Norwegian photographer Lise Utne loves light and how it illuminates her everyday life. She says of her photography, “I think of photography as a way of fighting my insignificance and powerlessness in the big picture, but also of accepting and celebrating it. Maybe it’s the same thing, or at least two sides of the same coin. I count myself very lucky to be cast into this beautiful world, and to find myself travelling my allotted distance with my loved ones.” Be sure to check out more of her work on Flickr.
I asked her eight questions about her work and her current projects. Our online conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I live in Trondheim, Norway. I moved here in the mid 1980s, and I’ve now lived here longer than all the other places I’ve lived taken together. I also lived here for a while during my early childhood in the 1960s, and I’ve always had relatives here.
As a child, I never knew how to answer the question “Where are you from?” I was born in Bodø, above the Arctic Circle – where the sun shines day and night for a few summer weeks, and barely at all in the dead of winter. I uttered my first words here in Trondheim, Norway’s ecclesiastical capital (and up to the Reformation the hub of a Catholic archdiocese spanning west to Iceland and Greenland and south to the Western Isles of Scotland). After a couple of years we moved back to Bodø. Situated on a peninsula jutting out into the Norwegian Sea, its location is very scenic, but the city is infamous for its blustery weather conditions. I still have vivid memories of wind and snow lashing across my face on my way to nursery school on the back of my mother’s bike. The next stop was an island near the southernmost tip of the country. It was a good place for learning how to ice-skate; two tidal waves meet there, thus cancelling each other out. Hence there is no ebb and flow, and the sea water freezes when the winters are cold enough – which they were during both of our two years there. When I started school, we had just moved inland for the first and only time, to a small place in eastern Norway (somewhat west of the capital city, Oslo). And by the time I was eight, we had moved seven times.
In the next eight years, though, we only moved twice. We were back in mid Norway, on the coast south-west of Trondheim. This area is quite dramatic with its ocean and narrow fjords and rocky islands – and some of the islands adorned by mountains rising 900 metres straight out of the sea. My mother and maternal grandfather grew up here, and I’d been taken here every summer since I was born. It is the short answer to where I’m from, and where I keep returning. But I also visit Bodø, and retain an affinity for the north, since half my relatives still live there.
What projects are you working on these days?
For several years, I’ve been photographing a collection of beautiful maple trees overhanging a small car park beside the street down from where I live. Trapped between a tall concrete wall (the back wall of a disused cinema) and a row of cars, the trees seemed a good analogy for the tug of war between man and Nature in our day and age. The material-gathering phase of my project came to a sudden halt when the trees were felled on 29th August this year.
In fact, sadly – and infuriatingly – most of the tall trees that used to adorn the front gardens along this street have been cut down in recent years, only to be replaced by parking spaces for people’s ever growing number of private cars.
I continue to chronicle the tall ash tree I can see from my skylight (while crossing my fingers that it will outlive us all), and other fixed elements of the day-to-day uneventfulness of my everyday surroundings: our cherished fellow being the cat, and her approach to life; shadows and light fluctuating through the day and the seasons (and the way objects and greenery inside the flat and out on the balcony are offset by the changing light conditions); friends and family going about their business (although I don’t photograph them nearly as much as I’d like to, as most of my friends and family dislike being photographed)… Then, there are the annually recurring holidays; the local festivals reflecting the rich cultural diversity of my local community; and my short, and not-quite-so-short distance excursions (mostly to take part in chores or celebrations in the extended family).
Nan Goldin has said that her primary reason for photographing is so that she won’t lose her sense of herself (I’ll Be Your Mirror, 1996, p. 451). I can sympathise with that. I think of photography as a way of fighting my insignificance and powerlessness in the big picture, but also of accepting and celebrating it. Maybe it’s the same thing, or at least two sides of the same coin. I count myself very lucky to be cast into this beautiful world, and to find myself travelling my allotted distance with my loved ones. Having access to means of recording and sharing my points of view gives me tools to better understand and remember. Ultimately, that’s what all my projects are about.
You do some wonderful diptychs and collages. What draws you to those forms?
Thank you for liking them! Through photography, I try to relate to what is right in front of me; patterns and meanings tend to emerge organically, over time. I see making diptychs as an opportunity to seize some measure of control; a chance to impose contexts and suggest meanings. Diptychs are often a fairly straightforward “compare and contrast” exercise, of the same subjects during different seasons or time of day – for instance the car park trees down the road in summer paired with the same car park trees in winter. At other times, I juxtapose photos to make a social or political comment: the car park with its trees paired with the same spot, trees gone. And so on…
At other times, I make diptychs or combine multiple images to focus on more formal elements – e.g., a seascape in a dark blue dusk paired with an almost identical scene, but with unmatching horizons; or the horizontal lines of one photo continuing into its otherwise different pair. Making diptychs is my version of “creative post-processing”; applying filters and such is not my cup of tea.
When I make the collages it’s a very different process in the sense that I don’t use my own images at all – although I sometimes photograph them during the process, and when they’re finished – with or without added shadow play. I find the image elements I want to use in various magazines and other printed matter, and physically cut them out with a scalpel. I use re-positionable spray glue to fix the cut-outs onto paper.
The collages allow me to create my own (sur)reality by picking and choosing from a great number of sources, combining image elements from places I haven’t been and including people I haven’t met. Independently of the various times and places of their capture, I can create an entirely new context and narrative from the pictures. I love the sense of play and the feeling of freedom involved in that process!
Some of your photos have a quality that I see as a somber beauty. There is a nice use of darkness and light, and many of your pictures have a timeless, moody feeling. (And yet there’s much joy, also.) Is that something you’re trying to capture in some of your photos?
I love the intense shadows thrown by a low sun, and the quality of that light. I also love the intensifying blues in the space between sundown and nightfall. Nothing beats the morning and evening light no matter when it occurs – in this corner of the world, we are entering the time of year when morning means 10 a.m. and evening 2 p.m. There is something about that light that reminds me that I’m here, now, nestled with my loved ones between what has been and what will come.
Life is so precious. And it’s complicated and changeable and unpredictable. Then there’s the fact that we can no longer take for granted that life on Earth will persevere beyond our individual life spans, due to our collective efforts to destroy it.
Our lives are so short. So full of drama. So unfair. So beautiful.
There’s something about that dramatic light that reminds me of those basic truths. But basically, I’m just drawn to that kind of light and automatically lift the camera when I see it.
What’s your state of mind when you’re taking good photos? Do you think there’s any connection between your mood or mindset and the results you get?
I don’t really know whether a photo will come out as I intended or hoped until I see it on the computer screen. And at the moment, I need to learn the secrets of my newish camera in order to seize greater control of the technical outcome of my efforts.
My mood or mindset does matter, though, for whether I lift the camera or not in the first place. I always keep it at hand, but I often let opportunities pass me by: In order to photograph people, I need to feel courageous, or to feel that I have their permission.
Photos without people are less complicated, and for me more a matter of simply being open to my physical surroundings. They are often triggered by what Emily Dickinson described as “a certain slant of light” – such as the morning or summer evening sun visiting my flat or my balcony. In a way, they catch me, rather than the other way round.
You have self published a few books. What has that experience been like for you?
I really enjoyed the editing process – so much so that I forgot to take breaks: my neck and shoulders took a bad battering with each title. It’s great fun to have the finished products on my bookshelf, and I have loved sharing the books with my nearest and dearest. Also, I’m very grateful that a lot of people have taken the time to look through the previews, and that some of my most loyal (and solvent) friends and photo contacts have bought their own copies of some of them. Having said that, the number of copies sold is rather modest, and In Passing has yet to be purchased by anyone apart from myself.
Blurb’s software was easy to use although there were a few glitches along the way with uploaded photos disappearing (my latest attempt was nearly four years ago). I’m also happy with the print quality. What I’m extremely unimpressed with, however, is the unattractive blue-greenish bias that suddenly appeared in the previews of all of my books, and Blurb’s lack of interest in fixing it. The previews show the entire books for free because I wanted to make the contents equally available to everyone irrespective of their bank balance (as long as they have an internet connection and a viewing device). However, my good intentions are totally undermined by the nauseating ugliness of the tainted online presentation. I’ve asked Blurb repeatedly over a period of several years to fix it; every time their helpfulness stops with the same statement: “it’s a bug”.
Your work seems to be tied to the seasons. Can you comment on that?
It is hard to ignore the changes brought on by different seasons around these parts. Again, I must mention the light; it changes so dramatically through the year. Between late October and late February, it’s hardly worth getting up in the mornings, as the sun is hidden by the hill behind my house. In the summer, it’s difficult to find a time for sleeping that doesn’t mean missing the best light – except in the middle of the day.
Then there are the different activities, both inside and outdoors, associated with the different seasons. Bringing a fragrant tree inside when everything is barren outside is such a treat every year, as is decorating with the deep red table cloths and trinkets, and lighting the candles to brighten the darkest weeks. Knowing that the winter celebrations are approaching makes even the gloomiest days and nights bearable.
Autumn is a sad time with the leaves falling and the darkness tumbling down around us. But it is also very beautiful with its colours and scents and the crisp sounds of drying leaves underfoot. And winter dusk is lovely, with its pinks and purples and delicate, deepening blues. Spring heralds joy, and summer is pure opulence. Birds and haymaking; shadows and light playing with the trees and their foliage; the scents of honeysuckle and salty sea water.
My preoccupation with seasons probably stems at least partly from growing up mostly in the countryside during an age when children spent a lot of time outdoors, and activities were dictated by the seasons – and by the fluctuating weather conditions within the seasons, since the coastal climate is rather unstable. It mattered a great deal whether the weather was mild enough to bathe in the sea during summer; or cold enough to sustain the ice on the fjord so that we could go ice-skating in winter. Heavy snowfall would put an end to the skating, but then we’d get the skis out, and we’d make snowball lanterns. If a thaw arrived, we’d just have to wait it out, and wade through the slush and slide around on the ensuing ice in the meantime… (By the way, just as an aside: the indigenous people around these parts, the Sámi, traditionally divide the year into eight seasons, based on the suitability of the conditions for tending to different chores connected to their reindeer herds.)
These days, the changing seasons are reminders that nothing remains the same, for good and bad – thus symbolising both resignation and hope. With more than half of my life behind me (statistically speaking), I obsess about the lightness of summer nights and the shortness of midwinter days more than I do about the short-term weather – although I do think we need to take climate change more seriously than many of us do.
One final question: Can you tell me briefly about a couple of photographers I may not be familiar with yet but you would recommend checking out?
There are so many wonderful photographers out there, for instance on Flickr, as you know. Veerle Leunis shares her perceptive and beautiful takes on human and animal life on a farm in Belgium. Masaaki Ito photographs Japanese street cats. Then there’s Sonia Madrigal from Mexico (sonia_carolina on Flickr). Her recent work highlights the burning topic of violence against women. Paris-based Dan Hayon from Romania is also on Flickr. He has made many great Blurb books, such as Shooting Each Other (a true story), for which he claims to have made a deal with his cat Jules: For every photo he shot of Jules, Jules got to shoot one of him.
Both Zoltán Jókay from Germany and artist/photographer Julie Edel Hardenberg from Greenland are also worth checking out if you don’t already know them. Each has published wonderful photographic works celebrating our shared humanity across various origins and circumstances. Someone else who is on Flickr is multi-artist Michael Szpakowski, with his diary-like approach to photography. And Moscow-based Ksenia Tsykunova’s Flickr stream is definitely worth checking out.
There are just so many people out there sharing such great work. It’s very humbling, but also extremely inspiring.
Many thanks to Lise for doing this interview. I’m so appreciative of her thoughtful answers that provide insight into her work. Be sure to check out more of her work on Flickr.