Glob’s fabulous book, “The Bog People” like a detective story. I must have said over and over that I would one day visit Silkeborg, where the remains were discovered, and see Tollund Man for myself.
It has taken very nearly 50 years to make that visit but we did finally get to meet this remarkable and enigmatic chap and make a portrait photograph.
He is in a room all by himself in Silkeborg Museum. Each wrinkle and mark on the skin of his face is perfectly preserved along with a light spread of distinct ginger stubble on his chin. On his head is a leather cap stitched and sown well over 2000 years ago and placed on his head at the time of his mysterious death. A knotted cord of woven hide strips forms a noose around his neck and this had been used to hang him.
It is possible that he had once been a high ranking individual sacrificed to whatever powers controlled the harvest and climate and made life possible for those hard pressed people. That his death might have been judicial rather than ceremonial can’t be discounted but it is a strange thing that when you discuss these matters in his presence you get a very strong sense of being a little transgressive. What if he’s listening? This is no skull or mummy. This is a real, gentle human face just like those we spend our days with.
We spent quite a lot of time with Tollund Man and then had cake and left Silkeborg. But before we were out of the building the ticket seller at the door, having recognised our sad attempt at asking for entrance in pathetic Danish as English had found the entry Seamus Heaney had made in the museum visitors book. He confided in us that if Heaney had gone to Aarhus to see this peat-brown head he would have missed Tollund Man by about 50 miles.
Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.
In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,
Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,
She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,
Trove of the turfcutters’
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.
I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate
The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Laid out in the farmyards,
Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.
Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names
Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,
Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.
Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.