14 February 2008

Pertaining mystery

"There are few Nordic nature photographers who really hit a big audience in the rest of the world. According to Frans Lanting, this has nothing to do with technical quality of their images, but rather with a lack in ability to put their images into context."

This quote is, in my translation, from a talk given at BioFoto last night, by Sweden-based Norwegian photographer Terje Hellesø. His perspectives on "context" pointed at the photographers' general purpose, agenda, outlook, or in its most general form, engagement.

He began to list examples of photographers exhibiting such context to their work, and first mentioned was Galen Rowell. He went on to name a number of excellent photographers, but lost me because my thoughts went to one particular quote from Rowell's book "The Inner Game Of Outdoor Photography". According to Rowell, the determining ingredient of photographic success is "the size of the rat".

The "rat" is that little thing gnawing inside one's stomach, demanding one to pursue ambition beyond the limits of one's ordinary life. His point was that it's not necessarily the best photographers who make success, but the ones who feel compelled go the next mile to get the picture. Or as in Rowell's case, to climb the next mile. He had in turn, borrowed the expression from his mountain climbing friends who used it to discern between those who actually went to climb the remote peaks in the corners of the world, from those who didn't whether they yearned to or not. Predispositon to become a nature photographer would depend on the size and cravings of that rat.

I think both Hellesø and Rowell are right, to a certain extent. It is notoriously hard to point at any particular "trait", "factor" or "skill" to define the successful nature- or outdoor-photographer. But surely, Hellesø, and Lanting if he's quoted correctly, has a point. The quality level of images produced by Nordic photographers is very high. I can attest to that by the humble feeling I get when lurking home from every meeting in BioFoto, thinking my own shots has a d*mn long way to go to match the best. One has to wonder what bars them all from international success.

But that's not the only mystery I was after this time. Back to Terje Hellesø, who seeks to produce images that doesn't yield all its content to the viewer in one go. "I don't shoot for commercials", he said.

He loves to create images that are open to interpretation, and seeks to introduce ambiguity between rivalling interpretations. in my point of view, that may be the most ambitious undertaking a nature photographer can attempt. Especially with an agenda of emphasizing context. Trying to combine these two, he is dangerously close to becoming just "artsy", since ambiguity in itself is without direction and will leave the viewer clueless.

There has to be some references, by means of image elements, to set the viewer's thoughts in tenable directions. However, recognition of the symbolism in any set of image elements from Mother Nature is very much dependent on the viewers own experiences and cultural background.

Nordic nature, Nordic culture, Nordic mindset. I can't stop wondering if Terje himself is restricted to Nordic fame by this.

Would you "catch" his kind of imagery? Make up your own mind. His website is in both Swedish and English.

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